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Archive for June 15th, 2005

Part 3 of 3  [click here to read Part 1 ]

I didn’t trust this Pope. He was too charismatic, too attractive. The media was enthralled, never a good sign. Wasn’t the Antichrist supposed to be the darling of the World? Even Debbie’s reasons for wanting to see the Pope had more to do with his superstar status than anything else.

When we got off the Metro a few blocks from the Mall it was quickly apparent that I had left the Evangelical subculture I had immersed myself in and had entered a different, very Catholic, world, one familiar from my childhood but rendered strange by my long absence. All around me people were praying the rosary (I learned later that it was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary) and statues of Mary and crucifixes abounded. Buzzwords like "vain repetition" and "Mariolatry" and "graven images" ran through my head. There were also vendors everywhere selling cheap papal souvenirs, adding to my growing distaste.

One of them caught my eye. Something didn’t seem quite right about him, something about the hair sticking out from under his hat. Looking closely, I saw the telltale wooden beads, like a choker, around his neck: he was a Hare Krishna devotee, in disguise, bewigged and in plainclothes, fleecing the
Catholics.

Now, I had never gotten on well with "Krishnas", the sole exception being Paramahansa,  whom we called Ben, who shoed our horses when I lived in a commune
near the Krishna settlement of New Vrindavan in West Virginia some years before. He was a nice, easygoing guy, but I had always found the rest of them to be a nasty lot prone to being offensive in argument. I won’t go into the details of my confrontation with the guy, but I will tell you it ended with me becoming so angry over a crude remark he made about Debbie that I had my fist drawn back to
punch him, before coming to my senses.

This was totally humiliating. I had been  a pacifist for years, since early adolescence with one short lapse into a more revolutionary attitude, and I had just come within an inch of committing a violent act.

I felt horrible about myself, horrible about all the Catholic stuff going on around us, and horrible about being there. I really wasn’t ready for this.

Then the Mass began.

We were on the outer edge of a crowd of perhaps a couple of hundred thousand people. Pope John Paul II, who was either the Vicar of Christ or the Antichrist, was a distant figure in a green chasuble.

I was familiar with the Mass, of course, and had recently become reacquainted with it by listening to John Michael Talbot’s album The Lord’s Supper, which is Talbot’s rendition of the texts of the Liturgy.

I was listening, in a critical mode, in my misery, to the words of the prayers, and to the readings of the day. Nothing wrong with any of this, I thought glumly.

Then the Pope began his homily:

Dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, he began.

Delivered in his robust and thickly accented voice, this sounded more like a proclamation or a challenge than a greeting. This invocation of the name of Jesus Christ alerted me with its evangelical directness; he had my attention now.

In His dialogue with his listeners, Jesus was faced one day with an attempt by some Pharisees to get Him to endorse their current views regarding the nature of marriage. Jesus answered by reaffirming the teaching of Scripture: "At the beginning of creation God made them male and female; for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become one. They are no longer two but one in flesh. Therefore let no man separate what God has
joined."

My ears perked up. He is addressing a crowd of modern Americans and he’s going to preach against divorce?!

There was more:

I do not hesitate to proclaim before you and before the world that all human life- from the moment of conception and through all subsequent stages- is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God…If a person’s right to life is violated at the moment of in which he is first
conceived in his mother’s womb, an indirect blow is struck also at the whole of the moral order.

He went on.

The great danger for family life, in the midst of any society whose idols are pleasure, comfort, and independence, lies in the fact that people close their hearts and become selfish.

Whoa. He was talking like this to modern Americans?  Didn’t St Paul say something about false prophets in the last days tickling the ears of their listeners? But this man, with his strong voice, was tickling no one’s ears. "Pleasure, comfort and independence" pretty much summed up American idolatry.

I listened incredulously as he affirmed again the indissolubility of marriage and affirmed Catholic teaching against contraception, especially denouncing the limiting of family size out of love of comfort and material affluence. He said that children are more enriched by brothers and sisters than
by material goods.

He built up to a sort of crescendo, a prophetic litany of sorts:

And so, we will stand up every time that human life is threatened.

When the sacredness of life before birth is attacked, we will stand up and proclaim that no on ever has the authority to destroy unborn life.

When a child is described as a burden or is looked upon only as a means to satisfy an emotional need, we will stand up and insist that every child is a unique and unrepeatable gift, with a right to a loving and united family.

When the institution of marriage is abandoned to human selfishness or reduced to a temporary, conditional  arrangement that can be easily terminated, we will stand up and affirm the indissolubility of the marriage bond.

When the value of the family is threatened because of social and economic pressures, we will stand up and reaffirm that the family is necessary not only for the private good of every person, but also for the common good of every society, nation and state.

When freedom is used to dominate the weak, to squander natural resources and energy, and to deny basic necessities to people, we will stand up and reaffirm the demands of justice and social love.

I stood there like a man rudely awakened, a man transfixed. Surely the Antichrist would not speak like this. This man spoke with authority, and in my heart of hearts there was a sense of recognition. I knew by Whose authority he spoke.

Debbie eyed me nervously.

My mind raced to the logical conclusion: If John Paul is the Vicar of Christ, then the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ, and I had to be united with it. The way to do that, I knew, was sacramental Confession.

I argued back that I wasn’t ready for this, but the conclusion was inevitable. I recognized the feeling of being compelled by the Holy Spirit, a sort of tightening fire around the heart.

I responded with a challenge.

I hadn’t seen a priest all day; they were up around the altar, by the hundreds, to distribute communion to this vast crowd (American-style lay eucharistic ministers were not allowed at papal Masses). Okay, If You want me to do this you have to find me a priest. I cautiously looked over my shoulder. There, a few yards deep in the crowd, was a guy with a Roman
collar.

"I’ll be right back," I said to Debbie, who now looked thoroughly alarmed.

I walked up to him.

"Are you a Catholic priest?" I asked.

"No, I am a seminarian. Do you want to talk to a priest?"

There was my way out; God had failed to find me a priest. The seminarian was staring at me, and I had the distinct feeling that he was praying for me.

"All right," I heard myself saying.

He disappeared into the crowd and re-emerged a moment later with my priest in tow. I saw immediately why I hadn’t spotted him: he was tiny, a Vietnamese guy, about five feet tall.

"Yes?" he said.

"Father, I need to go to confession".

"Yes?"

"Well," I began, "it has been about twelve years since my last confession"
and I went on to broadly list my sins, "a lot" of this, "frequent" that.

When I was done he gave some brief words of advice and encouragement, then said "for your penance say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys."

Wow, I thought, all that sinning and all I got was three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys? Man, is God merciful!

I walked back to Debbie and told her what I had just done. Now she looked bewildered instead of alarmed.

For the rest of the Mass I was caught up in the Liturgy, and received my first valid Eucharist in a long time, consecrated by the Pope.

So. Now I was a Catholic once again. I still had a lot of work to do, doctrines to wrestle with, friends, now hostile, to answer to, but it all was done in light of the conviction I experienced that afternoon on the Mall, the conviction that the man John Paul, whom I would soon come to call John Paul the
Great, was the Vicar of Christ, the successor to St Peter.

Debbie and I would break up the next spring, over issues that had nothing to do with my return to the Church. Indeed, she soon entered the Church on her own and we remained friends for years.

I shortly discovered that once within the Church my journey had just begun, for the Catholic Church is rich in possibilities and a variety of spiritual paths within the One Way that is Christ.

Eventually I was brought to Byzantine worship and the painting of icons, which perfectly integrates my artistic and spiritual yearnings.

Through it all a love for John Paul has sustained me.

His death, rather than an experience of loss, has for me been one more of enrichment. This man, John Paul, whom I have long known and loved, now knows and loves me. He seems more my shepherd than ever.

Saint John Paul the Great, pray for us.

Daniel Nichols

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