This week, Pope Francis told pilgrims in St. Peter’s square not to lock up the churches. “Please, no armored doors in the Church, everything open,” he said.
Given recent security measures taken in Europe after the attacks in Paris, it’s possible he was telling parishes not to respond by locking their doors for security purposes. I’m sure he was making a larger statement, though.
As I hear this, I’m sent back to twenty years ago when my parish in the United States started locking the church doors in between Masses and Confession times. Fellow altar boys told me, “They’re locking it up because a bum was sleeping in the pews and drinking the Communion wine.”
Though I’m unsure of the actual reason, I clearly remember when the doors started to be locked. In high school, I longed to spend late evenings in the silence of the church. I recalled the words of Thomas Merton:
“Let there always be quiet, dark churches in which people can take refuge. Places where they can kneel in silence. Houses of God filled with his silent presence. There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least they can be still and breathe easily.”
Whether I wanted to pray the Rosary, read Scripture, or simply recover after a hard day, I longed for a church where I could “breathe easily.” My parish priest understood, and he would unlock the door to the chapel in the parish hall so that I could sit alone, in silence.
A few years later, I was living in Antigua, Guatemala. There, I found that the churches were always open. In the mornings, I could go for a run with La Merced Church as my destination. The large, yellow baroque church is always opened. Tourists take pictures, visitors light candles and pray, and adorers kneel in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
During the days, I could also walk into one of the many Catholic churches that fill the small Central American city.
Living in Ecuador, I am now facing a completely different situation. Churches and chapels are closed except for Sundays for Mass. In the historic part of town, some doors are opened, but gates block the doorways allowing only for a look in.
Of the twenty-something Catholic churches in the city, only two are regularly opened. One is situated in Turi, high on a hill overlooking the city. Because of its view, it’s a tourist destination and the church is always open.
The other is the cathedral, located in the heart of the tourist section of the city. The cathedral is beautiful and welcoming. Throughout the day, families light candles at altars, people pray at the tabernacle, and the pews are speckled with people who sit silently.
This church offers a place that is quiet and dark, a place where we can kneel in silence. It gives me a place to go when I “do not know how to pray,” as Merton says. It’s a place where I can sit peacefully.
Yet it’s not a church close to me. While I am surrounded by many other churches, I must travel to another part of a large city to find open doors.
I know there are reasons for the locked churches, but God’s people long for a place to sit in His presence. I hope the churches remain open and are not blocked by “armored doors.”