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Food for the Poor Godspy.com: Faith at the Edge


John Murphy | 04.16.08


Open Doors at St. Stephen Martyr

Photo by Soldiers Media Center

I’m comfortably settled in DC at the church of Saint Stephen Martyr on Pennsylvania Ave, and my particular thanks go to Br. Hugh Vincent Dyer (a fellow Godspy contributor) for his generous hospitality. As I entered the parish office I received a warm welcome from Msgr. Filardi, the pastor, but could sense that my arrival was a shade anticlimactic. For just as the door closed behind me, I saw another arrival on a nearby TV screen: Pope Benedict was strolling across the tarmac towards President Bush, whose hand was outstretched in welcome. Oh well, so the pope stole my thunder.

St. Stephen Martyr is keeping its doors open 24 hours in celebration of the pope’s visit. The faithful can pray that the pope has a safe and fruitful journey, and the curious can come in and take a load off in one of the pews. But there’s another reason for the open-door policy, I think, something more fundamental.

As I strolled from the White House back to the church, I had a coffee craving. The only snag was that it was past eight in the evening and everything was closed: locked doors, lights off, chairs upturned on the tables. For someone walking alone in a new city this can be a strangely dispiriting sight. (If I’d had a craving for beer, then I could have taken heart – but drinking alone in a new city is even more dispiriting.) 

When I reached St. Stephen Martyr, the front door was wide open and the lights were on inside. There were a few folks scattered about the church: a woman sitting quietly in the back, gazing at the crucifix behind the altar, and a man kneeling in a pew farther up, absorbed in prayer. The sight was calming, comforting; a nice place to return to after a solitary twilight walk in an unfamiliar city.

The open door of the church reminded me of Benedict stretching his arms to the crowd when he got off the plane, a gesture of affirmation to the faithful and an invitation to those of goodwill to share in his message of hope. A woman I spoke to near the front of the church (her daughter is a grad student at nearby George Washington University) commented, “I can’t remember the last time a church was open all night. It’s kind of nice. I’m not Catholic, you know, but it’s kind of nice.”

Then she asked me what time the pope would be passing by tomorrow in the popemobile. Noon-ish, I told her, guessing. “I think we’ll come here to see him,” she said. “This seems like a good spot to do it from.”

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