Every third Sunday, I serve with a team of ushers at my home parish, St. Rose of Lima in Gaithersburg, Maryland. One of my favorite duties is opening the inner door to the church for latecomers, in between readings so they don’t distract people from hearing the word of God.
Now before Mass begins, our parish has greeters who welcome people to our church, but I like this side aspect of my usher duties. I get to welcome people home, to God’s house. The people arriving include new parents holding babies, young families with several children in tow, young adults, middle aged or elderly couples, people from many different countries, cultures and backgrounds. I view my duty of holding the door for them and smiling as a privilege, because they are part of God’s family, and part of my family, as a baptized Catholic.
Often cartoons show St. Peter at the gate of heaven, as kind of a divine T.S.A. agent checking people’s identifications and worthiness of proceeding forward. I’m not sure that is theologically correct, but if so, it’s an important job.
Being a doorman at church reminds me of one of the favorite holy people admired by Joe MacLeod – Grandpa Joe, my wife’s dear father who died on Holy Thursday in 2014. Grandpa Joe was a humble man of prayer, and he had a special devotion to his “committee,” a heavenly board of directors that included famous and obscure saints, people on the road to sainthood, and deceased holy people whom he had known.
Grandpa Joe was a great fan of Father Solanus Casey, a Capuchin priest and Wisconsin native who spent much of his ministry at a Detroit monastery, where he was the doorkeeper, answering the bell at the monastery. The humble Capuchin became known for his holiness, and people sought him out for counseling, and sick people came to him for his blessing. The simple priest who was devoted to the Eucharist once said the two loves of his life were the sick and the poor. After he died in 1957, 8,000 people attended his Funeral Mass. Pope Saint John Paul II declared Father Solanus Casey as venerable in 1995, and Grandpa Joe had a holy card on his bulletin board showing the humble doorkeeper, an elderly bald man with glasses, a long, wiry beard and a gentle smile.
If St. Peter indeed mans the gate of heaven, it’s not hard to imagine Father Solanus Casey helping him there, or to picture him welcoming Grandpa Joe there after he died.
As Catholics, we know that our door to heaven is through Jesus, who says in John 10:9, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.” Later in that chapter, Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd, who will lay down his life for his sheep. Through his death on the cross and resurrection, Jesus brings us new life, and he invites us to walk with him as his disciples in today’s world, to love and serve others as he did.
The Jubilee Year of Mercy in the universal Catholic Church began in Rome on Dec. 8 with Pope Francis opening the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica, and in Washington with Cardinal Wuerl opening the Holy Door at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Pope Francis later also opened a Holy Door at a homeless shelter operated by the Catholic Church in Rome.
Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to make a pilgrimage through a Holy Door of Mercy during the holy year. In announcing the jubilee, the pope said, “By crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others, as the Father has been with us.”
The Year of Mercy offers Catholics a special time to receive God’s mercy through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and to share God’s mercy through the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, and to show forgiveness and mercy to others. The Archdiocese of Washington’s special website mercy.adw.org offers related resources and ideas on receiving and sharing God’s love and mercy, and people can share their experiences via social media at #EncounterMercy.
On this Dec. 31, we stand on the gateway to a new calendar year, and continue a newly begun Year of Mercy. The words of Pope Saint John Paul II at his 1978 inaugural Mass seem appropriate now more than ever: “Be not afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ!”
That holy pope was not talking about the doors of a cathedral, but the doors of our hearts. We live in fearful times, but we know that the doorway to heaven is through Jesus, and if we open our hearts to God’s love and mercy, if we forgive our enemies and let go of grudges that we might have toward family members, friends, neighbors or coworkers, we can find true peace, and we truly need not be afraid. When we humbly accept our need for God’s mercy, we can open the doors to Christ wide for others, and step forward together, to a new year and toward eternal life.
We’re still basking in the grace of 2015, an unforgettable year marked by the visit of Pope Francis to Washington, but with God’s mercy, 2016 can be even better, and we who produce the Catholic Standard newspaper, website and social media look forward to telling that story.