It’s Saturday morning and I’m helping my wife and daughters clean Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Little Italy. It would be purest folly for the church to hire cleaners when they can instead provide parishioners with an opportunity for charitable service, so I’m not complaining out loud. My namesake’s gospel includes a story in which a father asks two sons to go to work in the vineyard; the first says he will not but repents and goes to work, while the second says he will but never actually goes. There is no mention of the son who said yes and also obeyed but then bitched and moaned about it the entire time. Besides, it’s Lent, a time for Catholics to act like it.
My work wiping down the pews with Simple Green is sweaty and tedious but almost noiseless. Were I a better Christian, I could probably make it an occasion for prayer. My wife, however, is manning a vacuum cleaner that sends a mechanical howl into a space built to hold silence, sermons, and song. But what can you do? She’s vacuuming for the same reason I’m wiping: the house of God is a place for His people, and people are dirty even when they’re clean. They leave dead skin and dust wherever they go, the corruptible hoping to overcome corruption. (My daughter runs a duster over the statues of saints, the ones who managed it. There are many of them here.) Small wonder that there’s so much about good hygiene in the Mosaic law. Cleanliness really is next to godliness. It sure ain’t natural.
The howl of the vacuum blends with the whine of machinery slipping in through the open stained-glass window. Outside, Little Italy is finishing up its metamorphosis into a memorial of itself, and the church is no exception. Soon, there will be no carpet to vacuum. See, money makes everything new. I’m not a part of the grand restoration, just as I wasn’t part of the original construction. I’m just maintaining, noticing the tourists as they stop in and admire the painting of the Crucifixion up front. They also point to the Virgin Mary, arriving in heaven on the ceiling. But they don’t come in far enough to notice the Last Judgment in back.
But whatever else happens, the church is still a church, serving the unclean, untouristy souls that Christ said He came to save. Confessions have begun in the back under the Judgment, while a lector prepares for Mass below the Crucifixion. A heavyset man with matted hair has been here since I arrived; now he leaves, taking his huge backpack and two overstuffed grocery bags with him. A couple of developmentally disabled people wander about in sweats, while an aging, splendidly coiffed Italian in pressed jeans, bright white sneakers, and a close-fitting sportcoat sits and crosses himself rapidly, over and over.
“Thanks,” says an old man in passing as I start in on the last pew. “My pleasure,” I reply without thinking. Strangely, it is.