He had me at ‘hello’
I would never pretend to be what you would call a “religious person” at all. I’ve known too many people who would legitimately fit that description to ever apply it to myself. That list is long, and starts with my parents, both of whom are now dead. They raised their five kids in the Catholic faith with varying degrees of success. My “Irish twin brother” Brian is 11 months older than I am, and we were both very comfortable being part of a group of boys with a bit of a reputation as hellraisers as we were growing up in the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Independence, Mo. On more than one occasion, parish priests had to visit our home for conferences with our parents to sort through trouble we’d made in either the church youth group or the boy scout troop. (I’ll leave out the particulars, as I’m sure Brian’s three kids would have an unhealthy interest in such details.)
I was educated in public schools until I went to college at Rockhurst College in Kansas City. That experience did very little to deepen whatever faith I had. The Jesuit priests who ran Rockhurst actually trained us to be skeptical and probing about everything, not to take life at face value and certainly not to organize our world view according to any intellectually untested set of platitudes. (So much of religion gets reduced to that “intellectually untested” level, which is why so many Jesuits get in hot water with Rome). Anyway, the best Jesuit professors I had taught me philosophy, political science and English literature. I don’t remember much about the theology classes we were required to complete.
As an adult, I didn’t go to church regularly. When I visited my folks from out of town — especially as they grew old and frail — I did enjoy taking them to Mass either at Nativity or to one of the bigger churches in the city. It was a way of feeling more connected to them by experiencing something with them that was deeply meaningful to them and which had nurtured them for their entire lives. And as they approached death, I from time to time would attend Mass in Orlando in order to pray for them and maintain that sense of connection with them and the church I grew up in from far away. They were both buried out of the Nativity church less than a year apart in 2006 and 2007. My most vivid memory from each of their funerals was the assembly of women of the Nativity Altar Society attending in large numbers. These white-haired women lined the center aisle like sentries at both funerals to say a final goodbye as we made our way out of the church and headed for the cemetery. In the context of my parents’ faith, that was almost equivalent to having a host of angels send them off to heaven.
The church I attend in Orlando (as something of an interloper) is called St. John Vianney Catholic Church. It is an oasis in the middle of one the rattiest stretches of road in town — an infamous corridor of high-crime, strip clubs and prostitution called South Orange Blossom Trail. But the congregation of St. John Vianney is something special. It is a diverse mix of people from across the economic spectrum and with origins from all over the world. There are Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, Jamaicans, South Americans, Africans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders with plenty more longtime Orlando white folks like me thrown in, and lots of tourists from out of town. The church orchestra and choir are first rate. Everyone dresses up in their finest, but it is not to show off or be on parade. It is because they respect the community they have built in this 50-year-old parish. St. John Vianney is what it is not because of the hierarchy and the rules of the Roman Catholic Church. It is what it is because of the spirit of its congregation. You can tell these are people who want to be in church, and who are not there because they feel they are required to be there or have some other ulterior motive. During Mass, there are few, if any, “thousand yard stares” of boredom, or people checking their wristwatches.
But as much as I love this church’s community, my favorite thing about St. John Vianney is its pastor: Rev. Paul J. Henry. He is an Irishman from the county of Derry in the north (just don’t call it “Londonderry” in the Protestant fashion, or you’re liable to get a punch in the nose from Father Paul). But he is not exactly the stereotypical Irish priest from central casting. He has neither the thicker-than-the-sod brogue of a Barry Fitzgerald nor the jaunty “let’s-teach-the-kids-how-to-box” mentality of Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley in Going My Way. Father Paul’s thoughtful demeanor and diction are more suggestive of the actor Liam Neeson, and he exhibits the kind of mind that can recognize and accommodate (if not sign on to) the world view of a James Joyce. He has a terrific sense of humor, and when he speaks he commands everyone’s attention. He talks to his parishoners, not at them. He gives sermons about life, not about rules or laws or the dance steps of angels on the heads of liturgical pins. The first time I heard Father Paul give a sermon a couple years ago, he included a variant of a famous quotation: “This church, the Catholic Church, is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Well to hear such a quote spoken from the Sunday pulpit at that point, as way more of a sinner than a saint for most of my life, I felt pretty welcome. I was sold on Father Paul and his church. So…he pretty much had me at ‘hello’.
I’m still not even sure whether I believe in God. It almost doesn’t matter to me whether He exists or not, or whether Heaven or Hell exist. (In the hospital, I even joked to a priest visiting my room that if he could bump me up to an aisle seat at center court in Purgatory, he’d have done a good day’s work). I’m more interested in the present life than the afterlife, anyway. And after a lifetime of attending (and not attending) various churches, I still believe there is one Christian teaching for living life here on Earth that is the single most important. And the essence of that teaching is: If you are able identify the weakest, ugliest, smelliest, worst-dressed, poorest, least articulate and most ignored or ridiculed person in any given room and then treat that person as if they will be the one who gets to decide whether you go to Heaven or Hell when you die, you’ll probably turn out to be a pretty decent human being.
For me, simply being in the presence of people who live their lives that way is a good enough reason to go to church on Sundays at St. John Vianney.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: I would like to thank the ladies of the Nativity of Mary Altar Society in Independence, Mo., and the women of the Ladies Bible Training Class at Maretburg Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky for sending me their cards and prayers. I also would like to thank my Mom’s “Holy Rollers” Daily Mass prayer group for their great card. With the Catholics and Baptists on my team, I’m thinking it’s going to be a pretty good season.