A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by God to give grace. That’s the definition I memorized as a little girl. As a child I knew of seven sacraments of the Church. As I matured I learned that you and I could be “sacraments” to others in as much as we allow Jesus to work in and through us. The more we empty ourselves of our self, the more we allow Jesus to work in us. This coming out of ourselves or self-emptying allows us to be signs of God’s love and presence to those around us. I want to share with you some “sacramental” memories that stay with me today.
I can still see the old rectory of a downtown Catholic parish in New England. The walkway to Father’s house was covered with a green awning similar to those you might see for a funeral home or a restaurant. In the rectory parlor I was surprised to see the stuffing escaping the pillows on the sofa. A once elegant room now bore the marks of real poverty. At Mass the pastor’s Spanish revealed a heavy American accent. Despite the less than perfect speech and even less elegant surroundings, I felt we were in the presence of a Saint. The parishioners poured out their prayers and songs with energy and enthusiasm. They obviously loved their Padre. He did not surround himself with luxury or even the conveniences of a modern, tidy dwelling. Their Padre was a true shepherd who spent his life for his sheep in a once bustling city in the throes of an economic downturn.
In the 1990’s a group of Knights of Columbus lent their time and manpower to help us renovate our Charleston book center. Whether on their hands and knees pulling up old carpet, moving furniture or hauling old shelves to the junk yard they were cheerful and generous. One of the men used his pickup for deliveries to a Lutheran food pantry in addition to all he did for us Sisters and for his own parish. When our Sisters opened their Center in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia they were assisted almost every evening by a few couples. These middle aged husbands and wives came after their work hours to remove worn out flooring, clear out debris and do whatever was necessary to make the house pleasant and serviceable.
In Cordova, Alaska, we met a priest who had come out of retirement to staff a parish that would otherwise have been “priest less.” David Melbourne became a priest after he worked in Ketchikan, Alaska. The local priest told him how he had labored five years to help a couple return to the sacramental life. When David asked the pastor “Why did it take you so long?” the priest answered: “You become a priest and you’ll find out!”
David went to Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon where he studied for the priesthood and was ordained for what became the Diocese of Anchorage. To serve his flock in the bush communities, he earned a pilot’s license. He wrote a few paragraphs about the Faith each week for the local newspaper. When he saw that people flocked to funerals and not always to Mass, he gained an undertaker’s license. When we met Father his was the only church in town with a pastor. When he discovered that many of his elderly parishioners could not walk up the hill to the church, he had the building moved down hill to accommodate the handicapped. Once when we were delayed in returning to the rectory, he had a delicious salmon dinner waiting for us. Father knew his flock very well. He made time in his day to pray. Because of his rootedness in God, Father David was able to spend his days for God and his people.
Like the “Cloud of Witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews, I have to say I have encountered many witnesses to God’s love in the people whose lives were “living, walking and talking sacraments” to those around them. They had come out of themselves to be Christ, to attract others to Jesus. That’s what I hope to be as I come out of myself each ordinary day, and allow Jesus to live, to speak and act in me.
Sr. Mary Peter Martin, FSP