Home is a word I love. It speaks to me of safety, consolation, acceptance and love. Home is where I know I’m in the right place. I can close my eyes and conjure up many places where I feel at home. Indeed, when I do this, I also conjure up the faces of the people who make me feel at home in those places. For home to me is a combination of paces and people together. Places alone can be beautiful and meaningful. Combine the right place with the right people and we’re talking home!
I have heard it said before that ‘home is the first church’. By this we mean that it is at home where we share faith, live faith and discover faith. Home is a sacred place where God is both present and at work. We experience this God-work in how we love each other, carry each other, forgive each other and grow with each other. This has been my experience of home in all the places I experience home and with all the people I experience home- with Nuala and the kids in the first instance of course.
Just as home can be church, so church can be home. Before I go on I fully accept that the church is the people rather than just the building, but for the day that’s in it I’ll write here about the building. Let me explain. My local church for most of my life has been the church of St Teresa of Avila on the Glen Road. It was built and opened in 1915 with money from the Hamill family, a local wealthy family who did great good with the money they had. Our local church was named for one of their daughters, Teresa.
We moved to the parish in 1973, when I was one and a half years old. Previously we had lived in the North of Belfast, in the Parish of St Vincent de Paul, where I was baptised. The conflict in Northern Ireland was raging at the time and the move out of the North of the city into the West was seen as a wise one given the jigsaw puzzle of interfaces between warring factions in the North compared to the insulated nature of the West, which was almost exclusively Catholic and Nationalist.
And so, from 1973 until now, St Teresa’s has been my parish save for the first few years of my marriage when I moved all of three miles away! We soon moved backed ‘down the road’. So much of the story of my life happened within the four walls and the grounds of that church. I served as an altar boy for an inordinate amount of years. I think I was taller than all the priests and had a beard by the time I ‘retired’! Doing this time I met so many great people- priests and lay people. I served the altar at weddings- this is what I was doing in this picture.
I served also at funerals and at the regular Masses throughout the year. It gave me a sense of the rhythm of parish life and of the value and beauty of the liturgical and sacramental life of the Catholic tradition. When I eventually finished serving the altar, I served the parish in a youth Pastoral Council in the late 1980’s with friends who I would stay in touch with right to this day.
As life went on and as I got older, and at the appointed time, all of my children were baptised in St Teresa’s Church. I’ve seen loved ones and friends married and their children baptised. I’ve buried loved ones and friends from the church. I’ve heard the Word and eaten the Body and Blood there for decades. St Teresa’s Church is home, no doubt. But then the doors closed…
Coronavirus spread throughout the world and even visited this wee corner. In an act of collective love and sacrifice our churches were rightly closed. Better to keep each other safe as a dispersed community of faith than risk harming each other. We experienced something of the wandering in the wilderness these last months. However, collective acts of love and sacrifice have the tendency to bear fruit and this was the case today as we were able to open the doors of St Teresa’s Church again.
Oh, the joy of coming home! As I set foot inside the church for the first time in two months a tremendous feeling of calm came over me. All of my senses were alive. I smelt the smell of candles burned and of incense risen flooding my nostrils from years gone by. I could hear the rustle of mislalettes thumbed and the hushed chatter of congregations praying speaking to me from down the years. It was wonderful. And then I sat, just sat, in the presence of God. I sat and I prayed. I sat and I listened. I sat and I watched as a slow but steady flow of people also came home and looked relieved to do so. Even the new one way systems and hand sanitizers didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of those who came in today. We have waited a long time for this and it is really appreciated.
One way systems, taped off areas and hand sanitizers are essential but foreign visitors to our churches. They serve a very good purpose, of course. They enable us to continue to make acts of collective love and sacrifice. They may become regulars like those who knelt and said their prayers today. If they do, then so be it. It is a small price to be able to say that today we came home.