Sacred Encounter

I was invited to a cluster meeting of priests, religious and archdiocesan personnel in our area.  It was a gathering of the parish staffs of the Catholic churches on the south and southwest side of Chicago.  Unlike many other priest clusters, this was a younger crowd – many serving Hispanic communities.

I was invited to listen and reflect with them on the violence in and around Chicago’s south and southwest sides.

One by one, they shared their experiences with violence.  One related that he had buried over 30 young people due to violence in 2016 alone; another spoke of how as he was standing with some parishioners near the church, when someone came through shooting.

These were good men and women who knew they had to respond in some way – merely preaching and teaching no longer seemed enough.  The question they wrestled with and that “held them captive” was what to do?  What could they do to make a difference?

Later in the day, as I was sitting with some volunteers at the detention center, we spoke of Pope Francis’ call to give to those who ask for money on the street corners and at traffic stops.  We all admitted that often we drove by or failed to even acknowledge their presence. Our response was that we didn’t want to give them money for fear that they use the money for drink or drugs.  Pope Francis’ response was that we should give any way, adding that if that drink was the one thing all day that gave them a moment of joy or peace, then how could we say no?

Pope Francis teaches us that we not only give, but as we give we should touch the person – look them in the eye and touch them as a brother or sister.  Through our giving we lessen the distance between us.

The work of reconciliation is about breaching the barriers and dismantling the walls.  It calls to move beyond what is comfortable to the uncomfortable.   .

As I thought about the call of Pope Francis, a call we hear in a host of ways, I couldn’t help but to think that it was the answer to the priests in the cluster meeting.  They sought to make a difference, but they couldn’t see themselves “touching” the young men and women who were on the street corners and in the alleyways.

In his book, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson says that in order to make a difference – a real and lasting change – we have to be willing to be proximate.  We have to draw near and lessen the distance between us.

How many of the miracles of Jesus happened through his touch:  healing the blind man by touching his eyes.  He touches – so often physically – the blind man, the dead child, the woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman at the well.  He sees what so many can not see and he touches them.  It is in the touch that they experience healing.

It is not just giving, but it is in receiving as well.  How often are we brought to a new place or given a new perspective and new energy as we enter the life of another?  In scripture, we hear how Thomas, in touching the wounds of Jesus, finds his faith and courage.  The two disciples walking to Emmaus recognize Christ as they break bread together – touching one another through shared stories and a common table.

The sacred encounter of another person is a gift.  It is through the sacred touch of another that we recognize them as our brother and sister.