VIEW FROM THE PEW
Mostly we Catholics aren’t arena-event kind of Christians. We cherish the comfort of our own parish, a cozy gathering where we gravitate to the same side of the church and talk to the usual cluster of familiar faces. Way too many seats are empty because many alleged Catholics won’t spare an hour from work, play or sleeping in for the experience of being part of the body of Christ.
But when the Catholic Church does the arena thing, it sure can do a jaw-dropping, mind-boggling awesome job of it. You can’t have missed the media coverage of the World Youth Day in Poland; actually a weeklong event that drew more than a million people to Krakow for the end days of July. Up to three million attended, according to organizers of the event, which is staged in a different country every three years. Using the arena theme, Pope Francis was the rock star. His message was for the world beyond the horde at hand; he urged young people living in situations of “war, extreme poverty, daily troubles and loneliness” to not lose hope and not be taken in “by the messages of hatred or terror all around us.” Hearing and watching the charismatic Holy Father on jumbo screens ramped up the exhilarating experience.
But I am positive that the memories people will hold in their hearts and talk about for years are all about their own role: there I was in a crowd that stretched to the horizon. We couldn’t understand each other’s language but we communicated by our shared faith. Hearing the Our Father in multiple languages around me was amazing. Receiving Holy Communion beside people from around the world brought tears to many eyes. We all know the same teachings of Jesus. We are so different but so together. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ. I was there and I’ll never forget it. Wow.
The news coverage probably sparked memories for thousands of local people of pilgrimage tours to European shrines or the Vatican. For Hawaii residents with the good fortune of being in Belgium and Rome for the beatification and canonization of our own saints, Father Damien and Mother Marianne Cope, it was a refresher course in the Wow experience.
A clench of fear
And in the chilling reality of our world today, didn’t we feel a clench of fear watching the World Youth Day events from afar. What a relief that the grand event was not targeted by terrorists who express their warped version of faith with hatred and hurt. The grandparent generation would remember a not-too-distant time when oppressive Soviet rule wouldn’t allow Poland to host such an international religious extravaganza. I confess that a similar twinge of fear struck me last week as I heard about an upcoming Catholic festival from a local parishioner who will attend it.
The Sept. 8 liturgical feast day for the birth of Mary, the mother of Jesus, brings thousands of pilgrims to Mariamabad in Pakistan, the site of the shrine to the Blessed Mother built by Capuchin missionaries from Belgium in the late 19th century. Mariamabad means City of Mary in the Urdu language. The shrine, a grotto modeled after that at Lourdes, France, is about 50 miles from Lahore, capital of the Punjab province. Catholics were oppressed by the Muslim majority from the time of the missionaries, and have been emigrating from Pakistan in large numbers as persecution intensified in recent decades. Christians make up only 1.6 percent of the population of Pakistan, half of them Catholics who number about a million, according to news sources. Hindus account for only 2 percent of the population.
The fact that Mariamabad survives in the tense religious climate is probably due to the fact that it also attracts Muslim and Hindu believers, who come praying for miracles which have been reported at the shrine.
Muslims find references to both Jesus and his mother Mary in the Quran. Jesus is referred to as one of the prophets preceding their last and greatest prophet Mohamed who, they believe, was given the Islamic scriptures dictated by the angel Gabriel about 600 years after Jesus lived.
Kainat Bashir, who is studying for a master’s degree in religion at the University of Hawaii, is looking forward to attending the Marian festival. It will be a trinity of experiences for her: as a Catholic, a member of a Pakistani family that immigrated, and as a scholar. “I am fascinated by the way different religions developed in different cultures, how Catholicism is absorbing the cultures,” said Bashir. The music, language, religious expression, colorful clothing and food at the Mariamabad festival reflect the culture of the region. An example I found was an online account from a European traveler who described the scene as resounding with the sound of drums.
“I want to explore about the history and legends,” said Bashir. One story about the place is that of a Muslim woman who, unable to conceive, came to pray to the Blessed Mother. “She said she would make a church there if she could have a child, and she did give birth.”
As a Catholic, “I do have a devotion to Mary; it’s part of who I am. The rosary has a very special place in our lives.”
Bashir said her family “suffered a lot as Christians. We didn’t show off that we’re Christians. My father’s brother-in-law and his family were killed in a church attack.” As intolerance and violence escalated, family members began leaving their homeland in the 1980s. “It was dangerous every day. The situation was getting bad, it was not good for minorities,” she said.
About 30 members of her multi-generational extended family now live in Honolulu, many of them members of St. Patrick Parish where her mother Esther teaches at St. Patrick School and her father Vincent, formerly a social worker at a Pakistan leprosy treatment center, works at the parish office.
Relocating as Catholics can be a cultural shift in itself. “In Pakistan we were a small community, a minority in difficult surroundings. Here we are comfortable. It’s a blessing to be here,” she said.
The Body of Christ
So much of our understanding of our Catholic Church as not just a widespread horde of followers but as part of the Body of Christ, with Jesus as its head, comes from St. Paul, “apostle to the Gentiles,” the first missionary to cultures outside the Jewish culture where Jesus lived and taught. Paul’s epistles to believers in Rome, Colossus, Corinth and Ephesus expanded on the concept which Jesus taught.
According to the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, “The comparison of the Church with the body casts light on the intimate bond between Christ and his Church. Not only is she gathered around him; she is united in him, in his body.” After years of hearing it and understanding it as best we can, the “body of Christ” is something we use as basic Catholic speak. I don’t suppose I could get an A explaining the subject in a term paper for a college theology class. It’s one of those “I can’t explain it but I know it when I feel it” things.
In a quiet way, I find myself sharing the mystical body of Christ experience which engulfed those pilgrims to Poland as they stood among strangers from about 180 countries. It happens in my comfort zone, my parish. It happens when, as a Eucharistic minister, I offer the consecrated host and say, “The body of Christ.”
And the shy Chinese lady who always just washed her hands says “Amen.”
And the huge rugged-faced Polynesian construction worker says “Amen.”
And the middle-aged Marriage Encounter graduates stand side-by-side to say “Amen.”
Next the oh-so-serious elementary school students say “Amen.”
And the droopy-eyed sleep-deprived college students say “Amen.”
And the teetering but adamantly independent old-timer with a walker says “Amen.”
Here’s the sunburnt-to-a-rosy-glow haole tourists saying “Amen.”
There’s a delicate hand with henna-dyed palm reflecting Pakistani femininity, with a soft “Amen.”
There’s a callused hand with stained nails of a mechanic with a firm “Amen.”
Some have a big smile and others are intensely serious when they say “Amen.”
Loud affirmation or whispery reply, they chime in.
It’s a typical Hawaii congregation, faces reflecting every culture we can imagine and combinations thereof, familiar faces of fourth generation Japanese and Portuguese, exotic visage of a Kenyan newcomer, a wave of new parishioners from Chuuk and other Micronesian islands. No need to travel to a distant country for an international cultural experience.
Everyone knows their “amen” affirms their belief that they are receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
Maybe they are also tuning into the Communion song “… and we, though many, throughout the earth, we are one body in this one Lord.”
So here’s an “Amen” for all of us, near and far.