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    green & golden tiles on a cathedral ceiling: Photograph courtesy of Emil Adiels

    Leaving the Church Doors Open

    Terence Sweeney

    January 29, 2020
    3 Comments
    3 Comments
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    • PJG

      Terence, this was really touching. Thanks for sharing, and thanks for keeping those doors open.

    • EK

      This is so lovely, Terence. Thanks for making it possible for folks to stop in.

    • Rev. Gilgal James

      Our Lord Always welcome to all, not one particular time but all the time This what we expect of all churches. Not locked but open for the soul's blessing Psalm 24:9-10 Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of Glory.

    Most churches lock up after Mass or other services, leaving big cavernous halls empty of people and all they bring with them. Several years ago, however, my parish started keeping its doors open after the sisters had walked over to the school to teach, the daily mass attendees drifted off to their jobs, and the priests retreated to their rectory. I turn off most of the lights, snuff out the candles, lock the sacristy, and leave our half-crumbling, half-sublime church wide open. In the winter, we hang out a sign to say that the doors are unlocked. I come back midday from my writing, reading, or teaching and ring the noon Angelus and then I am back at 6 p.m. to ring the evening Angelus. Only then do the big old doors get closed and locked. I leave and wish Jesus a good night.

    All kinds pass through the building; most of them I never see. They leave clues that they were there, often in the form of the three-hour candles lit before various shrines. We have the normal ones: Mary, Joseph, and our patron St. Francis de Sales. The most popular candle station surrounds a pillar, which is strange. I call it the shrine of the unknown God. I wonder what people think when they light those candles and say their prayers.

    Other people leave candy wrappers, coins at statues, umbrellas, or novena cards. I once found notes stuffed into nooks in our statue of St. Anne and Mary as a child: a grandmother’s prayers for the safety of her grandchildren in a broken home.

    green and golden tiles on a cathedral ceiling: Photograph courtesy of Emil Adiels

    Photograph courtesy of Emil Adiels

    I do get to see some people, particularly when I lock up. Some hesitantly walk through the doors, unsure why they are open. Maybe they don’t know that the open doors are always a welcome. Come inside, the doors tell them. Inside the church, I always know the first-timers. Their necks crane up and they take in a deep breath. It is something about the combination of enclosure and vastness. Sure, the sky is bigger, but our grand dome with its ring of windows feels like it creates space. I am humbled when I see them look up; I so rarely do anymore. Some people seem nervous to walk too far past the threshold. Maybe they are closer to God in their reverence. One shouldn’t just waltz into the building like I do, rushing across it because it is quicker than walking around.

    Other people are more at home. They know where to kneel and get right to it. There are some regulars who pray for long hours. I like them. I feel more stable in the world knowing that my erratic prayer life may be balanced by their consistency. I once watched an old nun praying. She had her Stations of the Cross book, and she muttered the prayers at each station. Our church can be dark some days and she must have had difficulty reading Alphonsus Liguori’s sentimental prayers: “I love you, Jesus, my love.” I chuckled at the old devotion. I suddenly realized she wasn’t looking at her book. The dark corners of the church didn’t bother her; the prayers had long since been written in her heart. I am not sure what has been written in my heart.

    The homeless and the broken come in too. They give me the creeps sometime. One man always has me touch the scar on his scalp. Another asked me about the celebrant’s chair: “Do you know why the black angels sit on the chair?” I said I didn’t know as I sidled away from him. “To watch over us black folks and keep Satan away.” I thought him addled, but maybe I am. Why don’t I see the angels? He asked me for money; I told him I have none. He held my hand – “blessings, then” – and walked away. He has moved on now. I hope his angel is watching out for him; I hope my angel keeps an eye on him, too.

    One time a photographer and a classical guitarist came in for a photo shoot. He played his guitar during the photos. The camera flashed and the songs he played reached up to the cupola. They liked the light and the long lines of the pews. I sat and read. I thought the church was just right for a classical guitarist. It was pouring out and a woman came in from the rain. A good reason to walk into a church with its doors open. To stay dry and hear a little music.

    I like talking to people when they come in. I tell them a little history: “We are called the cathedral of West Philadelphia,” or “We have had three albums recorded in this church,” or “Yes, the organ still works, it is a French style organ … although I don’t know what that means.” When people come in and ask me about the place, I look up at the dome with them. I bring them up to ring our bells. People love to ring the bells. Their eyes go wide with their first ding; they stay wide for the second dong. I am always banging away at those bells. It probably bothers people in the neighborhood, but I love to ring. When I talk to people, they tell me how lovely it is that the church is open. The church is here for you, I tell them. These days, it is hard to believe that this statement could possibly be true, and yet I still believe it.

    Sometimes, I don’t want to talk to people. Mostly based on their looks. The attractive, the young, the hip-looking walk in and five minutes later they are ringing the bells. A frumpy fellow comes in and suddenly I am busy putting out bulletins. But love is not meant only for the easily loved. Jesus spent time with lepers because it is hard to be with the sick. I should be able to spend time with the frumpy.

    Recently, a woman came in wearing her pajamas. I had seen her earlier hugging a statue of Mary in the garden (we keep that open too). I quietly thought to myself, “what a nut!” and went to fold some vestments. I was just about ready to lock up when she came in. I wanted to get home, have dinner, drink beer, not talk to her. The lights were mostly out; I was so close to getting out of there. She asked me if she could come in. She gasped when she saw the windows in the dome. She muttered something about the sixteen chapels and the angel of David. I was thinking about Miller High Life. She looked at me and asked earnestly, “Is he here?” Jesus, I presumed. I said yes. I walked next to her up the center aisle, the lingering light shining off the golden tiles on the high altar.

    She started to cry. “I just want a hug,” she said. This made me nervous. But she went on, starting to cry, “I want a hug from Jesus.” It was so corny, so hokey; I felt some tears swimming in my own eyes. She looked at me expectantly. I surprised myself and pointing at the crucifix replied, “He is hugging us all, he is hugging you.” Looking at the cross with none of my tired irony, she said: “He is right now.” I believed her words more than mine. We walked slowly out of the church. She looked back at his open arms, and walked out through the open doors.

    Contributed By terrencesweeney

    Terence Sweeney is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Villanova University. He has written for America Magazine, First Things, Church Life Journal, and Dappled Things, and is a contributor to the Genealogies of Modernity Project. He is a sacristan at his parish, St Francis de Sales in West Philadelphia.

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