I’ve been to Rome and I’ve stayed in Assisi. I’ve stood on the top of the Alps in Austria and swam in the crystal clear ocean of Mexico. I’ve prayed in churches all around the country of many different styles. There are certainly some amazing places in this world where God’s presence is all but tangible. But there is none like this place.
St. Anthony’s Church, Greenville, SC.
No, that’s not a punchline. While it may sound strange to put this small Catholic mission to the African American community in the same category as the other places I’ve listed, I couldn’t be more serious: in all of my life, I have never found a place where God’s presence is easier to see and feel. Really.
For a first-time visitor, someone who has no connection with the place, this might not be the case. Unlike St. Peter’s Basilica or the hills of Assisi, there is very little about this place that takes your breath away with its beauty. The church is old and in need of repairs, the grounds are fairly humble, and outside of a new elementary school, most everything is rather small and ordinary.
But what makes this place so holy is not the transcendent views or mind-blowing architecture, it is the people. Here, more than any place I have ever been, you will find a community that understands its call to the be a part of the mission of Jesus Christ. They are in tune with the needs around them and never hesitate to act in building up the kingdom. Whether it be repairing homes in their neighborhood for low-income housing, running a food pantry, educating underprivileged youth, praying for vocations, supporting college students, bringing in speakers for adult faith formation, or helping pregnant women, St. Anthony’s just leads the charge. Despite being a relatively small parish, they raise more money, engage in more ministries, show up to more events during the week, and pack a church better than congregations double their size.
To me, this is what holiness looks like.
When people come to St. Anthony’s, they can’t help but feel the energy of something special. It’s absolutely contagious. In my travels, I have seen many churches in this country, and it sort of goes without saying that congregations are a mix between the super-faithful and those “fulfilling an obligation.” I could be completely wrong, but I never sense a single person in the latter category at St. Anthony’s. No, in watching how people receive communion, seeing their faces during the homily, feeling the fullness of voice in their songs and the joy in their conversations, people come to St. Anthony’s because they have seen the power of the Holy Spirit at work and want to be a part of the mission. People just want to be there.
Which is why I go back. Every year, at least once. It is the place of my college education and where I found my vocation to the Franciscans, but it’s also the place where I am renewed. I go to remember the past, yes, but more importantly to rejuvenate myself for the future. In this community, I get a taste of the kingdom of heaven and am reminded of what is possible throughout the world. Oh how I wish the rest of the world were as on fire as this place! What a world it would be.
And so I share just a snippet of my trip, just a taste of my experience. While it may seem strange to the outsider, and this video may honestly not capture it at all, I truly believe that I was on pilgrimage last week.