It was the very end of a retreat for Christian men. Technically, the retreat was over and I was coming off a high I had not felt in years. God had showered me with so many blessings in this short weekend retreat and I thought, “there can't possibly be any more for God to bless me with at this moment...I can't possibly be blessed any more than this.”
I was wrong. God gave to me one last blessing before my wife and I, kids in tow, headed home that afternoon. And it is a blessing like I have never received before, and likely never will again.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” On the retreat, I experienced what this type of spiritual poverty is. It isn't the poverty of having “zero spiritual life”...but one of emptiness, one of need. It is that poverty that says, “I have nothing to offer except what God gives me, and I need God to fill me.” Experiencing this was wonderful. It helped me see the areas in my life where I need to let God fill me up before I try to be a light for others. It was this blessing that helped me resolve to read the Scriptures before I even eat breakfast, realizing that the soul deserves its food, and the soul is more important to feed than the body. I was blessed by God with a poor spirit.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” I've always considered myself to be meek and humble of heart, and I believe most people who know me would say the same. But on this retreat I had the pleasure of listening to a man spill out his heart to us about pride (among other things). It was in hearing his words that I could recognize pride in myself, and could offer that to God in exchange for humility and meekness. God not only blessed me with meekness of heart, but He did it in that wonderfully healing way that only God can do. I had again been blessed.
“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I mourned on this retreat. I wept bitterly. I cried my heart out. I cried for loss; I cried for joy; I mourned over my sins and failures, and wept as the Spirit came rushing over me to forgive and heal me. I felt comforted in a way that I had never felt before. The Spirit moved so powerfully over me that it was difficult, and even impossible at one point, to prevent myself from completely breaking down and weeping with tears of joy, relief, love, and awe. I grabbed the nearest man to me, one I now consider a friend and true brother in Christ, and bawled my eyes out in his arms as He held me and comforted me; much in the way I believe Christ would have. I was truly blessed.
“Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall have their fill. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” I was moved, during a particular talk, with a desire to see things “right”; to evaluate my behaviour and demand justice of myself; to right what I had done wrong. The speaker made a powerful confession to us to show us how God had forgiven him and how he was able to forgive himself. He was met with mercy from us, and understanding, and compassion, and an awareness that every one of us there had a need to evaluate our own lives for such sins. Though I had confessed my sins to God, and to a Priest in Reconciliation, I wanted to use myself as an example. I confessed it to my Christian brothers, demanding of myself that righteousness be upheld. And behold, I was shown mercy. I was filled with love, mercy, the support of my brothers, and the sweeping power of the Holy Spirit healing me of the stains left behind from my forgiven sins. It was as though I were on the brink of suffering the punishment that David suffered for his forgiven sin in 2 Samuel 12:13-14, only to be freed from that temporal punishment by a God who had more good to offer that I could ever imagine. Again, I was blessed.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I won't claim to be pure in heart. But on this retreat I believe I came close, and I know God gave me the blessing of having purity, even if only for the briefest moment. I made a good confession, was absolved, completed my penance, and for at least a moment, I wanted nothing other than God, and to please Him. I won't claim I saw Him visually, but I believe I saw Him in others, and I know I felt His Presence. I was blessed.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice's sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you and speak all that is evil against you falsely for My sake; be glad and rejoice for your reward is very great in Heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you.”
This is where my final blessing comes in. As the men who were on the retreat left the church at the end of the celebration of Mass, we gathered just outside the doors to give hugs and handshakes and to wait for our families who were soon to be exiting through the same doors. There was a grand reception waiting where we would mingle and greet and introduce our families to our new brothers in Christ. There was a Christian ecumenism like I had not before witnessed. Baptists (one was even a Pastor at the local Baptist church), Methodists, at least one non-Denominational, and Catholics; we all gathered on this retreat to share our Faith and grow together in Christ, and were about to share our joys with our respective families together. It was wonderful. It was blessed. God was still pouring out the blessings.
And then I saw her. My wonderful wife had finally exited the Church with our four beautiful children. I could see her eyes searching for mine, and I made my way, swimming through a sea of people going in the opposite direction, to meet her and hold her and kiss her, and hold our children. It had been a blessed weekend, but I missed them dearly and longed to hold them close; and besides, being reunited was a whole new blessing in itself. But this wasn't the final blessing God would give me on this retreat.
You see, my wife was obviously upset about something. As soon as I reached her to hold her, and to comfort her for the long weekend she spent caring for our children without the benefit of her husband to help out while I was away being showered with God's blessings, I could tell something was wrong. “Who is that man…?” I recognized him as a prominent person in this particular Parish and told her who he was. “He walked past me and...”, her eyes now welling with tears of what would be an undeserved shame, “...looked back and forth at [our eight-year-old daughter] and me and gave us a disgusted look, shook his head in disgust, and then turned away [to exit the Church]”.
My wife was beside herself in confusion, and I was now as well. Why had this Christian man, a well-respected member of this Parish, who so lovingly seemed to accept ALL Christians as his brethren so shortly before in that Mass celebration, looked upon my family in disgust? What had my wife and daughter done to earn such a shaming as this?
I walked my wife further toward the reception hall and continued inside as we talked about it and I made sure I understood exactly what had happened. There seemed to be more questions than answers. We simply could not understand what would have evoked such a response of disgust from this man towards my wife [the wife of a retreat member who was being raised and praised in that very Mass just minutes before] and our children. I was dumbfounded.
We saw him outside the reception hall a few moments later and I decided I would ask him what had happened and see where there might be a misunderstanding. I waited until he had wrapped up a conversation with some other people and approached him slowly, and as they began to turn away I calmly shook his hand and we exchanged smiles. I asked him if I might visit with him for a moment as I held his hand in mine. No sooner than I had muttered those words, he saw my wife standing behind me and recognized her. “NO!” In only the very first word he spoke, he was already yelling, and began to shake in anger. “NO, I'm not dealing with you!” He turned briefly, and then back again. Perhaps he could see the bewildered look on my face, trying to figure out what he meant by that statement. He said to clarify, “I'm a Catholic! I don’t deal with non-Catholics!”
At that moment, two things registered in my head. 1) He was visibly upset. 2) He did not think I was a Catholic and, for that reason, he did not want to “deal with [me]”. I thought perhaps he must have confused us as being “SSPX”. And in this light it started to make sense. You see, SSPX members (a schismatic group that broke from the Church after Vatican II) wear veils and kneel for Communion. And as a matter of coincidence, my wife also wears a chapel veil and we do also kneel for Communion. Though a true “SSPX'er” would never have been seen in a Mass at a Church such as what we were at this day, I felt that he must certainly have mistaken us. “Oh, [Sir], we aren't SSPX or anything like that, we are Roman Catholics.” I said it with nearly a sigh of relief, believing I had discovered what had upset him and thus diffused the situation.
I was not even close. What happened afterwards was almost a blur. It was surreal and happened much faster than it seemed, and much faster than I can write it down. This is how I remember it:
“NO, you disobey the Roman Missal [GIRM] and are Protestants!! You are NOT Catholic!”
“But, [Sir], I assure you we are Catholic.”
“NO! You are DISOBEDEINT and are Protestant!”
“[Sir], can you please show me in the Missal where we disobeyed?”
At this point I realized I was not going to get a direct answer, at least not in this conversation, for why he looked upon my wife and child in such a manner as he did. I would have to hope for a subsequent opportunity to allow him to reconcile with us for that. So, I focused on what appeared to be his major concern…being “disobedient” and thereby “Protestant”. He continued:
“How dare you come to my Church to challenge me?! This is MY Parish. Those people [who kneel for Communion and wear veils] can go to [name of nearby town with Latin Mass] for that!” He went on, yelling mostly at my wife while refusing to look at me directly unless I stepped in front of him [which was a constant shift as he and she moved about], explaining that the GIRM says we “must stand for Communion” and that by kneeling we “are disobedient and Protestants”. I asked him to support his claim so that I could see my error:
“[Sir], please, I only want to understand. Please show me where we disobeyed.”
At this point, he was no longer looking at me or listening much to me. He was right up in my wife's face pointing at her and yelling at her. She told me later that she was seriously afraid that he was going to strike out and hit her.
He continued rebuking us for kneeling for Communion and for her wearing a veil. My wife asked him, “but haven't you heard what Cardinal Arinze said [about receiving Christ while kneeling]?” He retorted with a half-true misrepresentation of what the Cardinal had said regarding the receiving of Christ in the Eucharist, but that was only a small matter at this point. At this point, we had been publicly accused of disobedience to the Church and being Protestant despite our witness to the contrary. And we had not even begun to discuss his behaviour of looking at my wife and children in the disgusting and shameful manner in which he did.
About this time, our 8 year old daughter who had been standing by began to weep profusely. The man was shaking uncontrollably and yelling at my wife and me, turning red, and looked as though he might blow at any moment. I gently pushed my wife back and calmly assured the man that we were really Catholic and were not aware of any disobedience we had done and asked earnestly if he could guide us to where we had disobeyed. He looked at our daughter who was now sobbing loudly. “Look at what you're doing to your children!!! This is CHILD ABUSE!!”
I wasn't sure if he meant that wearing a veil out of reverence to our Lord during Mass, and kneeling before Him to receive Him in the Eucharist, was “child abuse”...or if he meant “making our daughter cry” in this situation was abuse. If it was the latter, I agreed, and I calmly pointed out to him, asking, “But [Sir], who has lost their temper here?” The suggestion I made was a powerful one...that it was he, not we, that caused our daughter to become upset. He stepped back and for the first time stopped yelling, looked nearly ashamed for a brief moment [or maybe a fraction of a moment]. As he stepped back to process my question, my wife had made a near-simultaneous observation, “But you don't even know us [to be calling us Protestant]”
If he did have a brief moment of reflection, it quickly ended. “I don't care! How dare you come here dressed like Muslims?! Get out!”
In a final plea, and as softly as I could manage and still allow him to hear me over his yelling, I reaffirmed, “I'm looking for your guidance, [Sir]. Please.”
“You are NOT here to seek my guidance! I'm a Catholic and I don't deal with non-Catholics! Get out of here and go practice your witchcraft!! How dare you come here??”
Well, to the last question, I came because I was on a retreat and the final part of the retreat was Mass at this Parish. I didn't tell that to him because I believed it had gotten to a point where further conversation would be unfruitful and possibly damaging to his reputation, as people were beginning to take notice. I kept my mouth shut and he turned and left, muttering things as he went that I can't repeat...mainly because I didn't hear them all and don't want to take them out of context. He made it clear we were not welcome because of our “kneeling” and veils, which he called “dress[ing] like Muslims”. (There's some irony in that, because my wife was wearing a knee-length skirt and a blouse that, for a Muslim, scandalously exposed her elbows, wrists, and collarbone to show the Crucifix around her neck. And the fact that her veil barely covered her hair at all would have rendered it useless to any Muslim, expect perhaps as a handkerchief.)
I approached the Pastor of the parish who had just come out of the church and talked to him about it. He danced around the issue, gave some excuse for the other man about how he is set in his ways, said not to take it too personal, and then changed the subject to how the retreat went. “Great, up until now.” I smiled and shook his hand and went to let the Deacon know, in case anyone had overheard and approached him about it. Then I saw the Parochial Vicar of the parish, who had served on the retreat as our Spiritual Director, and let him know as well. He offered some comforting words, but it didn’t heal the wounds. He did at least address the charge of disobedience and affirmed that we were not “Protestant”. That moment felt rather sad, as we tried to make light conversation with these men I had just grown together with on the retreat, while my wife choked back tears and tried to laugh and smile...tears running down her face at the humiliation, degradation, false accusation, cruelty, and abuse of that man; and the seeming indifference of everyone who may have witnessed it. We stayed as long as we could, and then we simply knew it was time to leave this place where we knew we could never be welcomed back because of the words spoken to us, “get out of here...you aren't welcome here...”
I was floored in a way. But in another way I was not. I felt irrationally calm, still swimming in that warm bath of love and emotion the Spirit had filled me with. In fact, the whole time I was speaking with the man, I only felt calm and peace, even though I knew in my head that things were not calm or peaceful. It was as though God was walking me through another part of the retreat that He had decided was not over yet for me.
I had never experienced such hatred toward myself or my spouse. It's come close before, but this was a whole different level. And though I was completely at peace, I was dumbfounded. I didn't know what to make of it. I became confused. God had blessed me so much on this retreat, and then decided to end it for me in THIS WAY?! Why? What was this supposed to mean? Did God want to bring me down from the “high” He had given me? Certainly that could not have been it, because I still felt “high”...I still felt blessed. What was this?
I got my answer about half way home. My wife, though tear-stained and wet eyes, looked at me and said, “...blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you and speak all that is evil against you falsely for My sake; be glad and rejoice for your reward is very great in Heaven.” Then it hit me: God was giving me yet ANOTHER blessing. He had blessed me SO MUCH on that retreat, but He was showing me MORE ways He could bless me. And not only did we suffer this evil from just any man, but from a man who is looked up to and well-respected at this Parish. God made sure we felt the ultimate let-down and ultimate form of false accusations and hateful speech by ensuring that it came from a man we should have been able to trust.
In that exchange with this man, I found myself as a peacemaker in trying to defuse the situation, calm him, and seek his point of view so that I could understand him. I had been blessed. In the persecution for our choice to worship Christ with the most reverent mannerism we have known, wherever we are, my wife and I had both been blessed. In the man’s reviling and publicly spoken words of hatred and false accusations of disobedience, child-abuse, Islam, and witchcraft, we had been blessed. God had given me His final blessing through this man, in the most unlikely manner I could have imagined. God was giving me His “final blessing” of my retreat experience...and He was including my wife in it. I was getting to share my blessings with her from my retreat. We were truly blessed.
You are probably asking yourself right now why I didn’t knock this man down, or at least threaten him, or rebuke him sternly instead of trying the “nice-guy” approach there. You might be wondering why the Pastor and Spiritual Director and the Deacon didn’t do much about it. It wasn’t because I was afraid. Normally I would have been, but being so filled with Christ’s Spirit on the retreat, I had no fear when I was speaking with him...none at all…and that’s rare for me. I had only assurance and confidence. It also wasn’t because I pitied him. I do pity him, but at that moment I was more confused than anything else, and pity was not one of my emotions at that time. It also was not because I didn’t want to hold him accountable. In fact, the whole purpose of approaching him was to hold him accountable for what he had done, and I still would like him to be accountable for what he did and how he treated us. The reason I was so patient and tolerant of him was because I looked up to him as a spiritual guide, and kept hoping he would begin to come around and snap out of the rage he was in. You see, he was a Priest. [You can replace “Sir” with “Father” and get a better idea of our conversation.] And not just any Priest, but a well-respected Priest who had been given special recommendations by his Bishop, titled as Reverend Monsignor, and was well respected and loved by his parishioners as “one of the best Priests in the Diocese”. He is the Vicar General of the entire Diocese and has his residence at the rectory of that parish. And if that weren’t enough to be Reverend Monsignor, Vicar General in the Diocese, I would later discover that he is a member of the Diocese’s Tribunal as the Promoter of Justice and staff Psychologist.
In all my life of catechesis, the one thing I learned early and held fast to was, “never attack a Priest”. I even took a voluntary vow, twice, to protect Priests and pray for them, no matter what. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that a Priest, a Reverend Monsignor who is Vicar General and Promoter of Justice for an entire Diocese, would attack US! I’ll repeat this sentence: God made sure we felt the ultimate let-down and ultimate form of false accusations and hateful speech by ensuring that it came from a man we should have been able to trust; a man who, in his Priestly duties while administering the Sacraments, is acting in Persona Christi; a man who was supposed to represent Jesus Christ as an example for ALL.
If you have never heard the saying, “Pray for Priests!”, now you have. And you should do it often. It’s easy to forget that they are real men with real men’s temptations and inclinations to sin. While a Priest is held to a higher standard as the example we are to follow, we must remember that he is still a man. I do look to him to provide the example when it comes to reconciling with my wife and me over this. I don’t know what will ever come of this situation or if it will ever be resolved. It’s in God’s Hands now and I hope for the best and will do my part to make it work. What I DO know is this: on this particular retreat, I had been truly, and fully, and finally blessed.
Something that did not occur to me to ask this Priest until later: If I, as a Catholic who believes in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, would die for the Host [and I would], how is it that anyone would take issue with my choice to kneel for Him?
As an afterthought, you might be wondering what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) says about kneeling or standing for Communion. In part 160 of the GIRM, edited and re-issued in 2010 or 2011 by the U.S. Bishops, we read: “The norm established for the Dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling." (GIRM 160, 2011 ed., emphasis mine). You’ll notice nothing at all is said about a requirement to stand, or to do as everyone else does, or to request pastoral counsel about it, or that choosing to kneel is “disobedient” or makes one a “non-Catholic”.
You may also be wondering if I am teetering on the edge of “detraction” by revealing what I have revealed. In paragraph 2477 of the Catechism, we read: “Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbour [this Priest did this against my wife and me] ; of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them [if what this Priest said about our errors was true, he also committed this sin against us by his public rebuke]; of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them. [and he committed this sin against us as well]” You’ll notice that the Priest who committed these offenses, as well as his offenses against charity, made them publicly, with an audience standing outside a busy reception hall with people walking back and forth. So, if anyone knows who it is, it’s because they witnessed it. So, I have not revealed anything that was not already known. There is also the issue of “objectively valid reason”. What this Priest did was outright religious bigotry, discrimination, and verbal abuse. Protecting others from such abuse is an objectively valid reason, so even if I reveal his name and parish, I am still within the bounds of objective moral reason and, in fact, am obliged per natural moral law to protect any person from suffering such abuse if my conscience obliges me to reveal this (cf. CCC 1954-1960, 1776-1802, especially 1787).