The Blessings of a Warm Welcome

I vividly recall my trepidation in anticipation of our first trip to Europe. My husband had finally found his Croatian cousins after a decades-long search, and he determined that the only appropriate end to this journey was to meet them. Little did I know that this trip would be one of the most cherished experiences of my life. Even more remarkable, when Mike’s family left us at the airport, it was I who promised that we would return one day. I’d become very fond of the Penić Cousins, and I couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing them again. Five years later, I’m happy to report that my fear of being confined in an airplane for eight hours has subsided. I attribute this change of heart to the welcoming people whom I met at the end of each flight. Our subsequent trips have deepened my appreciation of the gracious souls who’ve opened their hearts and homes to us.

Mike and I spent Sunday, September 11, 2011, in Essen, Germany. On this, our fourth morning in Germany, as had become our custom, we met Cousin Stjepan at the door of his flat one floor beneath ours. As we crossed the courtyard toward the sisters’ monastery for breakfast, Stjepan showed me ten fingers and remarked, “New York. Ten years ago.” He shook his head in dismay as he folded his hands behind his back to continue our walk. I was sorry not to be home to observe this tenth anniversary, and I was most grateful that dear Stjepan understood my melancholy. When we joined the sisters for our morning meal, it became obvious that they, too, appreciated the gravity of our experience that day ten years ago. Indeed, most of the world shared in our horror. It struck me that the hospitality extended to us during this trip exceeded everything we might have hoped for. We’d found good company with whom to share both our joys and our sorrows.

Later that morning, we walked to the church where Father Stjepan celebrates Mass in Croatian every Sunday. Though we were quite early, choir members filled the loft as altar servers filed into the sacristy. Since Mike and Father Stjepan had to dress for Mass, I became the official photographer for the occasion. I admit that I enjoyed capturing numerous candid photos. Those who noticed my approach smiled broadly, perhaps to insure this tourist that they were happy to cooperate. During Mass, Cousin Josip helped me to find my place in SLAVIMO BOGA, the Croatian hymnal. Since Mike’s attempts to learn Croatian have been fruitless, he prepared his homily in English. After each paragraph he spoke, Cousin Josip read the Croatian translation. Mike’s captive congregation smiled throughout. Those who spoke English made a point of seeing Mike after Mass to assure him that they enjoyed his homily and that Josip had translated accurately. In spite of dripping with nervous perspiration, Mike couldn’t help grinning appreciatively. When Mike returned to the sacristy, a dozen middle school students surrounded him to pose question after question about the United States. These Croatian teens, educated in Germany, were fluent in German and English as well as their native tongue. They spoke to Mike as though they’d known him forever -or was it his rock star persona? Either way, they listened intently, hopeful that they’d visit this country of ours one day. As we strolled back to our flat, I gave thanks for another warm welcome.

Since Cousin Stjepan doesn’t speak English, he’d arranged for us to be in the company of competent translators and tour guides throughout our trip. This afternoon, Stjepan enlisted a parishioner to give us a tour of the New Ruhr Museum, an Essen coal mine that has been meticulously preserved. Our guide, Josip, is a civil engineer who worked on this project and knows the facility inside and out. Though the tour was remarkable, the friendship we found in Josip and his family was even more so. After our tour, Josip drove us through his neighborhood and then took us to his home. There, Josip’s wife Spomenka and their daughters welcomed us in for a visit. Once again, Mike and I found ourselves at home-away-from-home.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 25:1-13), Jesus seems rather harsh toward the foolish bridesmaids who don’t have enough oil to greet an annoyingly late bridegroom. Biblical scholars tell us that those who are unprepared for the groom represent those of us who are unprepared for God’s unexpected gifts. The bridesmaids who carried extra oil represent those who are always ready to embrace what God has in store, full of hope and joy over what is to come. Throughout our travels, Mike and I have been blessed with many who’ve mistaken us for the Bridegroom whom we all hope to greet one day. Then again, perhaps it’s been no mistake after all. Perhaps these modern day bridesmaids see as Jesus does –beyond our imperfections to the precious Light within us all.

©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved

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