The Center Aisle

The floor of the church is our consistent place of ministry


RaabIn November, as priests, we reflect on the connections between earth and heaven. We celebrate the saints and souls who helped transform the earth. They now take their place in heaven, and we remember that their struggles of faith, perseverance, ill-health, power and standing up against injustice are our concerns.

Those before us stood on solid ground here on earth and now are invited to sit with angels. They claimed the earth, living genuine faith in Christ. That same promise is for us if only we can work through the obstacles from where we stand. We need to stand for something beautiful. As Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan once wrote, “Know where you stand, and stand there.” We must know who we are and whose we are. This is the posture to integrate peace and reconciliation in our world. Standing up for faith and for people’s needs is pure courage.

At the conclusion of the liturgical year, I reflect upon my posture of faith in a very literal way. I feel most at home on the physical floor of our church, the center aisle. I believe it is the solid ground upon which Jesus gathered people in Luke’s Gospel to teach them and, more importantly, to see them face-to-face. It is here, on common ground, that my prayer becomes real for our people.

As priests, we spend a lot of time in the center aisle. We welcome the bodies of the dead at the foot of the sanctuary. We celebrate weddings of nervous couples in the same spot. Thousands of people receive the Eucharist in the identical place, at the head of the church aisle near the step of the sanctuary. Perhaps it is here that we come to a new awareness of our role as ministers, offering hope to people on their path to heaven.

After all these years, I feel my soul on steady ground in the aisle. I gaze into people’s eyes. I know their walk as they approach to receive the Eucharist. I recognize those who lean on a cane or a walker. I have watched people age from my place in the aisle. Standing on the aisle, I see parents holding an infant as they receive the Eucharist. Then one day, in the same spot, the children receive their first Communion.

I don’t take this simple image for granted. It has dawned on me in recent years that the floor of the church is my consistent place of ministry. My favorite time to stand on that ground is to preach. I stand there, but I also stroll down the aisle, depending on God’s passion in me on any given day. I might even jump up and down when Easter rolls around when I can no longer contain my excitement about Jesus Christ. Preaching on the ground is not for everyone, I know that. However, I must be close to people if I am to offer bread as words, hope contained in sentences and love bound up in paragraphs. I believe the Word is still Incarnate. I need to be close to those who ache for the tenderness of God, those who believe the Gospel speaks of hope in their anguish.

The floor of the church supports my soul. When I was a young priest, I spent years in therapy trying to feel comfortable on the face of the earth. In fact, one psychologist had me stand on his office floor during the initial sessions because I felt so disconnected from the earth. I didn’t know if I was good enough to find solid ground for my priesthood. So, I must preach on the floor of the church. I must settle in among the folks because I need to witness to people that I, too, belong on the earth. I stand among people who ache to find their place, their value and their lives in Christ Jesus. It is from this struggle that I know Jesus and the longing of people.

I don’t know how many more years I have left to stand in the center aisle. I do know that when I die, my body will rest there on that safe ground for at least an hour at my funeral. I pray that others will know how much I felt at home on the floor of the church when preaching, distributing the Body of Christ, welcoming children and helping the elderly come to sacraments. The center aisle is my home until I am at home in heaven.

FATHER RONALD PATRICK RAAB, CSC, is the former pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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