Monday morning greetings from Chicago. What a weekend! On Saturday, I presented a keynote and two workshops to a group of about 80 initiation ministers in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The day went well; I find myself so energized by the people who do the work of welcoming new members into the church.
I returned to Chicago on Saturday evening. Yesterday morning, a colleague and I rode the "Four Star Bike Tour," a 35 mile trek through the city of Chicago and some of the closer suburbs. I did make it home in time to freshen up and grab a cab to my parish, Saint James. For those who read this blog regularly, you know the affection that I have for Saint James, the place that nurtures me week after week in so many ways.
Well, yesterday, between the 9:30 and 11:30 Masses, we held a "town meeting." Cardinal Francis George, our archbishop, facilitated the meeting. Our church hall, our "worship space," was packed with parishioners.
I got into the hall a little late (my cab driver actually blocked the entrance to the parking lot, effectively blocking the car carrying the Cardinal!) When the Cardinal did arrive, parishioners rose to their feet and offered him a sustained round of applause. As you probably know, Cardinal George recently learned of a return of cancer. It was a very touching moment as he stood before us; I could just feel the support and prayers for him as our community stood and applauded.
Well, I must say that what happened next was one of the most amazing and powerful moments in my Catholic life. We all sat there kind of stunned as the officials of the Archdiocese unfolded the plans for a new church for Saint James parish. There were pleminary drawings of the new site for our church (just a block or two away, but in a very busy and visible area, right on Michigan Avenue). When the Cardinal spoke, he told us of his early memories of "Old Saint James," a historic and important church and parish throughout the history of the Archdiocese. Cardinal George is a native Chicagoan. He told us that this area of the city needs to be served by the Archdiocese and Saint James will be the parish to continue to do so.
I think we were all in a state of shock; many of us thought that perhaps this meeting was to signal the end of our parish, or the merging of our parish, or something akin to it. The Cardinal entertained questions. The first person to come forward, a Christian Brother who has lived in the neighborhood for years, summed up the feelings of most of us in the building when he stood and thanked the Cardinal and the "powers that be" in the Archdiocese, for having faith and confidence in the parishioners of Saint James and in making the decision to give us a future. At that point, the place erupted in cheers and applause. I sat there clapping and weeping. An amazing feeling of being cared for by our shepherd came over me. I thought of the tens of thousands who had been parishioners at Saint James for over 150 years. I thought of those interned in the Civil War prison camp that abutted our parish in the 19th Century who were baptized while they were in prison, baptized by the priests of Saint James in its early years. I thought about the women who brought baskets of food to those prisoners of war. I thought about the fire that nearly consumed the church in the early 1970's and how, despite the fact that the then Cardinal (Cody) examined the property, looked around at the neighborhood and is reported to have said, "Just tear it down," the parishioners, mostly African-American, worked tirelessly to raise the funds necessary to move back into the church several years later. I thought of the (on average) 1700 families that are served by our food pantry every month. I thought of the women and men who faithfully visit and bring Holy Communion to those who have been forgotten or "thrown away" in the nursing homes on the near South Side. I thought about the way that our parish welcomes people. I thought about how we raise our voices in prayer and song week in and week out. I thought about how, despite the fact that the loud subway trains roar past our building (the elevated tracks are only a few feet beyond our buildings), our worship is prayerful and beautiful.
During a time when there is so much depressing news for the Church, yesterday was a real good news moment. I am still stunned by it all. I know that there is quite a bit of work ahead of us. Lots of planning and lots of fundraising need to occur.
I couldn't help but think of what a day of irony it was for our shepherd, Cardinal George. He spoke to us from the heart, telling us that his future is uncertain, given the recent medical diagnosis. For three years now, the parishioners of Saint James have felt that our future as a parish is uncertain. And here stood the man, facing perhaps the last days of his life, telling us that our parish is being given a future of many, many years.
Please, please join me in praying for Cardinal George. And, if you have moment today, please say a prayer of thanksgiving to God for what seems like a miracle for Saint James Parish.
Gotta sing. Gotta pray.