"Ok, good morning. Get ready for this text: Fr. Rick is ok. The church seems to be ok. But it seems that someone set fire to the hymnals at St. John's this morning."
(text I received at 5 am this morning)
Truly for me, and hundreds of other parishioners I know, a home away from home.
By now, the investigation behind the fire early this morning has been ruled an arson. No one was hurt and nothing was taken from the church, but $400,000 in smoke damage was done to the building. It's unfathomable how, when in front of so much beauty, the human being still wants to destroy.
Similarly unfathomable, was my reaction to the incident. I wanted to destroy. "Who did this? I'll hurt them. How dare they mess with my church? After all the hospitality shown, this is what we get?"
My search for justice is, I suppose, reasonable despite the fact that I'm reducing this incident terribly. Suppose we find the person/persons responsible for the damage and "punishment" is inflicted. Then what? Do I find my happiness when justice is served? Am I certain it won't happen again?
What am I really upset about when I hear this news? What does something like this reveal about my life?
First, my initial statement. It's unfathomable how, when in front of so much beauty, the human being wants to destroy. The most beautiful building doesn't fix a corrupt heart nor does it force a person's freedom to adhere to the Truth. We're always in front of a decision, including this arsonist (or arsonists) today. I, too, have seen times when I, too, choose to destroy in front of amazing Beauty that I either can't see in my pride OR choose to ignore.
Second, the church building is not Christ. St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church is an architectural and sculptural beauty. Its bells are heard at all hours of the workday by the thousands who work downtown. Hundreds of homeless a week come to the doors to be fed. Daily confessions, the celebration of the Mass, and countless initiatives taken on by the parishioners would not be possible without the PLACE of the Church. However, if the place is destroyed, what is left? Is there something left?
By God's grace and totally unplanned, I ran into a family from St. John's tonight at a local dining establishment. We saw each other, laughed, and embraced because "our church almost burned down today." What is this? What is the Mystery that this specific place (on the corner of Georgia and Capitol Ave.) points me towards? Within its doors, I find an invitation to a relationship with my Creator and Savior. A way of making daily living possible. Fires can destroy buildings, but fires don't destroy relationships. This absolute treasure of a structure doesn't even closely reflect the treasure of Jesus Christ and Him pursuing my heart.
"We are reminded of why God allows evil in the world… for a greater good to occur. Perhaps the greater good will be the conversion of a soul or souls that are in trouble. Our prayers as a community of faith are essential during this time of trial. Thanks for joining me in praying each day either a rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet for the lost soul(s) conversion."
Last, this is an invitation into the Mercy that is our life. We've been given hearts that long for him. Everyone is given this same heart packed with desire for love, beauty, truth and belonging. This is absolutely true for the person/people responsible for this mess today. In the beautiful words of a great friend and young adult parishioner Michael Gramke, (stolen from his Facebook wall....)
"May we, as parishioners be extra vigilant after this fire -- not to lock out our hearts by reacting in anger -- but to use this event as a means of bringing Christ's hope and mercy even deeper into our world. Let's make our church even more beautiful -- as a sacred space made more worthy of Christ's true presence due not only to repairs of the church but also to repairs of our heart this Lent."
I don't want to be merciful just because it's the right thing to do. Or it's cliche at a time like this or because it will make me feel better. I want to be merciful because I have experienced infinite mercy (within the doors of St. John's and out) and in my thankfulness, I choose to love those who were given the same heart. I pray for the arsonist, because underneath all the gunk, there is a person longing for God. Similarly, underneath all my gunk, I'm looking for Him too.
I'm unbelievably proud of my community at St. John's, I love my pastor more today than any other day of my life, and I'm excited to witness again the freedom of a life lived with Christ in bleak circumstances. May Christ, through this struggle, continue to illuminate me and my fellow parishioners of St. John's, that our lives radiate a Light that could never be contained within our parish walls.