One of the special characteristics of Luke’s Gospel is his constant effort to balance examples and stories between men and women. Both Simeon and Anna the prophetess show up at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple (2:25-38). Women as well as men follow Jesus as he travels around the countryside proclaiming the Kingdom of God (8:1-3). In the parables of the Kingdom, Matthew and Luke make sure the man planting the mustard seed is paired with the woman putting yeast into her bread dough (13:2f; Mt 13:33).
About a month ago I was inspired to pay special tribute to the fine people, often anonymous and usually women, who keep tabs on most parish front office doors and phones. That effort has in turn moved me to add this grateful reflection on yet another member of most parish teams: the janitor.
The word itself, “janitor,” has a curious history: janua is the Latin word for the outer door of a home and janus is an archway from one space into another. Janus is also the personal name for the old Italian god, always pictured with two faces, looking in each direction … past and future, inward and outward.
We even have a month of the year formally dedicated to that deity, annually reminding us of our need to look both backward into the past, but also forward into the New Year.
Somehow, all of that background converges into the friendly fellow we call “the janitor.” He’s usually close to the door.
He knows what we did before, and instinctively knows what might work in the future.
Parish janitors are among the most wonderful, clever, handy, patient, creative, practical and kind members of any parish staff. I’ve met hundreds over the years.
They do almost everything that needs to be done around the parish facilities: unlock church doors at sunrise, wash and wax floors, shovel sidewalks in winter, mow the grass in summer, call the police after a break-in, pick up trash from the lawns and bushes, prepare for weddings and funerals, empty waste baskets, put up the “no parking” signs, keep restrooms clean and neat, fix malfunctioning door locks, unclog drains, keep the furnace going in February and the air conditioning units running smoothly in August, clean up messes made by sick kids, tighten screws, oil hinges, carry the ever-handy pliers or screwdrivers, replace light bulbs, provide an occasional jump start for dormant car batteries, deal with the inevitable cranks of every parish, oversee the repaving of the parking lot, know the location of all the keys, straighten pamphlet racks, clean the kitchen, deal with salespeople, replenish paper towel racks, mop the church floor after a rain storm or blizzard, vacuum the rugs … and smile, even when an aching back suggests otherwise!
They make sure that most parish equipment works well for yet another year. They only argue for replacements when absolutely necessary.
When they are willing to drop everything in order to attend to the urgent need of the moment … they remind me of God.
As a teenager still too young to qualify for a formal Racine city work permit, I washed and waxed classroom floors in my parish school; I painted corridors and bathrooms, often to the radio rhythm of the latest popular music of the day.
I remember being able to work on warm summer days in the coolness of the basement. The results had to be good enough to pass muster by the pastor, the principal and the returning teachers. Unfortunately, the buffed, shiny corridors only lasted a few days into September.
I learned to appreciate the janitors who tried to keep everything looking as new as the strained parish budget would allow … all year long.
We invariably take their skills for granted. The ancient Hebrew word for “wise” was hakam, basically meaning someone who knew how to do something very practical and who did it well.
I have always thought that janitors are very wise people; certainly the ones I have known over these many years have invariably been just that. Perhaps like the pastor on the team, and the secretary in the front office, a parish simply couldn’t get along with out them.
At the end of another summer, as parish events begin to swing into a more active mode of operation, and as school and catechetical programs begin again, janitors are the people behind the scenes who help make that happen.
August is the time to offer a word of appreciation to parish janitors. I tip my hat in genuine, enduring gratitude. The fellows with whom I am privileged to work these days are gentlemen of the highest caliber.