Catholics are not known for standing on street corners in cities and handing out scripture tracts or preaching the Gospel. We tend to confine our preaching to the pulpit in the church building and teaching religion classes in our schools and Parish School of Religion programs. That’s not a hard and fast rule, since there are many types of evangelism going on in the Catholic Church. It’s just that the ordinary person in the pew Catholic tends to be more low-key about witnessing to the faith in public.
Today, in my parish, we went against that grain and “took it to the streets” so to speak. Parishioners participated in two outdoor activities that witness to the faith of Catholics for anyone to see who might have happened on the scenes.
This morning many parishioners, adults and children, gathered in our parking lot to pray. We were joined by our “animal companions” for what I hope will become an annual tradition in the parish, the Blessing of Animals in honor of the Feast day of St. Francis of Assisi (October 4). Francis has traditionally be associated with the custom of blessing animals because it was said he could preach to them (such as Stories about St. Francis and the Animals).
I attempted to preach to many dogs, a rabbit, a couple of cats and possibly another species or two, but the humans present seemed to respond better to the message I spoke than the “human companions.”
What were we preaching to those who might have seen us on our parking lot? Blessings are a prayer that praises God for God’s goodness, especially for showing his love to his human children. By celebrating the blessing of pets and animals the church proclaims that they are a sign of God’s goodness to humanity. The second story of creation in the second chapter of Genesis states that God made animals to be a “helper” (Genesis 2:18-20) to Man, and creatures that he would have dominion over, sharing in the nature of God whose image man is made in the image of. But, no animal proved exactly what would be the answer to Man’s aloneness so Woman was created from Man’s rib. Animals continue, though, to be a sign of God’s concern for us. They give us happiness and a kind of companionship. They feed us. Animals help us accomplish the work God gives us (remember the story of Genesis is written before mechanical tractors and cars that make farming and travel possible). So, we continue to bless the animals among us as an act of thanksgiving for God’s concern that we be happy and feed. The blessing of animals in the 21st century is also a proclamation that creation is to be revered and cared for as God’s gift to humanity. When God destroyed the world to recreate it in the Story of Noah and the Ark, animals were part of the living that were saved from destruction. In a sense, our blessing of animals also said to the neighborhood that our church values all life, for all life points us toward worship of the author of life, the one who called him self “existence” when God pronounced his name to Moses as I AM (Exodus 3:14).
The other incident of Catholic street preaching took place in the mid-afternoon. Each year, the first weekend of October Catholic’s observe “Pro-Life Sunday” and take to the streets forming what has come to be known as a “National Life Chain.” Parishioners hold signs, in silence, along major streets and highways throughout the country with messages such as “Abortion kills a child,” Pray for the end of abortion,” and “Jesus forgives and heals.” It is a silent witness to our belief that all life begins at conception, that all human life is sacred and that abortion is an intrinsic evil and should not be done, but that those who procure abortions are not beyond the reach of God’s mercy. We stand up for those who can not speak for themselves, the silent infants in the womb who have no voice but the voice of the church and people of good will.
Our parish stood along U.S. Highway 50 north of Trenton where it intersects with Illinois Route 160. I had announced at Masses this weekend that our target for participation by parishioners was 100 people. (I had heard attendance was rather sparse the last few years.) We had 14 witnesses show up (at least that I could count, maybe some were on the other exit ramp I couldn’t see). The organizer of the event from St. Mary was not discouraged. He reminded me of the story in the Old Testament of Abraham negotiating with God to save Sodom from destruction by God if there were only 5 righteous people (Genesis 18:20-33). Trenton should thank the 14 who stood up for life! The numbers weren’t great but the message of God’s mercy was proclaimed and the citizens may be spared.
I was among the group and pondered as I stood in silence holding my sign, “Does this really do any good?” A few vehicles whizzing by at 55mph (let’s give them the benefit of the doubt) may have been able to read our signs. Many of them honked their support of our message. I had done this witness, before, standing on a street by a busy shopping mall in Fairview Heights with my parishioners from St. Stephen. There it was not unusual to be given the “middle finger salute” or to be yelled at by a passer-by, “Pro-Choice! It’s my body!” It was a more challenging experience of witnessing, in a way. Today, the cars were going much faster. Maybe we should stand along the main street in town? Yet, we stood witness.
Did we change any hearts and inspire a conversion? We’ll never know. Probably not, my more pessimistic self would say. I would like to think that everyone who saw us was reminded of the sacredness of human life, whether they are pro-choice or pro-life.
For me, the stronger (I’d say “louder” witness but it was a silent prayer vigil type witness) witness among us was one of the parishioners who came to the site in his motorized wheelchair device. A stroke has left him unable to speak very little. Many people would question the quality of his life. Yet, he was along the highway, holding a sign doing his “street preaching” announcing God’s gift of life was sacred whatever state of health a person is experiencing or whatever state of life.
As St. Francis of Assisi is attributed to have said, “Proclaim the Gospel. When necessary, use words.”
(Post Script: Thanks to the parishioners who answered the call to stand in silent witness during the National Life Chain observance in our parish.)