There were lots of unfamiliar faces at Mass that morningvisitors invited to share the day with their friends from the parish. Some of them were not Catholic, though that was hardly a surprise. In my part of the country, the polyglot Northeast, such family-church celebrations rarely are for Catholics only. Intermarriage, ecumenism, secular education and new career paths have brought Catholics, Jews and Protestants together in ways unimaginable a generation ago. I’ve been to bar mitzvahs and a bris or two in recent years; my Jewish and Protestant friends came to my wedding and the baptisms of my two children. We are no longer strangers as we were as recently as the 1960’s.
The Gospel read at my daughter’s first Communion Mass a year ago was, as is the custom on the Sunday after Easter, the doubting Thomas passage from John. It is one of my favorites, for who among us cannot sympathize with Thomas? Who among us has never had doubts?
I found myself cringing, however, as the passage’s opening words echoed through the church. John describes how the heartbroken disciples, grieving the loss of Jesus, were gathered together and in hiding for fear of the Jews.
I knew that several of the children making first Communion were the products of Catholic-Jewish marriages, and I knew that their Jewish relatives were in the pews, some of them first-time visitors to a Catholic church. They were upset when they heard those words, and I think understandably so. A Jewish relative of one of the first communicants said she had never heard a bad reference to Christians in her synagogue, but during her first visit to a Catholic church, she heard a description of Christ’s disciples in hiding for fear of the Jews.
Obviously, the Gospel is the Gospel, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that we ought to rewrite the words of John, Luke, Mark and Matthew to accommodate modern sensibilities. (As an aside, I was startled a number of years ago at the new translation of Luke’s poetic story of Christ’s birth, which told us that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the place where travelers lodged. That had all the poetry and music of a government white paper. It was good to get back our beloved old inn when the new translation was replaced by still another revision.) Obviously, there were real, historical reasons why the disciples were in hiding and in fear of their lives.
Nevertheless, we should remember when this Gospel is read. It is not only the Sunday after Easter, but also, in many dioceses, the Sunday of first Communion. And that means, in areas like the Northeast, it’s likely that Jewsfriends, relatives and even parents of the first communicantsare in the church. Surely it would not take away from the occasion if a homilist briefly and lovingly put John’s words in context, if only to point out that the disciples were Jews themselves, or that, as we know from the Creed, Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, who was not a Pharisee but a servant of the Roman Empire. The men who scourged and mocked him were Roman soldiers, not Jews. This may (or should) be self-evident to most of us, but it might bear repeating on such occasions.
This year, my family helped celebrate the first Communion of a neighbor on the second Sunday after Easter (in our parish, families have a choice between the first two Sundays after Easter). The Gospel, of course, was different, but the dynamics were the same: My neighbors had invited Jewish friends to the Mass, and there were several Jewish relatives of other communicants in the church. My pastor, who would be embarrassed if I told you his name is Monsignor John Doran, noticed several young boys wearing yarmulkes in the pews just before Mass began. As I later learned, he stopped and chatted for a moment with the boys’ parents.
A few minutes later, as my pastor began his homily, he delivered a special greeting to the Jewish family he had noticed. (There were several other Jewish families in the pews, mutual friends of my neighbor.) Recalling the words of Pope John Paul II, he reminded us that Jews are our spiritual elders who gave to us the knowledge of the one true God. He said he hoped they would feel as welcome in our church as we have felt when welcomed in the local synagogue.
It was a lovely and profoundly spiritual moment. I talked with the father of those boys at my neighbor’s first Communion party. He was visibly touched to be greeted in such a special and affectionate way, on such an occasion. When the priest approached me, I didn’t know what he was going to say, the boys’ father told me. I thought maybe we were in trouble. He laughed when he said this, but it was clear that there had been, in fact, a moment of discomfort, one that many of us can understand. He was, after all, inside an unfamiliar house of worship with mysterious rituals and protocol, and suddenly he’s approached by the resident clergyman. I certainly would have suspected trouble! (Did I do something wrong? Am I dressed inappropriately?) But there was no trouble at all; quite the opposite.
For my part, I was proud to see a bridge built with nothing more, and nothing less, than kind words.