On Friday, I recorded the following "Missionary Moment" for the SQPN-affiliated podcast Catholic Vitamins (the segment features Teresa Tomeo and went live yesterday). The theme for this Catholic Vitamin is "A – for Arms." That night, my husband came home with the news about the horrifying attack on movie-goers in Aurora, Colorado. It just so happened that, in my reflection, I had talked about the "arms" of God, the "arms" of lovers, parents and friends – and how sometimes people can "take up arms" against each other...
I dedicate this post to the victims, survivors and families of the Aurora massacre, and to all those across our nation and world grieving this tragic event. God's blessings on all.
Catholic Vitamins' Missionary Moment – A for Arms:
I once interviewed a man who sabotaged the work of a technician at a southern California lab. The man’s name was Mercedes, which means “mercies.” This Mercedes was not living up to his name.
Every day, he watched a fellow lab technician whistle and sing at work. That got on Mercedes' nerves. He was far from his family in Mexico, had long since left the Church, and was a bitter, angry person. Mercedes decided to do whatever he could to needle his co-worker. He would turn a screw. Snap a wire. Fiddle with the equipment, until it went down for first, a day, and then, a week.
Instead of blowing a fuse, the co-worker patiently dealt with the delays. He must have suspected something. He asked Mercedes to come with him to a prayer meeting at his Catholic church. By some miracle, Mercedes decided to go. He came out of that meeting a different person, longing for peace and opening his heart to God. He eventually quit the lab and joined a group of Catholic evangelists that helped reignite the faith at struggling churches.
Reflecting on this Catholic Vitamin "A for Arms," I first thought about the arms of God – how we’re called to rest in those arms each day. I thought about how the love of God flows out through people in our lives: about the arms of lovers who hold each other in marriage for 50 years or more...and the arms of a parent keeping a child secure. But then I thought about how we sometimes take up arms against each other, which had me remembering Mercedes.
Another story came to mind. In the year 2000, I spoke with a priest who served five missions scattered over 1,000 square miles. He had grown up in the Deep South and had taken a lot of grilling from his Baptist friends. They accused him of worshipping Mary and told him he was going to hell. But he grew strong under these attacks and pursued the priesthood. Through the years, he saw strides made in the area as locals better understood and accepted Catholics. But he daily lived the reality of the deep anti-Catholic prejudice that still existed. I’ll call this priest Father Raphael, just as I did in my original story for “Extension Magazine.” I need to protect his identity.
Back in 2000, he was regularly harassed as he prayed the rosary and walked the country roads. He would pray and walk just after sunrise. A local man would drive up in his Thunderbird and keep pace with him for 20 yards or so, give him some menacing greeting, and then tear off down the road. I told this story in a recent "Missionary Moments" piece for Catholic Vitamins. But there’s more to the story. Father Raphael kept walking and praying, which is incredible because of something he told me about his past.
About 20 years earlier, he had spent the day driving all over creation bringing the Eucharist to shut-ins. He was exhausted when he reached home. He heated up a bowl of left over stew and was just dipping his spoon in, when pounding sounded at his front door. It was dim outside and the priest couldn’t see much of the man’s face under the porch light, but he could see his wild eyes.
The visitor let forth a stream of abuse against the Catholic Church. He jumbled up conspiracy theories and accused Catholics of everything from trying to take over the world to being cannibals, because they ate the flesh and blood of Christ.
The man flew forward and started pounding his fists into Father Raphael’s face and stomach. The priest was in his mid-40’s and of average build. But he was so taken by surprise he couldn’t defend himself much. One last punch, and the stranger took off into the night.
Father Raphael now faced a dilemma. Should he report the attack to police? He had spent years building up trust and smoothing down anti-Catholic prejudice in town. He didn’t want a random act of violence to unleash some unholy war between Catholics and non-Catholics. So he prayed for his attacker and went to bed.
A week later, the stranger returned. When he found the rectory empty, he drove on to another town and found the pastor there at home. He shot and killed the priest, who also happened to be Father Raphael’s friend. Father Raphael cried when he told me this story. Still 20 years later, he was asking those questions that can drive a person crazy. What if I had called the police in the first place? What if they had arrested this man? My friend would still be alive.
Father could have stayed paralyzed by fear and depression. Especially when he started facing harassment 20 years later, as he did his rosary walks. But he told me he would keep on being faithful and continue his missionary work, even if a whole fleet of Thunderbirds started tailing him. That is supernatural. A sign of him running right into God’s arms for strength.
One last image. I interviewed Joseph Cardinal Bernardin right after his cancer returned, in October of 1995. The Cardinal was another Southern boy. He said he grew up thinking the entire world was Protestant because South Carolina Catholics made up little more than half of one percent of the population. But his father was an Italian stonecutter and his mother a devout seamstress, also from Italy, so he grew up strongly rooted in the Faith. When I asked him if he ever found himself running from God during his illness, being overtaken by bitterness or fear, he said this: “Fortunately, my faith is such that I ran toward, not away.” It’s an incredible image, of this scholarly, gentle man, running right into those arms of God.
There are the tender arms of lovers. The comforting arms of parents. The hearty embrace and clap on the back from a friend. There are the times when people take up arms against us. And then there are those all-powerful, infinitely-loving arms of God.
If you go to a concordance and look up the word "arm," there are 67 references of that word in Scripture, many referring to the saving power of God’s arm. Psalm 77 verse 14 says, “You are the God who works wonders; among the peoples you have made known your power. With your strong arm you redeemed your people."
Copyright Marianna Bartholomew 2012