A new beginning: Churches are more than buildings

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

Never was it more apparent that a church, all churches, are more than buildings than at the dedication of the new, renewed St. Brendan the Navigator Roman Catholic Church. The entire sanctuary was filled to capacity with people who wanted to participate in the wonder of a project long in coming to fruition. 

As I gazed in appreciation of architectural design, the beautiful interior marked with silent calls to prayer provided by the colorful stations of the cross, the portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the huge brass bell that summons a call to worship, I also saw the marvelous diversity of the congregation.

People of all ages, Caucasian, Latino and African-American sat in whispered awe as they awaited the processional that indicated the start of the dedication Mass. Sunday best clothes ranged from the frilly dresses of tiny Latino girls to the Knights of Columbus tuxedoed garb and everything in between.

Some might comment that Sunday best means shirt, tie  and suit for the gentlemen and dresses for women, especially for this unique celebration. Clearly, this description was modified that day. Sunday best became the best one could afford from closets that were not uniformly bulging with choices. Cleanliness and modesty ruled the day. 

Cultural diversity was both obvious and crucial to the service. As the first notes of the processional hymn rose from the new Allen organ and the mouths of participants, a certain joy permeated the atmosphere. Plumed in regal splendor with various colors designating each rank, the Knights of Columbus formed an honor guard of respectful allegiance to the heart of Christianity. 

Robed choirs, Latino and Anglo, assisted the congregation in prayerful song. Smiles wreathed wrinkled faces. From toddler to nonagenarian, Roman Catholics and honored guests from other denominations, all concluded that God was in this place. 

And, here came everyone to celebrate together as one body of Christ. The building provided the space to gather us. The walls were not barriers to entry. They were markers to remind us we cannot wall people in or out of God’s creation. The sloping floor allowed all to see the action at the altar; a grand sound system permitted hearing from every area. 

As the service began, a reverent prayerfulness was palpable. It was more than a group of people coming together to add to their memory banks, so that they could say, “I was there when...” They gathered to remind themselves and each other that church is God’s people praying as one, communing as one, transforming as one.

God’s people joined in unity, allowing their senses to be filled with sight and sound and smell. Incense rose in blessing. The altar was abundantly and reverently oiled by the presiding bishop. Each wall was anointed; each person was sprinkled with holy water. The pace was slow and gentle, allowing the reality of God’s transcendence and immanence to enter every pore of our bodies.

As the hymns alternated between the two choirs, we moved from the foot tapping and hand clapping rhythm of Latino guitar playing and drumbeats to the more staid but majestic Anglo music. It was a real treat, a unique opportunity to stretch one’s understanding of “appropriate” church music. Had there been liturgical dance, I may have thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Most importantly, everyone was afforded the chance to view reverence differently. The ritual’s inclusivity carried us into a broader comprehension of goodness and holiness. It was not about uniformity. It was about deeply inhaling God’s spirit in every manifestation of its presence.

When we sang with syncopation, God was bouncing into our hearts. When we solemnly prayed the psalms, God was whispering in our ears. When we smiled as a little Hispanic toddler sturdily marched down the center aisle, watching for adulation, God marched right along with her. When we listened to the proclamation of scripture, God’s voice beckoned us forward.

Could this experience be replicated at the beach or the mountains or anywhere in between? I’ll hazard a guess it could. Would there be equal reverence and attentiveness? Probably, yes. 

The difference is in how we view church, how we “see” the structure. If we need the walls to enclose us as a community, are we being church people? If we refuse to risk God’s presence everywhere, will the building provide an opportunity to be challenged out of our comfort zones?

When church is more than a building, it becomes the gathering place for God’s people to support and sustain each other as we travel toward our heavenly home and deepen our relationship with God and others. When church is more than a building, it is a unique dwelling place to meet Divinity and gain the strength and courage to live the encounter outside those walls. When church is more than a building, it honors hospitality to strangers and grows more profoundly appreciative of the gifts we have been given, the gifts we are to share.

Perhaps the most succinct understanding of church is described in the mission statement of St. Brendan parish family. It reads: “No matter what is your present or past status in the Catholic Church; no matter what is your current family or marital situation; no matter what is your past or present religious affiliation; no matter what is your personal history, age, background, race or color; you are invited, welcomed, accepted and loved at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church.”

A building could never contain those words. Only people can. Only people can make those promises, live in that generous manner and embrace with open arms and hearts. It is the altar of humanity that received the blessing of sacred oils. It is the altar of humanity upon whom incense wafted. 

It is the people of God who dedicated themselves anew on a hot July afternoon. They did so in the blessing of a new church, a building that comes alive with a sacred presence when people come to pray. They are the piedras vivas, the living stones upon whom God is building God’s church.

Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. Reach her at grammistfran@gmail.com.