My father grew up in a faithful Catholic family, attending the parish school near his home from kindergarten to high school graduation. As an altar boy, he was taught to show great reverence for Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and wine. Only the priest could distribute communion to the kneeling faithful. In those days, the fast before receiving the Eucharist was also very strict, with no food or drink allowed from Saturday evening until after Sunday Mass.
My father’s strong faith sustained him through his years of service in World War II, where he was assigned to graves registration in France. This grim duty consisted in recovering the dead from the battlefields, carefully identifying each one, and building cemeteries in muddy fields far from home to bury the fallen. During those trying times, he carried a crucifix in his backpack and took comfort in praying the rosary. He always felt that Our Blessed Mother watched over him during the war. Years later, he told me of leaning down to pick up his rosary beads just as shrapnel from a bombing flew past him, striking the very spot he had been standing a moment before.
His faith remained steadfast when he returned home, married, and became a father to five children. Our family lived in the same town where my father had grown up and attended the same church. But by the time I received my First Communion in the 1960s, many things in the church were changing. Latin chant was replaced by the twang of folk music, the practice of kneeling to receive the Eucharist vanished along with the altar rails, fasting times were reduced to an hour, and lay people served alongside the priest as Eucharistic ministers.
The final straw for my father may have come one Thanksgiving when I was about nine years old. On the way home from my grandmother’s house, my father stopped by the church to give thanks to God at the tabernacle, where the Eucharistic bread is reserved. He was stunned to find the door locked. In those turbulent times, vandalism in some churches had resulted in locked doors at many parishes.
Distressed that reverence for the Eucharist seemed to have vanished and that the faithful were locked out of the sanctuary, my father began to question all he had been taught. Eventually, he stopped going to Mass altogether, saying he felt he was “a Catholic without a church.”
Although he never returned to church, my father’s faith in Jesus and love for the Blessed Mother remained with him all his life. Near the end of his life, when he became sick with cancer and had exhausted all treatment options, he told me simply, “I am putting myself in the hands of Jesus and Mary.”
As a “reborn Catholic,” I treasure the gift of the Eucharist and the Mass. This spiritual nourishment is as necessary to the soul as food is to the body. But, like my father, we also live in trying times. In recent years, we've grieved to encounter locked churches, closed Eucharistic chapels, and limited access to the sacraments and fellowship. Although Jesus is not bound by walls, we all need to physically encounter God and one another. We should not be afraid to seek out and attend churches beyond our parish church. As the covid shutdowns caused my own parish to shutter their doors, I began to travel to churches far and near, discovering many beautiful sanctuaries serving their congregations in creative and safe ways.
Even if we find the church doors locked, it’s vitally important to spiritually encounter God and one another. Spend time praying with scripture. Gaze on a crucifix and enter into Christ’s passion, sharing your burdens with Him. Pray a rosary while meditating on the mysteries of the life of Jesus and Mary. Call a friend, check in on a family member, and share your faith. Trust in God, placing yourself, your family, and our world into the hands of Jesus and Mary. Hold fast to your faith.