(This article begins a year-long reflection in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine on my experiences at the Downtown Chapel (now named Saint Andre Bessette Church) in Portland, OR. I want to thank Ada Simpson, the editor for her willingness to use my reflections as feature articles in the ten magazines for 2015.)
Part I: Our holy odors of belonging
“Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial
offering to God for a fragrant aroma” Eph 5:2
I visited the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon a month before I moved into the parish. The pastor, Fr. Bob Loughery, C.S.C. picked me up at the airport in the early, rainy February evening and brought me back to the all beige building on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Burnside in Old Town. As we approached the front door, I heard drug dealers shouting from the end of the block and a bustle of activity from a nightclub across the street. I felt tension in my neck and shoulders and uncertainty about what this move would mean for my life.
Bob unlocked the door and assisted with my suitcases through the threshold into the small, empty lobby. He watched my face drop as I noticed the rank smell of dirty bodies lingering in the air. He told me the reason for the violent smell. People stream into the small space throughout the day searching for the basics of life. The stench of wet backpacks and damp clothing of people surviving the winter hang on the walls long after they return to the streets. The strong, thick odor caught me off guard as well as the reasons for the smells. Bob responded to my apprehension and quickly said to me, “Oh, you’ll get used to the smell, don’t worry.”
I carried my belongings into the dark lobby feeling awkward and even embarrassed that I owned clothing that no one had worn before, that my possessions were dry and that I was guaranteed a warm and dry place to stay for the few days of my visit.
I did not know how to interpret the new smells of ministry. As I unpacked that cold night, I also smelled the stench of many things that I had carried along to my visit to the parish. The stench was not from my suitcase or my belongings, but from the angst of not being sure I wanted to move in or even remain here as a priest in the first place. I carried within my heart to this new environment much upheaval and uncertainty about my place within the Church, my role in ministry and my ongoing struggle to make my voice heard. These were the smells of indecision, being bruised by ministry and the burden of ongoing spiritual questions. I wanted to hide these smells from people in this new place. I did not want people to know that I came to ministry among people in poverty feeling very spiritually poor myself.
As I walked in the door that evening, I also remembered the impressions and gossip my classmates used to say about the priests who ministered among God’s people surviving poverty. Our perceptions in the seminary were that these priests and religious were “losers”. The religious who were not successful in our prestigious educational institutions were assigned to work with people who in society were cast aside. As I walked in the door, I realized in my entire body that now I was a loser, too. My conflicts within the Church had led me to a place where misfits minister, where the outcasts preside at the Eucharist for the marginalized.
However, I knew from the initial experience of breathing foul odors that my ministry in the parish community would be inimitable. This would be my ninth move as a priest and I already realized this apostolate would teach me more than all the previous changes in assignments in various cities across the country.
The first thing I learned during my initial visit to this urban parish was that I could not hide anything. Just like people who could not hide the odors of generational poverty from clinging like shellac to the lobby walls, I could not hide anything of my spiritual life as Bob introduced me to many of the volunteers and parishioners. People already sensed my reluctance to be with them, to listen to them, to hear their stories. They smelled the violent odor of fear within me. I was reluctant to live out the new label I had for myself as a loser in religious life and ministry. I knew within days of my first visit that my relationships with people here were going to change me, open me up and uncover my reluctance to be in the center of raw, emotional and enduring poverty.
I moved to the parish on Wednesday March 13, 2002. As I unpacked my belongings and settled in, I reflected on my visit a month earlier. I slowly got used to the smell. The odors of poverty became my entry into the community. I prayed through the smells of destitution and hardship. I used them to find my spiritual life again and to befriend people in the parish. The odors became a prayerful reminder that I cannot control people’s lives or fix their situations. I needed to learn a new acceptance of people. I had to befriend my own spiritual journey, my own secrets and the ugly labels I had put on myself that I wanted to hide from others.
The stench of poverty soon became sacred for me. Some days the smells were so bad that they took my breath away. However, no matter the severity of the smells or the shortness of my breath, they reminded me of the horrible injustices and hardships people face in order to survive another day.
I learned that many people are not to blame for the odors of poverty. So many people do not have the emotional security to care for themselves and others do not have adequate access to health care. Still others are alone and isolated from family and friends, and deep depression and other forms of mental illness have taken a toll on their ability to take care of themselves.
The foul odors became a way of prayer during the day and the night since they were always available to remind me of real people in need. The stench revealed to me that faith could become a remedy for pain and isolation. I learned very quickly that the odors of poverty included my own inner fear.
As the days continued and the months unfolded, I realized I was becoming even more aware of all the scents of the Eucharist. I discovered this one morning in the sacristy as I was preparing for Mass. I opened a new bag of small hosts and the faint aroma of the thin wafers caught my attention. I stood there holding the unsealed plastic bag up to my face. I prayed as the simple smell of hosts penetrated my being. I realized in a new way that the Eucharist was the way we remedy souls in poverty. This insight changed my life. The Bread of Life is hope for people who search desperately for the basics of life.
I opened the small refrigerator and uncorked a new bottle of wine, breathed deeply and allowed the aroma to penetrate my soul. I stood at the counter with tears running down my cheeks. The simple aroma of grapes from the earth becomes the Cup of Salvation for people who desperately need remedy from the violent loss and reality of generational poverty. I also realized that the Eucharist in this parish would also lead me from my corrosive inner opinions of myself, my own fears of being immersed in poverty in the first place.
The Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Life need to be savored, distributed to people in a slow deliberate pace, reflected upon, cherished and brought to people with great intention and honor. The simple scents of the Eucharist become the healing remedy for the hunger, loneliness and depression so many of our people face every day. This moment of connecting the smells of bread and wine to the oppressive odors of poverty changed my entire approach to and my role in the Eucharist.
I realized to the depths of my being that Mass needs to be celebrated with intention, treasuring ever odor and every word, taking nothing for granted, and uncovering every hidden meaning. I began to celebrate the Mass truly believing in what was happening. This was the first time I consciously connected the sacred character of each physical item of the Mass to the desperate need of real people.
Smelling the elements of Eucharist and connecting them to the odors of poverty changed the way I related to my own brokenness. This connection opened me to a different and unique path to prayer, especially in the Eucharist. This new experience then taught me how to relate to stories that were well beyond my experience, stories of heartache and tragedy, stories of penetrating pain and uncertainty. I needed to be an instrument of healing for others, but first I needed to find God again myself.
I realized the odor of sanctity comes from the earthiness of human life, our own bodies and experiences. I could finally smell the deadly flesh of the lepers encountering Jesus so to be healed in the familiar gospel passages. I opened my faith-filled eyes to view the tired, dirty, foul feet of the disciples. I could stand with the woman bringing her dead son and the smell of his decaying body to the miracle-worker Jesus so he could bring them all to life. This was new ground for me. This was a different place on which I began to preside at daily Mass. On this ground I began the healing that I so desperately needed myself.
That moment in the sacristy taught me that our parish community does have a healing salve to poverty. Faith is the balm and genuine community is the place where healing can happen. In that moment, I did not feel so powerless. I began to understand that Christ was here, doing the work of love and opening up for us all the rich grace that comes from sharing bread and wine in his memory.
In these reflections I share how I have grown in my understanding of the Eucharist living and working among people who suffer enduring poverty. Each aspect of the liturgy introduces a way in which I learned to receive people who endure the horrific affects of childhood abuse or who do not have the emotional stability to live in a shelter or an apartment. The healing of Christ Jesus comes to us not in academic theory or through liturgical appropriateness, but in the concrete artifacts of the liturgy, each profound gesture and in every spoken word. The Eucharistic liturgy celebrates the Incarnation of Christ Jesus among people on the earth, the real and tangible. I believe that our common faith is shared in our mutual longing for God to live within our real lives, not in the lives we all think we should be living or might be living or could have lived. The grace of the Eucharist comes exactly in the center of the truth of our human existence even if we do not want to admit or live the truth.
I need to understand the foul-breathed elderly woman who sticks out her tongue to receive the sacred host from me. Even though the smell of urine soaked clothes carries across the chapel, she is next in line to receive communion. I notice her wet, filthy clothing and her yellow, tobacco stained hands. She cannot find a moment of sobriety. She desperately does not want to drink again, yet the many drunken years and the powerful momentum of her addictions push against her yearning to be released from the grip alcohol holds on her life. I can reach out to her amid the putrid smells and offer her the only thing that I believe will ease the pain of the morning, the Body of Christ.
I realize these odors are not just of people in poverty. A young mother comes to share her pain with me of raising her infant son now wrapped in dirty diapers. She seeks me out because she heard from a friend that I would understand her mental illness. She still lives in the suburbs but her schizophrenia began just after college and she now is a single mother unable to care for her feisty son. Her son’s excrement oozes out of the diaper and down his leg and onto his mother’s lap. She wants desperately to believe that God has not abandoned her. The memory-smell of dirty diapers still creeps into my morning prayer for her.
A fine-suited businessman asked me quietly after Mass if I would speak with him. The sweet fragrance of his expensive cologne hung on my palm after he clenched my hand to whisper in my ear. We sat together in a pew in the empty church and he told me the silent secrets that hid behind the aftershave. His new addiction to drugs is jeopardizing his high paying job, his family life, his marriage and his career plans. He tells me with fresh breath that he can hardly breathe because his life is out of control. He wants desperately to find the truth, to discover again the God who he used to know as a child. I invited him to befriend God now, as an adult so he may seek the healing that will satisfy his cravings.
I understand that no burning incense will hide the human smells of homelessness or hide the ugly breath of long-term alcoholism. I realize that the gentle aroma of burning beeswax will not hide the acrid odors from a urine bag that leaked on the chapel floor. There are no altar candles that will illumine the darkness of deep depression or show the prostitute a new path in the night. I admit that a sturdy handshake of peace will not bring an end to hostility or cease the violence of war or shred the shame of childhood abuse.
However, when the liturgy is celebrated with genuine intention, with real purpose, with honesty and integrity by all who minister, people become more open to the healing power of Christ Jesus. We all need to see beyond the rubrics and rituals into the real presence of Christ trying to be made flesh in the suffering of our people. We need to see for ourselves the places where Christ longs to make a home, in the middle of hearts shredded by doubt and confined to incomprehensible pain.
We are needed by God to put love into action within the celebration of the Eucharist and well after we leave the church. We are to work until our bodies are soaked with sweat, until we all stink with exhaustion. We become the Body of Christ on earth, the community of welcome, the people of justice, and the voices of peace, in our common prayer and in the work of our lives.
I invite you into this story of faith and poverty as Pope John Paul II urged the Roman Catholic Church to bring Christ Jesus into the issues of daily life in new and energetic ways. His challenge of a “New Evangelization” has created a dramatic awakening in the Roman Catholic Church.
Now Pope Francis since his election in March 2013 urges us with genuine actions and convictions to come back to the basics of our faith in order to serve people in poverty. He demonstrates by his own life that we are to live a simpler lifestyle and to focus on our call from Jesus to put love into practice. Pope Francis speaks to us with profound humility to put our prayer, priorities and funds all into direct service of people who most need God.
The Holy Spirit is using Pope Francis to break open the basics of our faith and of the liturgy itself to a worldwide audience. Pope Francis is purely using simple, humble expressions of love that have exploded with meaning pointing into the direction of Christ Jesus. Pope Francis brings the unfussy and earthy gesture of washing dirty feet on Holy Thursday, not at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but in hospitals for people with disabilities and within jails in the city of Rome. He is bringing the Church back to the uncomplicated, basic elements where the Holy Spirit will teach us the connection of the Eucharist and service. Pope Francis is also using the action of the liturgy to teach liturgists, scholars and catechists that Christ is alive in the Eucharist in ways that we may have ignored or simply no longer notice. My intention here is to offer a deeper awareness of the symbols, artifacts, gestures, movements and the people involved in the sacred action of the Mass.
The essence of this book is simple to add my voice and experience celebrating Mass and sacraments among God’s beloved people in poverty. I am bringing what I have learned first and foremost from people who have found God in their suffering. Their experiences open wide our notions of sacraments for every worshipping assembly if we possess the same humble spirit in prayer and action.
An element of the New Evangelization for people is to live a sincere relationship with God in the world so others might see and desire God’s love for their own lives. We are to find for ourselves the real meaning of prayer and to rely daily on the Holy Spirit. We are to live the Eucharist in the world and go beyond our obligations of Mass attendance. We are to serve people who survive poverty, loneliness and hunger even when their needs challenge our attention and expertise.
The essence of our Roman Catholic experience of prayer is the Eucharist itself. We celebrate the Mass on a daily basis because it forms our identity in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. If we are to discover what the New Evangelization means for all of our worshipping communities, then we must uncover the basics of the Mass. We must break open the ritual moments that have become perfunctory or hidden from our imagination. We must enter more deeply into the very heart of the Mass and look again at every detail and artifact in order to discover the profound meaning of God’s presence and grace for us and for people aching to find new meaning in their lives.
I lived for over eleven years in this parish community that still serves people who are surviving urban poverty. This experience completely changed my life and faith. The key to this experience of faith was that I learned to listen to the profound needs of people. I listened to their stories with a new heart. I then began to hear the stories of the Gospels in a new way. The concrete, physical items that we use for the Mass and each ritual gesture opened for me a new way of seeing God’s activity. Celebrating among people who really need God also challenged my prior education about liturgy. I finally found God in each and every gesture and moment of the Mass. I had never found such meaning in the Mass in any school or degree program, workshop and conference. I had to let go of my comfortable life and live differently among people who cling desperately to their faith in the center of absolute suffering.
The New Evangelization means that we must first learn from people of their concerns, sufferings and hardships. Most of all, we must learn from other people about their insights and desire for God. We must listen to what it means to carry mental illness in our bodies. We must listen to people who have lost everything from jobs, marriages, homes and sobriety. It will be only then that God’s healing will be mutual and lasting among us all. The goal for Christians in any worshipping community is not to fix other people’s situations that are perceived as unhealthy but to simply begin by being in genuine and supportive relationships with people trapped on the margins of our opinions and judgments of our religious assemblies.
Our own conversion in God’s love is key to any movement of evangelization, education, relationship building or model of Church. This is the ever new and radical message that must be lived in every worshipping community. This is the message that will change the Roman Catholic Church as we welcome people who come to us with raw needs and lives that have been stripped of value. We simply must risk stepping out of our earthly driven egos and rest in the assurance of God’s fidelity and love for all people.
I tell the story of my experiences here so that every Christian and non-believer may be open to the vision of life and faith that has changed me and other members of our community over the years. This story is rich and powerful and I hope it will act as a catalyst for all of us to enter more deeply into the meaning of the Eucharist and to live our faith more intentionally in the world. My story as a priest and liturgist working among people in poverty may not be new in the Church but it is necessary to have models of such ministry alive today as we listen more closely to Pope Francis calling us to witness Christ Jesus in the world.