Da Nang Cathedral, built for French residents in 1923 and today
serves approximately 4,000 Catholics in the city, Da Nang, Vietnam,
December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
I went yesterday to get an adjustment after the holidays, and I heard Dr. L tell someone that patients help heal one another. That in the treatment room, which contained up to four of us lying on massage tables a couple of feet apart from one another, there was a sort of collective healing energy flowing from one person to the next.
Dr. L, the chiropractor, was saying this—or words to the effect—to a woman who had just left the treatment room. His words penetrated the altered state I tend to slip into the moment I settle face down on the table. I thought of the patient to my left, wondered if, like me, she was channelling all her energy into healing herself. I thought about how energy moved, uncontained, from this thing to that thing. How we were all connected whether we liked it or not.
It’s a fascinating concept, the notion of collective consciousness. I remember during both the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections receiving viral emails suggesting we all pray for our candidate to win. The idea was that our collective power could and would make a difference in the outcome.
That then reminded me of the Catholic ritual of praying the rosary whenever someone dies. How the prayers of the survivors, chanted in unison at a rosary mass, help send the deceased person’s soul to Heaven.
And so this morning when I read a New York Times article about a group of a hundred or so parishioners outside of Boston, Massachusetts, who had held vigil inside an empty Catholic Church 24/7 for over four years, I was struck by the theme of collective spirit. Collective intent. Which really translates into Faith.
In fact, that was the title of the article: “In Quiet Rebellion, Parishioners Keep Faith.” In October 2004, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston decided to close and sell dozens of churches in the area as a result of a shortage of priests, parishioners, and money. (The latter was exacerbated by a multimillion dollar settlement to victims of sexual abuse.) Parishioners at five of the churches slated for closure rebelled, setting up constant vigil in their empty churches.
The fact that parishioners from St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church were able to set up vigil is itself a testament to faith. The archdiocese changed the locks in 2004 but unintentionally left a fire door open. Since then parishioners not only keep vigil in shifts around the clock; they also conduct mass, hold rosary sessions, raise money, donate to charities, and open the church to people in need.
In the course of four years of maintaining a vigil church, this collection of parishioners has undergone a transformation. They talk of new opportunity, of the potential for lay people to be more involved in the Catholic Church, to play an active role and help offset the shortage of priests.
I cannot go back to the priest and the vestments and that, I always felt, prince-of-the-church approach. I’ll always be Catholic, but I may not be able to worship in the mainstream Catholic Church.
~Mary Dean, 61, St. Frances parishioner
The big question is, Can the hierarchy of the Catholic Church undergo its own transformation? Can the archbishop find a thread of faith inside the vigil churches that might provide answers to the problems that beleaguer the Church?
If spiritual health is one of the main pillars of a healthy human being, is there not goodness in collective healing, in people healing themselves and one another?
Da Nang from afar, view from my room (Da Nang Cathedral in the distance), December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
Postscript: I started this post wanting to talk about the power of churches from a purely structural standpoint. How is it that a physical building could have such pull on individuals?
I spend hours out of any trip I take to somewhere new seeking out cathedrals, temples, and other sacred places. But what I’ve come to believe is, these places are only as sacred as the faith that sustains them. People make the place. They embue the walls and ceilings with spirituality. The NYT article I came across today hit home that point.
Above is the view from my hotel window in Da Nang, which I visited last month on a trip to Vietnam. I could see a pink steeple in the distance my first morning, and late that afternoon I went in search of the church. It was a Saturday, and there was a mass in progress—a huge funeral, it appeared, with parishioners spilling out into the entryway. I kept a respectful distance.
I think of the many faithful who have lost their places of worship. These are the places we go to be born, to live, to die, and to be born again. To lose one’s church is a profound thing.