[This article first appeared in Christian Initiation 27 (December, 1997/January, 1998):8]
Johnny hated standing up in front of crowds. As a child he never comfortably delivered a report in school, never relaxed while playing sports to spectators. He preferred being ignored to being ridiculed. Working in an office now he put all that behind him. He had not grown courageous. He just thought he'd never have to stand up in front of people again.
Until he inquired about joining the Catholic Church.
This week he slipped into a pew. But last week. Oh, Lord. Last week he had to stand up in front of everyone with his new acquaintances Pat, Deepa, and Emily. Their sponsors traced the sign of the cross on their hands, shoulders, and feet. Maybe more. He couldn't remember now. All this in front of God, the priest, and the kids, adults, and seniors of the 10:30 Mass. It all meant welcome, but it felt like torture.
But that was last week. This week he could stay in a pew. The catechist told him he'd leave early today. Sounded good.
He glanced down to his feet and noticed for the first time the mismatched socks he put on this morning. Shaking his head, he was real glad not to be standing up in front of people today.
Marta was rushing to get to church that morning. As usual. "You'd think after 38 years as a Catholic, I'd have Sunday morning figured out," she mused. But with kids and career, every day brought adventure. She swung into the parking lot at 10:30 on the dot, checked her watch as she strode mightily the length of the lot, and prayed for better parking at the mall later that day. Inside, snapping up the bulletin and newspaper, she glided into the pew next to Johnny as the plodding entrance song drew to its long-awaited close. Marta never searched for Johnny's face, but when she looked down, she noticed his socks. They said nothing to each other, which suited Johnny fine.
Grace had joined this parish a short time ago. But she nearly left it at the same time. Her employer transferred her to this community. She assumed she would meet a wide circle of friends like those she missed in her old parish. Then she discovered that people behaved differently here. They walked from car to church undisturbed by greetings. No one welcomed her at the door on her first visit. Or for many visits thereafter. She never received a letter of welcome. She filled out a "time and talent card," offering to help out in a number of ways. But no one ever called.
In the last couple years, though, the parish seemed more alive. She decided to meet some people and spent time with them. Gradually she came to feel more at home. "Am I changing them or are they changing me?" she wondered.
Grace felt proud last week to see four catechumens celebrate the rite of acceptance. The largest number the parish had ever seen. Self-assured of her ability to read people, she could tell how jittery the tall thin man seemed having someone trace crosses over his body in public.
Grace decided that that man would become her project of the week. As she left church, she studied the bulletin board. The catechumenate team had already posted the pictures and names of the new catechumens. At home she learned more about them by reading the parish bulletin. During the week she found a parish newsletter with more information about them in the mail. She thought she knew plenty about Johnny and imagined that he felt more lost than she did when she first started with this parish. She decided to do her part to make him feel at home.
This Sunday, then, as Marta entered Johnny's pew on one side, Grace squeezed in on the other. They were standing up on either side of him as the priest opened the prayers of the Mass. Although Marta kept silent, Grace spoke.
"You're one of our catechumens," she whispered.
Johnny, jolted by the word, felt the rush of embarrassment again. He hated standing up. "She must have seen my socks," he feared.
"Welcome," she said.