Gospel: Mark 5:21–24, 35b–43
This afternoon, after 20 years as pastor here, I will be taking my leave of St. Margaret’s. I will begin my journey south to St Therese, east of Mission Valley. In a way, I will be retracing the path of the first missionaries in California. A few miles west from St. Margaret’s, is El Camino Real. Follow it south from here, and it will take you eventually to Mission San Diego and then east to the Mission Trails National Park, just north of my new parish. It is not lost on me that my first official day as pastor of St. Therese Parish, will be on July 1st - the feast day of St. Junipero Serra, and as he passed by these local lands, would often say, “Always go forward, and never turn back!”
That is why, today is not a time for looking back. Our Lord in the Gospel we have just heard, would not allow eulogies. In fact, we see Him scolding the mourners who had come to pay their final respects and say goodbye. Taking the little girl by the hand, (let’s call her “Margaret”!), He commands, “Arise!” And she arose immediately and walked around. Our Lord further instructed, “Give her something to eat”, and of course that is for us the Holy Eucharist. But I’m also happy to announce that the coffee and doughnuts have returned to the piazza after all the Sunday morning Masses! We have our Knights of Columbus overseeing this, for which we are all grateful.
And that is what makes this parish community of faith unique. Over the years, and jealousy guarded, in the midst of a noisy and confusing world, we have built up a place of sacred silence for prayer and the sacraments - a rendezvous place where heaven and earth gently meet without distraction. And we have complimented it by securing the piazza as a necessary place of Christian fellowship, where friendships are strengthened, where relationships are formed and renewed and where children release their energy in a safe environment.
Twenty years ago, when I arrived in Oceanside, I looked at the address and sought out St. Margaret’s. (Back in those days there were no smart phones with gps locaters). Up and down Oceanside Blvd I drove, looking for the church. But there wasn’t one! The only roadside clue I had reached my destination was a sign that read “Bingo - Thursdays at 7pm”! Instead, the local Catholic community met in a hall. Back then it was called the St Margaret Catholic Community Center.
Understandably, without a consecrated building having then been yet built, everything - sacraments, fellowship and religious education took place in one multipurpose building - a building we now call the parish hall. It has taken us twenty years to give each one of these necessary components of Catholic and Christian formation their own place and space.
This church, built in 2006 and completed in 2007 serves us as our sacred place of worship. The piazza has now replaced in many ways the church hall and social center. And for religious education - that now is your very own home, how you pray as a family, or alone, particularly the environment and character you have developed around your kitchen, dining room table, living room and bedroom. That’s why St. Margaret’s is never to be approached as a one stop, shot in the arm vaccine for super Catholics who come from near and far.
Oftentimes, visitors can not grasp this and new parishioners, if they do not persevere on a path of humility and continuous conversion seven days a week, will ultimately leave, and understandably become disappointed. What happens within these sacred walls, if it is to spill out into every moment of our lives during the week, demands an always fresh way of thinking about what it means to be part of the Catholic Church and the Catholic community at prayer, at home and at large. We contradict the Gospel and become guilty of arrogance if we think mere attendance at church on Sunday will provide everything we need. As it is sometimes said, you can sit in a garage once a week, but that doesn’t make you a car. We have to, instead, learn to cooperate with the grace of God that is initiated through the sacraments and bring that grace, even wrestle with it, into the week and into all our thinking, into our family life and weekday and weekend behavior.
That is why the Holy Mass is not, in itself, a teaching place for social skills or an endorsement of religious or even ideologies. That is found outside these walls, determined by how you teach your children at home, your prudent use of social media, how you approach the dining room table, and especially how you create a rhythm of disciplined prayer in your lives every day, especially for the sake of your children and grandchildren. Your children are not watching you pray during Mass. They are watching how and if you pray every day throughout the week, and that they will imitate you.
In preparation for my pastorate of St Therese Parish, I have been reading and meditating on her autobiography. The parents of St. Therese didn’t bring her to Church on Sunday until near the time for her First Holy Communion. Incredible! Why? So that, reaching the age of reason, she would learn to first hunger for the sacraments. Her parents did not outsource the teaching of religion or prayer to the parish church or a Sunday school program. They were wise and prudent to create a culture of holiness in the home first so that, having learnt to pray by herself, her hunger for holiness became greater and greater in anticipation of the day when her parents judged her ready to begin to understand. If we do not provide an environment of silence, reflection and prayer at home, then how easy it becomes to bring that noise, clutter and mayhem we have tolerated at home into the sacred and gentle presence of God at His sanctuary.
So, how do we continue to respond? Our salvation is through faith and works. If you have faith, then you also have to work to maintain and protect it - even here. When you are conscious of visitors to St. Margaret’s or familiar faces you have not learnt the names of, go out of your way, not by demonstrating that you are a super Catholic, but to patiently enter into a relationship with them as fellow Christians.
This parish church needs ushers, everyone is to be a “minister of hospitality”, not just during coffee and doughnuts, but also during Mass. Sunday Mass is not your private time. This is a sacred time for our common encounter with the Lord. For example, actively invite latecomers to share the pew with you. Gently show parents who are struggling and distracted with crying and restless children that we have a place for them in the narthex and even at the family benches at the church doors where the prayers of the Mass can be heard distinctly without distraction. Turn off your cell phone when you are here. Get out of your bubble and never think that your time here on Sunday is yours alone. This is sacred time that belongs to us all. Think who is front of you, behind, to the right and left. It is what our Marines call, “situational awareness”. And to that end, as a Shepherd of a flock, I have sought to do the same, to protect it, and as a stubborn Irishman, to even take it on the chin to do so!
Yes, there have been times, that as a Shepherd, I have let my guard down, and allowed myself through human weakness to be conned by a passing salesman or distracted by a knight in shining armor. It is a warning to us all to always be always “calm and vigilant” for the devil, like a wolf always stocks a healthy flock, even in sheep’s clothing. But only for the grace of God and by placing the needs of the whole flock first, have I found the strength to imitate Christ the Eternal and Good Shepherd who has always been my closest ally and cornerstone, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, and unto death do we part.
But death, and in whatever form it takes, is not a finality. In all those little moments of darkness (goodbyes are little deaths) or even in the final hour, hear again and again the voice of the Lord who rebukes the doomsayers and asks, “why this commotion and weeping” and then commands us to arise from the dead and take food for the journey. And, of course, the marching orders of Father Serra, “Always go forward, and never turn back!”
Father Cávana Wallace
Pastor of St. Margaret’s, 2001- 2021