I just visited an old friend who has moved to my old stomping grounds in Syracuse, New York and after all the catching up about families and colleagues, she mentioned some unusual news: she had found a church that she really liked. This is unusual because in much of the country, traditional churches are losing members, particularly among the young. But St. Lucy’s, a Catholic church on the West Side, is doing something right.
It felt like home. As soon as she walked in with a friend, she could tell there was something different about it. For one thing, she was immediately impressed with the diversity of the congregation: Asians, Latinos, Blacks and Whites—and young people. Then there was the pastor. He was someone you immediately took to. Father Jim has been there 25 years and was clearly a regular guy. He noticed the two newcomers in the congregation right away and made it a point to come to them in the pews to welcome them and find out more about them.
Unlike other churches, there was an easygoing feel to the service. There was singing, and the music was refreshingly pleasant. Father Jim made it clear that everyone was welcome to join in Communion and the pomp that often accompanies that ritual was absent.
Then there was the “sign of peace” segment of the mass. Many a good Christian finds this a problematic interlude in the worship service. As one contributor to the Catholic Herald wrote, it’s part hippie-love fest, part election campaign as some people rush to shake hands with as many of their fellows as they can (see link). If you’re an introvert, this is the kind of thing that can drive you into the arms of the unchurched faster than you can say Richard Dawkins. But at St. Lucy’s it felt authentic because people just talked. The man in front of them turned and said “We call this intermission” and everyone proceeded to chat casually instead of turning it into an awkward moment where you have to say “Peace be with you” to total strangers or even (shudder) hug them.
St. Lucy’s is definitely doing something right. There is an active community outreach program to revitalize the neighborhood in conjuction with Syracuse University. There is a community garden, a soup kitchen, an “athletic ministry” and more. My friend is anxious to join some of these groups, perhaps as a volunteer to help teaching English.
In short, she is anxious to go back and establish a place for herself in this new city. We all want to belong. We all crave community. There is a Sacrament of the Group, through which we can feel that rush of the Spirit—some intimation that we are not just isolated bits of matter, but are part of the life of the planet. . St. Lucy’s has a big banner spread up over the altar proclaiming “We are called to be peacemakers.” That’s the message that will save Christianity from extinction, and you become a peacemaker by being a part of a group, then extending the warmth generated from that group to the outside world. Hats off to St. Lucy’s!