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God Is In This House


I saw this headline on the website of a Catholic publication: “Where is the zeal in the U.S. Church?”
 
I immediately thought to myself, “I know at least one answer to that question. The zeal is up on West 7th Street in Plainfield—specifically at the Rose of Sharon Community Church.”
 
I was there once for the funeral of a minister whose daughter is a professional colleague of mine.
 
The church was full. The funeral lasted about two and a half hours and, because I was sitting in the next to last row, I could see that no one left early.
 
In the sanctuary, there was a choir that appeared to comprise about eighteen women, all dressed in white, and they were raising the roof with songs that spoke of the promise of salvation. Most of the congregation sang along, thundered along.
 
Several times during that service someone at the lectern reminded us that “God is in this house,” and it was clear that most of the worshippers believed that to be true.
 
Of course, since everything in the universe exists only because it shares in God’s existence, God is present everywhere, but we also have more particular beliefs about the presence of God.
 
We Catholics say we believe that God is present with us when we gather to worship. That is what Jesus promised, according to Matthew’s Gospel: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
 
And besides believing that God is present in the assembly, we say we believe that he is present in his word, which is proclaimed at every Mass.
 
And, of course, we say that he is present—not figuratively but truly present—in the Eucharist that is consecrated on the altar and reserved in the tabernacle.
 
God is present in this house.
 
For generations, the principle way of expressing belief in that idea was by being solemn, being discreet in your movements, keeping your voice down.
 
When I was a teenaged usher at my home parish, I was being indiscreet before a Sunday Mass and felt a heavy hand on my shoulder.
 
“Remember,” the senior usher said, “you’re in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.”
 
I froze in place. I believed in that presence; it was palpable to me.
 
That, I suppose, was the “fear of the Lord” that we read about in the Scriptures—not “fear” as in “afraid” but “fear” as in “awestruck.”
 
But I found that the presence of God was also palpable to me at Rose of Sharon, and the zeal of the people gathered there felt like an appropriate way to affirm it—maybe even a necessary way to affirm it.
 
Many factors have contributed to the decline in Sunday Mass attendance in the United States over the past five decades. The column that was under the headline I mentioned earlier compared that condition to the exuberance of the Church in Africa.
 
In some cases, people have left the American Church or become indifferent to it because they have been seriously harmed or they have been scandalized.
 
I believe, though, that many others who come only occasionally or not at all have not absorbed the reality or the implications of God’s presence.
 
I’m not an advocate for anything-goes liturgies, but I am an advocate for the kind of excitement that enlivens the Church in Africa, and that I witnessed among people who believed what they professed, excitement that compels them to stay there for hours instead of slinking out before the service ends.
 
How can we murmur our prayers, clam up during the hymns, come and go as though we don’t want to attract attention, take a bye because going is just too much trouble, if we truly believe this astounding thing:
 
God is in this house.
 
Charles Paolino is managing editor at RENEW International and a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen. This post was first published in the Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.

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