Finding home

IMG 6526 Finding homeThe ride home from the airport after we picked up our Kidsave child Rita was a little tense. We quickly found out that when they said in her bio that she speaks some English, by “some” they meant “not a single word.” A Colombian social worker named Maria was with us as well, and she didn’t speak much English either.

“Is hot too where you live?” I asked in broken Spanish.

They barely managed to nod and smile. They had arrived a day late after getting stuck in Atlanta overnight, and were too exhausted to strain for conversation topics. Rita was so tense and stressed by her strange new surroundings that she’d developed a bad headache. In the forty-minute drive back to our house we made some other efforts at chitchat, but it was hard work. Our group consisted of a suburban American family from Texas, a young career woman from the bustling city of Bogota, an orphaned child from rural Colombia, and we were all tired. It was pretty quiet for most of the ride home, the main sound being the air conditioner straining to beat the sweltering heat.

Then Maria started to say something, hesitating to make sure she chose the right words. “I hate to trouble you,” she said apologetically, “but it’s very important that Rita and I go to Mass on Sunday.”

When I told her that we are Catholic too, everything changed.

In one moment we went from having nothing in common to having everything in common. We’d all read the same Bible passages at Mass the weekend before, so we talked about that for a while. Then the subject of the rosary came up, and we shared tips about how to make praying the rosary a daily habit (something we all wanted to do but hadn’t managed to accomplish yet). That led into a long discussion in which we gushed about Pope Benedict, which then got us talking about Pope John Paul II. While we were talking about our parish priests someone brought up the subject of Confession, and Rita mentioned that she was sure to go to Confession before she came on this trip. When the subject of Mary came up we were talking over one another, Maria and I both getting choked up while recounting stories of how God has used his mother to draw us closer to himself. Maria shared touching stories about how it helps her work with orphaned children to let them know that they not only have a heavenly Father, but that God gave them Mary to be their spiritual mother as well.

Over the next couple of days things were predictably awkward as we all got settled into the new routine, but our Catholic faith served as the anchor that held us all together. They immediately gushed over our painted tile of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Maria noted that a friend of hers had the same Christ the Teacher icon that hangs on our wall (mine written by my long-lost cousin the monk). A little segment about St. John Vianney came on the EWTN-Spanish channel, and Rita was uncharacteristically talkative as she told us all about how his life has inspired her, impressing me by knowing off the top of her head that his feast day is August 4. I had given Rita a disposable camera, and later we’d see that the first picture she took was of our framed print of this beautiful photo of Pope John Paul II which hangs in the hall outside her bedroom door.

When we went to Mass, the unity we felt was palpable.

As we walked into the sanctuary (pictured above), we all dipped our hands in the holy water and crossed ourselves without even thinking about it. We slid into the pews and Rita smiled as she pointed out a nun sitting in front of us. Maria pulled Rita close and pointed to the red candle over the tabernacle at the front of the sanctuary, whispering that Christ is here too.

The service started, and I saw Rita’s body relax as she fell into the familiar rhythm of the Mass. Though she wasn’t able to understand a word of our pastor’s homily, she could read God’s Word along with us in the Spanish-language Bible translations provided in the missalette; and the central reason we were there, the Eucharist, surpassed any language or cultural barriers. We moved as one — Rita, Maria, our family, and everyone else in the building — as we crossed ourselves at the beginning of Mass, traced the sign of the cross across our foreheads, lips and hearts before hearing the Gospel, knelt as God was made present, stood to say the Our Father, then knelt again before receiving Communion, our external conformity of movement symbolic of the inner conformity of belief. Though I’d known all along that technically Rita and Maria are our sisters in Christ, watching how seamlessly they fit into the congregation at the Mass made me see what a true filial bond we really have.

After the Mass Rita and Maria took a stroll around the sanctuary, familiarizing themselves with the church. I sat in a pew for a moment and watched them move from place to place, chatting about the Stations of the Cross and our statues of beloved saints Faustina and Martin de Porres, stopping for a moment to pray in front of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Rita began to move around the church as if it were her own living room, smiling freely, all the tension gone from her body.

I’ve read stacks and stacks of books with high-minded treatises on Catholicism and the Church as the mystical Body of Christ, but it wasn’t until that moment that I really got just what a gift Jesus gave us when he established a Church. I got it because, seeing Rita at Mass that day, I saw what a gift it was for her.

She’d arrived here an orphan without a home, tired and weary from a tumultuous journey and a more tumultuous life, blown to and fro by every kind of human inconsistency, finding herself living in a foreign land in a new house, surrounded by strangers. And yet through the Church we were united immediately as a family, not only in the core beliefs about God and life but even in our surface-level expressions of faith like blessing ourselves with holy water or praying the rosary or lighting candles to symbolize prayers. As I sat there in the pew that day and watched Rita walk through our sanctuary, seeing her rest in the soothing familiarity of her surroundings, my heart swelled as I realized that through his Church God had given her not just a family, but a home.

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  • Ute

    I'm German and my husband is American. When we met and discovered that we are both Catholic, it made things a lot easier, because we instantly knew what the other person's values were. When we decided to get married, I knew what kind of framework our faith would build, even though living in a different country was new. That's the beauty of the Catholic church as a universal church.
    Thanks for your post!

  • nicole

    Beautiful post Jen!

  • Elizabeth

    This brought tears to my eyes. The Church universal. Thank you for sharing this story.

  • Amber

    Indeed, it's always inspiring and truly awesome, in the literal sense, to see how the Catholic church is truly universal. My husband converted (and I reverted) to the church while we lived in China – not coincidentally, we lived right down the road from one of the few honestly Roman Catholic churches in the province, if not all of China. Mass was in Cantonese, but that didn't matter. We followed along in our missals and loved the wonderful people at that church just the same.

    We had our church wedding and my husband baptized into the church in South Korea, and now we live in Mexico and hear Mass in Spanish. But in all the languages we've heard it, Mass is always Mass, great and incredible.

  • Amy

    This is a wonderful post! I've only experienced this when in France, in the little villages in the north, where we would slip in and all the pieces clicked into place and we were part of it, regardless of the limitations of our French. (Which were not insignificant.) There, it is just sad how few people are in those stunning churches.

  • Pharmgirl

    What a lovely post! Once again, you manage to make me cry at my kitchen table.

  • Adoro

    Beautiful.

    Your story brings back memories to me from when I first arrived in Puebla Mexico and met my host family. 6 years of Spanish and I could barely speak or understand! (It takes awhile for the brain to catch the flow!) And it was exhausting.

    My host family, though, unlike you, I THINK were Catholic, but I'm not sure. I never went to Mass there, I wasn't really practicing, but I loved all the churches and beautiful art there. We'd been to the Shrine of OLG in Mexico City, and I know she took me under her mantle that day.

    But it was hard to be in a new place and not fully understanding the language. How beautiful it would have been to know and love the Mass, and to go to a new country and experience it there, knowing that even far away, I would have been home. How incredibly awesome for Rita and Maria!

    God bless you for being so faithful and able to share the beauty of the Mystical Body in such a way!

  • Sara

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!

  • Melanie B

    Beautiful. I'm wiping tears from my eyes as I read this. What a wonderful gift indeed.

  • Kristen Laurence

    What a beautiful experience, for both of you!!

  • This Heavenly Life

    That was beautiful. I want to have that home too…

  • Kathy

    Wow, what a gorgeous church! And a lovely post. When we were in China to adopt our youngest, we made it to mass both Sundays. All in Mandarin Chinese, of course, but still the liturgy, so we could follow along… mostly. ("Anyone know where we are?" All four of us listened for a second and simultaneously said, "We lift them up to the Lord!") And when they prayed the rosary, it sounded like Buddhist chant. United, but also beautifully unique.

  • Blair

    Really moving post, thank you Jen.

  • Genny

    This was beautiful! Thank you for this.

  • Carol

    Thanks for the beautiful post!

  • e2

    Yes, yes, you've (or, rather, God has) touched the philosopher's heart! I'm feeling a little moist around the eyes!

    This truth–the universality of the Church–is so important and so experiential. We really do have to live it to know and love it. I remember our three weeks in Poland after our wedding. I couldn't understand a word of the Masses or even read the tourist directions around Krakow, but I was home.

  • Heather

    Wonderful! Praise God for His provision!

  • That Married Couple

    Thank you for helping me to appreciate more than ever the universality of our one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

  • el-e-e

    I suppose we could have guessed that she was Catholic, but… you held that little detail from us for THIS LONG?? ;)

    How wonderful, though. How neat to see that however different we think we are, we're really just the same.

  • J.C.

    This is beautiful! And it makes me feel so silly for having asked in a comment to your 7 Quick Takes vol. 42, "Does Rita know you're Catholic?" Of course she does!! The universal quality of the Church always makes me think of the Latin Mass, the Mass most of the Saints knew. Up until about 50 years ago, a priest could go to any country and say the Mass, and the faithful could follow the Latin and their own language in their missals. Talk about cross-cultural!

  • MemeGRL

    Beautiful. I was trying to explain last night to some friends about how comforting the ritual of Mass is, particularly in times of trouble, but this is a far more lovely example than mine was (funerals)! Thanks for this. Our prayers for you, your family, and Rita continue.

  • Alhana

    Thanks for sharing with us this experience. I think it's the loveliest post so far! I'm wearing a broad smile right now.

  • Jen Raiche

    What a beautiful story. Thank you. =)

  • Jen

    I experienced this myself when I left home to study abroad in Montevideo, Uruguay for an academic year. When I was feeling especially homesick, I would lament that I was closer to Antarctica than all the people who loved me. And then I would go to the Church a few blocks from my host family's apartment and sit with my Jesus in the Tabernacle and know that I was not alone in this strange country. And my loved ones were not alone either. God was holding us all together even from the very opposite ends of the Earth. Very powerful & comforting for a simple Midwestern college kid living in South America (I turned 21 when I was there – looking back I can't believe I did that so young)!

  • Anne Marie

    Amen, Amen, Amen.

    The communion of saints, how awsome a gift of God!!!

  • Thomas

    Your stories about Rita always warm my heart. They are so great, please keep them coming. I look forward to checking your page to see if anything new has been put up each day.

    God Bless,

    Thomas

  • Purplebears

    Very touching post, it brought tears to my eyes. I plan to share parts of it with my boys. Last Sun my 6 year old said he felt like smiling from the moment he walked into church. He was just so happy.

    Beautiful testimony on the literal meaning of catholic (universal).

  • Anonymous

    This is the flip side of what I have experienced when travelling in various places — notably in Mexico. Don't speak a word of Spanish, but walk into any church and there you are, home. Great, ain't it? :-)

  • HerstoryGirl

    Wow… GREAT post! Love your blog, too. Thanks for the sweet comments; Much appreciated!

  • Anonymous

    Got a question for you, Jennifer. One that is unrelated to the topic. Do you really like the blog June Cleaver after a Six Pack? I used to read her faithfully, thought she was quite funny. Now, she just seems to me to be a lady with some serious issues with lust. She seems to objectify men in her constant comments about various stars.

  • JoAnna

    What a lovely post. Thank you.

  • Gannet Girl

    De-lurking (seem to be doing a lot of that lately) to ask if your long-lost cousin the monk is at Mount Angel Abbey? If so, I heard from him a few days ago in response to a fan email I sent to him about his Christ Pantocrator icon. He described his family background and ~ hard to imagine two such iconographers! He is delightful.

  • Karen E.

    Such a lovely and touching post, Jen.

  • willing2riskready2go

    I just started blogging 2 weeks ago and found yours today. It's great! Check out mine if you want:

    http://www.willingtoriskreadytogo.com

  • Domestic Accident

    This so touched my heart. I already knew this innately, but knowing that the rhythm of mass is comforting universally makes my heart expand. Such a gift to know I am deeply connected with people I don't even know. Great, wonderful post.

  • Roxane B. Salonen

    My mom always talked about how, when she went to Europe as a young adult, she felt so far from home — until she went to Mass. I have had similar experiences. What a blessing it is to be Catholic, and how divine that Rita and you were able to make that spiritual connection, which transcends all language barriers. Beautiful!

  • Angie @ Many Little Blessings

    Just beautiful! What a testament to the universal nature of the church!

  • Kate

    A testament to the universality of the Church. A beautiful post indeed!