On Holy Ground

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

A few years ago I visited a Hindu Temple to participate in an annual Interfaith Unity Day observance. Upon entering the building, all the participants were asked to remove their shoes. We remained shoeless throughout the day. Our Hindu guests explained to us their belief that the Temple is sacred space and the removal of shoes is to prevent any contamination from the outside world from entering into the realm of the sacred.

Although walking around in public without shoes was culturally uncomfortable for me, I came away from that experience with sincere admiration for the Hindu sense of the sacred. The exercise also prompted me to reflect on our own Catholic practices and to ask if we are losing a sense of the sacred in our approach to things religious.

Our more casual attitude about the sacred is reflected in many ways. We certainly don't observe Sundays and holy days the way we used to. How often do we hear people taking God's name in vain? And how commonly do we see the crucifix used only as jewelry rather than an expression of faith?

Our understanding of church buildings also reveals our sense of the sacred. As Catholics we use churches for two purposes. The one that is sometimes emphasized today sees the church as a meeting hall, a building where God's people assemble. This we could call the horizontal dimension of a church.

Another aspect of our church buildings elicits the vertical dimension of our religious experience. In other words, we come together not only to be with other people - after all that happens every day in many places and activities. We come to a church for a specific reason - because we believe that we will meet God there.

Entering Catholic churches used to be an impressive encounter with the transcendent. The senses were filled with the presence of God - the awesome silence, the soaring arches, the flickering candles, the aroma of incense, the beautiful stained-glass windows, the impressive statues - all were reminders that we had entered sacred space. Catholics didn't remove their shoes upon entering church, but we did genuflect, not too proud in those days to bend our knee to the Good Lord.

Even when the church was full of people it was silent. It provided a respite, a spiritual oasis in the midst of a very noisy secular world. Our silence also allowed other people to reflect and pray so that they too might be in communion with God.

How about the way we dress for church these days? This is an especially timely point now that summer is upon us and our clothing becomes more casual. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think there's a difference between going to a picnic or ball game and going to Holy Mass on Sunday. Some people argue that "God doesn't care how we dress." I disagree. God does care how we dress, how we present ourselves before Him. God has made it rather clear that He expects us to respect His person, His name and His house!

Our attire is also a mark of respect for our fellow worshippers. Some people are distracted by cut-off shorts, tank tops and tee shirts with vulgar messages. Some grow faint at the sight of flabby, hairy bodies kneeling in front of them. For that reason proper dress is an expression of charity as much as modesty, a sign of respect for both God and our neighbors. And it seems to me that those who minister in church in a public way as readers, singers, ushers and Ministers of Holy Communion for example, have a special obligation to dress appropriately and modestly.

How do we treat the church property itself? Do we care for it as the House of God, as sacred ground? To visit a church after the last Sunday Mass is sometimes not a lot different than visiting a public park after a fourth-of-July picnic. It's not at all unusual to find plastic bags filled with Cheerios, candy wrappers, used Kleenex and soiled disposable diapers, the remnants of people on the run, people who couldn't wait to get out and get home.

And nothing speaks more eloquently about our reverence than how we acknowledge, handle and receive the Eucharist. Once in awhile we need to pause, reflect and recognize the very special gift we have in the Eucharist. Do we always approach and receive the Eucharist with the utmost care, respect and love, with a true sense of awe?

Many other examples could be cited, I'm sure. But the question remains: Are we as Catholics losing sight of the sacred, the transcendent in our lives? While it's true that reverence is primarily an interior attitude, it's also true that reverence is expressed and reinforced by external behaviors.

When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, He instructed Moses, "Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet for the place where you stand is holy ground." (Ex 3:5) While we no longer live in the Old Testament, and while our tradition does not suggest that we remove our shoes, the fundamental reality is unchanged: We are commanded to have profound reverence for the sacred presence of God.

(This is a revised version of an article that previously appeared in "The Catholic Exponent.")