“When the Lord saw her, he felt sorry for her.”


For many years I lived in South America in a place where most of the people aren’t Christians. And so it would often happen that many of the people who would come to Mass wouldn’t actually be Catholics. They came because they wanted to feel close to God and they felt that in Church. And also, if we are honest, they came because it was free. In their religion, you had to pay at the door, so they couldn’t get over the fact that here, you only had to put into a voluntary collection whatever you thought was right. Obviously, because they weren’t Christians, they wouldn’t come to communion, but they would often come up for a blessing.

Anyway, I noticed that there was one particular young woman, who would always come to the Sunday evening Mass, and would always sit in the front row in the left. (Because she sat at the front I knew she couldn’t be a real Catholic.) But she knew all the responses in the Mass and you could see to look at her that she was a woman of goodness and prayer. But she would never come up to communion, not even for a blessing.

So eventually, I thought to myself, “I have to talk to her and get to know her and find out what’s really going on here.” So the next time I said the Sunday evening mass, I waited for her after Mass and, as she was going out, I asked if I could talk to her just for a minute. And I wanted to say to her that, even if she couldn’t take communion, maybe she would like to come for a blessing.

To start with, she didn’t want to tell me - I think she thought that if she told me that she wasn’t a Christian, I might ask her not to come back, but I assured her that that from whatever religion, she was always welcome. And so she said how much she always liked to come to Mass - how it was a place where she could really feel the presence of God.

I asked her to explain. Where did she – as a non-Christian - feel that in the Mass?

She said: “it’s that bit where everyone touches you and shakes your hand, looks you in the eye and says ‘Peace be with you’... And – you know - they sound like they really mean it! That’s the bit I really love. Because I’m a widow and all week long, I feel alone - and very lonely. But whenever I feel tired and lonely, I remember how it felt to have all those people I don’t know shake my hand and wish me peace. And it makes me feel better for the whole week.”

I felt really challenged by that because, like a lot of Catholics, I am sometimes tempted to be careless about the Sign of Peace. It can seem like a mere gesture, a matter of rote, a thing of thoughtless habit. But the moment I heard that, I made myself a promise that whenever I gave a sign of peace, I would always remember what she had said, and I would always do my best. Because I think there is something really beautiful about the fact that a person from another faith finds the presence of God in our Church simply and solely because of the quality of our welcome.

So, when we do the sign of peace, I ask us please to do it carefully and to do it right and at least try to look as if we mean it. Because, for all we know, that may be the only love the person we touch will feel all week.

Let us pray that we may be compassionate as our Lord was compassionate before us.

Paul O'Reilly SJ