I heard someone once refer to us as a “tourist church.” At one level that is certainly a compliment to the grandeur of the church structure, its architecture, and art. When you enter the church, there is no doubt that you are “in church.” At another level, given our proximity to the downtown hotels and the Port of Tampa, we have tourists and all manner of visitors – and you know what – they are all most welcome. If a “tourist church” means that we are known for welcoming the visitor, the stranger, the alien, and the tourist – that is a good thing.
Here in the midst of the pandemic of 2020, I would that we had tourists a plenty. But this too is part of our history. We have been here since 1860 and, in some small part, represent the blossoming of the faith here in West Central Florida. It was from this church that Jesuit missionaries rode out into the Florida bush and byways to establish missions and churches from here to Winter Park, to Vero Beach and all points south. There is a history and legacy here that would naturally attract tourists. And such a history it is – one reflecting the growth of the city, the growth of faith, and individual stories of the people who came here – stories known only to the people themselves.
If these old walls could speak what would they say to us. What these walls have seen in the years come and gone. This parish was here for the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1888. Yellow Fever (or Yellow Jack) struck Florida especially hard. Yellow Jack hit its victims indiscriminately and unpredictably. Some contracted just a touch of fever. Others suffered from an agonizing array of symptoms that left infected one-third of the people. Although many abandoned the city in fear. Other cites and the State of Georgia placed armed guards at the borders to keep people away. Several of the early pastors of the parish died of Yellow Fever and are buried in the St. Louis section of Oaklawn Cemetary, just a half mile north of the church. The parish and the new church were here for the 1918-1919 flu epidemic. And it stands now during the pandemic of 2020.
And all throughout, the Word of God has been proclaimed here for more than a century and a half – their proclamation has etched their mark in the lives of people as sure as the finger of God wrote on the walls of the King of Babylon. Sins have been spoken and confessed in hushed tones. The words of forgiveness, reconciliation and God’s love have replied. Again, and again, the holy words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” have joined heaven and earth.
This church has seen world wars come and go, seen neighboring buildings rise and fall, and has overseen the growing and maturation of our fair city. It has seen the business person just seeking a moment of quiet, a respite for prayer – a time to breath. This church has heard the cheers of the first kiss of a newly married couple – as a couple married 72 years quietly watches. These walls have echoed the soft sobbing of fear at the diagnosis of stage four cancer. The walls have reverberated with stories of wedding, funerals, baptisms, first communions, and Confirmations; Christmases and Easters when the far-flung family gathered; celebrations of sons and daughters leaving home for college, service to their country, jobs in another city; and, celebrations of their returns.
In all these moments, listening to the call for us to be part of a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation – people called .. out of darkness into [Jesus’] wonderful light. All the while St. Peter, St. Dominic, St. Francis, St. Ignatius have stood as witness to this house of living stones being built into a spiritual house.
There are moments in the quiet of the night when I have sat here and imagined I could hear the memories ebbing and flowing through the church. There are stories writ large and small that swirl in and around these walls. Even in my time with you, I have been privileged to be witness to the memories of families and a parish of believing people. Those memories, your presence and faith now, are the living stones that make this parish what it is. And so, we celebrate the memories and live the present in order to shape the future – to continue to build this spiritual house. But with what will we build? Just our memories?
St. Francis recognized that his brothers were prone to celebrating the memories and stories of the saints, of other people – and then not build anew. Instead of living stones we friars too often became inanimate stones. St Francis told his brothers, and now tells us, that up to now we have done nothing, so let us begin again – because it is as Jesus promises: whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these.
Be it during the time of pandemic or other time, the question remains: what works will we do because we are compelled by the love of God? The Early Church was tempted to live in the memory of the stories of Jesus and wait for his return, but when they looked into the world, the saw the widows among them being neglected – no doubt lonely, hungry, and forgotten. And the church adapted, appointing deacons – expanding prayer and ministry – more living stones building up the church. At the same time, others went out from the community of faith into the larger, surrounding community to do the works of God, reaching out to the lonely, hungry, and forgotten outside their own.
The Early Church described in our first reading today only had living stones with which to build and worked to let themselves be built into a spiritual house. We have “bricks and mortar” and have built a church of beauty and grandeur. Now each generation faces the challenge to maintain the “bricks and mortar” while we undertake the enduring evangelical mission to build with living stones. To grow in a way that the beauty of ministries and prayer are more enduring than the beauty and stone that surrounds us.
We are called to be like living stones, ….built into a spiritual house
So that in the wonderful light of Christ we see far more than the beauty of our stained glass windows. We see who we are: who we are called to become – living stones building the kingdom of God in ministry and worship. A royal and holy people called into the world, beyond these walls, beyond our memories, beyond ourselves – Ad majoram Dei gloriam. “For the greater glory of God.