giftI spend a good deal of time writing about things that the Church does that rile my sensibilities. It is easy how someone who reads my blog may think that I don’t really like being Catholic – one could even ask why I even continue to hang on to a faith tradition that often causes me so much heartburn.

But while I admit an obsession with this quixotic effort to argue that the Church’s greatest challenges are rooted in things other than modernism or secularism, I am just as firm in my belief that any good in me (assuming some good does exist) is because of my Catholic background.

Which brings me to the topic of ThanksGifting. (No – it’s not misspelled).

We are in the season between Thanksgiving, where we give thanks to all we have received, and Christmas, a season where we mark Jesus’ birth and accommodate the practice of gift-giving as a nod to more secular traditions.

I personally think we would be well-served if we merged the two holidays into one month-long season of ‘ThanksGifting’. Rather than concluding our expressions of gratitude with the end of Turkey Day football, I suggest we spend an entire month reflecting on the gifts we have received, the gifts made possible by our faith and our religious tradition. It may even make us better gift givers if we think of the most important gifts we’ve received.

So for my part, here is my first ThanksGifting testimony.

I give thanks for the gift of Sister Mary Thaddeus’ laughter.

I attended a Catholic elementary school, Queen of Martyrs school, located outside of Buffalo. It was primarily staffed by the Felician Sisters who, at that time, wore the very traditional habits that exposed only their face and hands (and the occasional handkerchief they used to stuff up their sleeves). Contrary to popular myth, we were never smacked with rulers nor pummeled by those white cords they had with them. But, they always LOOKED like they wanted to be tested – wanted some wisecracking kid to make one false move that would result in a premature visit to the hereafter.

All I knew was that I had to keep on the straight and narrow – basically, staying out of their way in order to survive and make it to high school. I never really knew anything about the nuns who taught me; I never really thought they were ‘real people’ for that matter – they were nuns – ‘sisters of Christ’…. and not to be toyed with.

That all changed one spring day of the school picnic held at the nearby town park. There, on a warm, sunny afternoon, we heard this shriek of laughter from a nearby grove. There, as we watched in amazement, was Sr. Mary Thaddeus riding a bicycle down a hill, heading towards a picnic table loaded with cans of Vernor’s ginger ale and a table full of Hostess SnoBalls (those round, pink spongy cupcakes filled with creme) . She successfully avoided the picnic table – but continued this deep, genuine belly laugh as she continued down the hill and rode into the distance (yes, she did later return to her duties).

I didn’t think any nuns knew how to ride a bicycle.

It may have been the logic of a child at work, but after seeing a laughing nun on a bicycle, I really saw the religious women who taught me as something more than a faces framed by white linen. While I certainly continued to ‘toe the line’ in class (most of the time), I no longer was afraid to ask the nuns questions about my faith and my religion — Sr. Thaddeus’ laughter made the nuns in my school more approachable – even when I pushed the boundaries with my questions. Yes, I certainly respected the nuns (they still had those cords), but Sr. Thaddeus’ laughter showed me a human side that spoke to their roles as teachers and mentors. And as these nuns became more human in my eyes, I feared less, and learned more.

Thank you Sr. Thaddeus, wherever you are.

I give thanks to Mr. ‘Woj’ for throwing me the ball.

There is nothing that an overweight high school kid fears more than the thought of gym class. The prospect of changing clothes in a locker room where the other guys weigh 60% of your body weight is enough to make one begin sweating two class periods before gym (as if sitting through pre-calculus itself wasn’t enough to make one sweat).

I was one such student at St. Mary’s HIgh School in Lancaster, NY. During my early years at that school, I was a dweeby little chunkster surrounded by guys who excelled at basketball, football, baseball, dodgeball, and almost any other kind of sport that involved physical skill. Back then, gym class consisted of taking up teams and playing any of the aforementioned sports. My job was to roll into a corner, lie low and not get in the way. It worked most of the time.

During our class’ football games, the gym teacher, ‘Mr. Woj’, coach of almost any activity that involved smelly clothes, served as quarterback. On one chilly day, my team had the ball on the opponent’s 20 yard line and I was told to line up as a receiver on the left end. I went as far away from the center as I could, almost reaching the sideline. The ball was snapped, and I meandered into the end zone – of course, no one was covering me because I was, well, inept.

You can probably guess what happened next – as I was standing in the end zone, reflecting on the bad grade I received in pre-calculus, I saw Mr. Woj heave the ball in my direction. It was nothing less than a Charlie Brown episode. ‘He threw me the ball!’ I remembered thinking, ‘What is that man thinking?’. It may have been a football, but as it approached, it grew to the size of Halley’s Comet – approaching at supersonic speeds. I briefly thought of ducking to get out of the way, but my competitive spirit took hold, I jumped and winced slightly as I felt the ball slam into my chest.

Truth be told, I don’t even remember if I held onto the ball. I’d like to think that I did, because I don’t remember getting mugged by my teammates afterwards. Circumstantial evidence of success perhaps, but I’ll take it.

What was important was that someone actually threw me the ball. Someone expected me to catch it.  Just having someone do that meant more than an ‘A’ in pre-calc. I never, ever again thought that my role was to ‘hide’ during gym class, and during any other school activity, for that matter. When Mr. Woj threw me the ball, it was as though he was saying that there will come times that I will be asked to contribute to something, regardless of my abilities or shortcomings. When Mr. Woj threw me the ball, he gave me a gift that told me that my days of hiding were over.

As difficult as high school was, there were many days like that at St. Mary’s. In many ways, it was no different than any other high school with the challenges associated with an uncontrollable herd of pre-adults. But most of the time, St. Mary’s teachers reminded us of life’s (of God’s) expectations of us – that we were expected to contribute our talents and skills in service to the greater good.

And when God throws you the ball, you don’t duck.

Thank you Mr. Woj, wherever you are.

I give thanks to the St. Joseph’s University Parish community for a gift that kept me in the flock.

My adulthood was generally a time a great challenge from the perspective of my faith. I found that I had so many questions but so few answers from the parish priests I encountered. I have always viewed my faith as less a practice of obedience and more a journey of exploration So it should be no surprise that I eventually felt that I no longer fit in the Catholic family, and gave serious thought to leaving.

At the darkest time of this period, a neighbor suggested a visit to St. Joseph’s University Parish in Buffalo. I had nothing to lose – so one Sunday I chose to see what that church had to offer.

The music minister at that time was one Harold Harden – and he and his choir did this bluesy rendition of ‘Taste and See’ that stopped my retreat from faith dead in its tracks. True, the Mass isn’t supposed to be ‘entertainment’, but different people need to be reached in different ways. And on the day I walked into St. Joe’s, God found my weak spot in music.

The liturgy at St. Joe’s also featured homilies that were devoid of ‘theo-babble’; the words delivered from that pulpit made the gospel real and its message relevant. The message was consistent – never judgmental – but always delivering a challenge to make the gospel’s promise something real though service and ministry.

My time at St. Joseph’s didn’t completely ‘fix’ my problems of faith, but that parish gave me a gift that I needed most at that time – St. Joe’s gave me a reason to stay in the game.

Thank you St. Joseph’s (and Harold, wherever you are).

I give thanks to ‘Jon D’ and my Richmond faith community for the gift of acceptance.

I mentioned that my stay at St. Joe’s managed to ‘stop the bleeding’ in terms of my faith journey. But my struggles with faith still continued as I tried to reconcile my questioning nature with my faith’s emphasis on loyalty to teachings that I frankly did not understand.

A couple of years ago, while leaving Mass at my current parish in Richmond, VA, my glance was caught by of one of those many special-event recruiters that lie in wait for unsuspecting prey who wander into their path.

Jon D’s package was the Christ Renews His Parish retreat, and in a moment of weakness, I agreed to participate, if for no other reason, to get past him and on my way to Applebee’s.

During the CRHP retreat, we were invited to open any page of the New Testament and to consider if the reading had any relevance in our personal lives.

I opened the book to a random chapter, looked down, and saw John, chapter 20. I read about doubting Thomas.

Now some folks may say that this miracle should teach me to never doubt (“Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”). But for some reason, that’s not the message I felt – I don’t know where it came from, but I honestly sensed that somewhere, someone said to me, “You are who you are – don’t worry about it. You’re still here, and that is all that matters.”

The gift I received that weekend is a gift of acceptance of who I am. I now understand that even the best of us sometimes find ourselves wrestling with God. Jacob did it (and things turned out pretty good for him), Thomas questioned (and he ended up a martyred saint), and even St. Thomas Aquinas spent time challenging St. Augustine’s writings. It looks as though I’m not alone in wondering ‘why and how’ – even within the framework of Catholicism. And that gift gives me comfort.

Thank you Jon D – and all my faith buddies in Richmond.

**********

So there it is. As much as I think and write about the challenges facing Catholicism of the modern world, I still believe in giving thanks to those who helped form me – those folks who delivered messages through the institutions built and supported by our Church.

Thank you to those who taught me to laugh with those who I once feared, who taught me that God has expectations from which I cannot hide, who taught me that the gospel is relevant when put into practice, and to those who taught me that while wrestling with God is OK, walking away from the contest is not.

Happy ThanksGifting to all.


References:
Genesis: 32 22-32
John: 20 24-29
Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologica

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