On December 6th, Pope Francis opened the massive door at the Vatican, officially beginning the Year of Mercy (2016). This is a Jubilee year in the church’s calendar, so historically the sitting pope has opened this giant portal as part of the celebration in Rome. Francis has stipulated that this Year of Mercy is to be extended to two groups of people usually not considered top tier by Roman Catholic hierarchists—women who have made the difficult decision to have an abortion and people who have gone through a heterosexual divorce. Adding to the radical nature of this move, the Pope also granted permission to every cathedral in the world to hold its own Year of Mercy door opening, saying “Everyone cannot come to Rome, but Rome can go to everyone.” Sundays find me in a pew at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, MN, so my church was among those granted this first-time-ever permission. So on December 13th, the 9:30 a.m. Sunday mass began with all those in the congregation who wished to do so going outside, following the choir and priest. We stood in a unseasonal drizzle while the choir sang something lovely in Latin.
I happened to look to my left where my eyes met those of a dark-skinned woman in a rain hat who smiled at me and said “This is a special day.” After I agreed, we stood quietly while I let myself feel pleased that the small, single door that I usually use to enter church but which has been sealed shut in anticipation of this ceremony would now become usable again. Over its bronze surface was draped a six foot colored hanging of a benign Jesus holding his hands in blessing. The first one of these issued to the Basilica went missing almost immediately, later found under the viaduct near the basilica, obviously taken as a “blanket” to warm one of the homeless men who sleep there. Rather than reporting this as a robbery, the staff asked for a second hanging, saying to people like me who asked what had happened to the first one “Well, the person who took it down needed it more than we did, so we just got a replacement.” Now the bronze frieze depicting two saints unspecified by me was unhidden, though the tall hanging has been wrapped around one of the giant pillars of the church’s façade.
Suddenly, when there seemed to be several hundred of us congregants assembled in the light rain, the choir was climbing the granite steps and entering the narthex, so people began filing back into church behind them. Suddenly, the woman beside me took my hand and smiled again at me as we both teared up. As I looked more closely at her face, I became convinced that she was of Middle-eastern origin, so I winced to recall how angry and spiteful many of my fellow Americans feel about Muslims in our country and elsewhere.
We kept our hands together as we slowly maneuvered the stairs. Just as we arrived at the marble doorsill, we said simultaneously “God bless you,” and went under the massive lintel. We parted and I made my tearful way back to my pew where I’d left my glasses to mark the spot. Just as I had never seen my companion before we were standing in the gentle rain, I probably will never see her again. I believe she is an angel sent just for me at that spirit-filled moment. I certainly will not forget our three or four minutes joined by a shared faith and a shared hope for connection over isolation, for fellow feeling over fearful antagonism.