By Maureen Smith
How do you measure a whole chapter of your life? In liturgical events, memories, miles on a two-lane road through the Delta? I am not sure, but I can say I am full to the brim with gratitude for my time in Mississippi. By the time this column is printed, my family and I will be packing for our move back to my hometown of Atlanta to be closer to family. As I cycled through a series of “lasts” (last day of school, last parish supper, last Mississippi Catholic) I began to wonder how I could possibly put into context our time in the Magnolia state.
I have attended probably hundreds of Masses, liturgies and devotions here — each with its own character and cultural overtones. I have a new appreciation for the catholic nature of the Catholic Church thanks to colorful Choctaw dresses, soulful and overpowering gospel music, flower-strewn Guadalupe processions and regal traditional services. All are Catholic and heart-felt and all come from such diverse and beautiful communities. At each Mass I received the same Body of Christ. At each celebration I had the opportunity to be touched by the same Holy Spirit.
Most gatherings included a post-liturgy reception. Perhaps I should measure my tenure in the number of homemade pimento cheese finger sandwiches or tamales I have enjoyed. I never went home hungry and was often offered a box to take to my family. Mississippians are generous with their food. If, as they say, food is love, I am much loved.
Maybe I should account for my days in photographs. I must have taken thousands upon thousands of frames here. I am, by nature, an introvert. Walking into any event – even a liturgy — by myself takes energy and courage. I am grateful I had a camera I could use as a conversation piece. I keep in my heart some truly spectacular images of the people of God celebrating their faith and one another.
Surely I should factor into my accounting the people. Not only am I blessed to work in the chancery with a bishop I admire, but an entire staff of passionate, lovely people. Add to that a plethora of amazing pastors, parish administrators, educators, catechists and volunteers.
I was spoiled in our last home where we could go to any number of Masses from Saturday afternoon into Sunday evening. Not ready for Mass yet? Just hit the next one. Here in Mississippi, I am inspired by the communities where the people keep their faith alive week after week in the face of many obstacles. Some of you don’t even have Mass every week, but you still keep the Real Presence alive in your communities. I believe I have met true disciples. One of the things I have tried to do faithfully is tell your stories.
At the end of this adventure, I suppose I leave with a treasure of stories. We are all connected to the story of salvation so every time you share some story of your faith, joy or loss, I feel as if we are all connected a little more.
Some of your stories lifted me up and renewed my faith. Others brought me to tears. I witnessed the story of how the family of a murdered religious sister forgave her killer and embraced his family. As I left the memorial Mass for Sisters Paula Merrill and Margaret Held, I ran smack dab into a rainbow stretched across the sky in downtown Jackson. A reminder of God’s steadfast love. A powerful message on a dark day.
I heard the story of a man who tried to race a tornado across Tupelo to get back to his family in their store. They were locked in their walk-in freezer, safe from the winds that literally ripped his car apart with him in it, but he survived.
I spoke with the mother of a baby who was rescued from a freezing creek. That child was trapped in a crashed car under water for ten minutes, but suffered no long-term damage thanks to bystanders who pulled her out and prayed over her while they did CPR. Even her doctors called it a miracle.
I heard some less extraordinary stories as well. Roof repairs and picnics; weddings, funerals and passion plays – the day-to-day work of the local church. All still miracles, all still stories worth telling.
If you ever told me your story and let me share it with the rest of the diocese, thank you. If you ever welcomed me to an event at your parish or school, thank you. I always felt loved and affirmed while I was on the road.
If I ever offended you, please forgive me. I can truly say I wish you the peace of Christ.
I will never be able to adequately measure the last seven years. All I can do is pour out my gratitude in a measure of words. I am, in my heart and in my soul, truly grateful for all the blessings and lessons of Mississippi.
(Maureen Smith was the Director of Communications for the Diocese of Jackson and a member of Jackson St. Richard Parish.)