A friend shared a very moving story about an incident in his mother’s life, which serves as a strong reminder that we might be very surprised by whom we meet when, Lord willing, we get to heaven.
His mom grew up in Windsor, Ontario, across the Detroit River from the Motor City. The family struggled to make ends meet in an impoverished neighborhood filled with all kinds of interesting characters, including the next-door neighbors: prostitutes.
My friend’s grandparents weren’t exactly thrilled, of course. But they remained polite and treated them with dignity. Maybe that’s why when my friend’s mother needed some help, the neighbors chipped in without even being asked.
What happened was my friend’s mom risked not being able to make her first Communion with her class because the family did not have money to buy a dress, and the parish had a rule: no dress, no Eucharist.
The family was devastated. But the neighbors got wind of the sad situation, and the prostitutes pooled some of their money and bought the dress.
It’s interesting how those of us Church types, whether religious or laity, can sometimes lose sight of what’s really important. It’s not that we don’t need rules, regulations and solid teachings. We most certainly do. But they are all pretty meaningless if they are not established or carried out with love and as a means to help us get closer to Jesus. In the end my friend’s mom was able to make her first holy Communion along with the other children her age. Mom reminds my friend of this story whenever he starts to get too comfortable in his Catholic Christianity or starts passing judgment on someone without being fully aware of their situation.
This story came to back to me when I heard Pope Benedict XVI’s homily during Mass on the last day of his recent visit to Germany. He said it’s crucial for believers to avoid a routine life of faith. Just because we are doing our best to punch our Catholic card and follow all the teachings doesn’t guarantee us a reserved seat inside the pearly gates. And just because it may appear on the surface that someone is far from God, such as the tax collectors and prostitutes mentioned in that Sunday’s Gospel passage, or the prostitutes in Windsor, doesn’t mean they are necessarily off the heavenly guest list. As a matter of fact, as Jesus points out, they’re getting in before the chief priests and the elders or the “church” types. And as Pope Benedict stressed, the “prostitutes and tax collectors” of our day, those struggling to make some sense out of life in our very fallen and broken world, may just get enter before us.
“Agnostics, who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of their sin, are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is ‘routine’ and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting it touch their hearts, or letting the faith touch their hearts,” he said.
Do those of us active in the Church or who consider ourselves to be good Catholics allow our hearts, lives and actions to be truly touched by faith and a deep love of God? Or are we too busy making sure that everyone dots their “i’s” and crosses their “t’s” when it comes to our Catholicism?
It sure is challenging to ask myself these questions and even more challenging to realize that it was a group of prostitutes, rather than parish leaders or parishioners, who knew more about real rather than routine faith, and who were the ones who stepped in to help a little girl in need.
Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 160.