A year ago I was on a plane to Rome hoping the seat next to me would remain empty for the overnight flight when a guy my age came down the aisle. He was eying that empty seat, so I knew my hope for extra room would go unfulfilled. I also knew it was going to be an interesting flight: The guy was wearing a Roman collar.
He hoisted his carry-on in the overhead bin and slid past me to the window seat. We exchanged greetings, and he pre-fixed his name with “brother.” That threw me for a loop, since he was in clerics, not a habit.
After a few seconds, I asked, “So, are you a priest or deacon or what?”
He shifted a bit, and I could tell by his eyes he was carefully picking his words. He was likely gearing up for a conversation he probably had often, where he would explain his vocation to a misunderstanding outsider who then may or may not feel the need to share his or her criticism of the Catholic Church.
Nine times out of 10, it was awkward, I’m sure.
He began by explaining that he was a Norbertine seminarian, and that he was studying in Rome. When he started with “a seminarian is . . .” I broke in to relieve the poor guy.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I’m Catholic. I know this stuff.”
He immediately relaxed, and we spent hours talking about our faith, much to the amusement of those around us, I’m sure.
The thing is, talking about being Catholic with strangers can be really hard these days. I almost always feel like I’m preparing for an assault when I hear, “So, are you Catholic?” from someone I don’t know. Because of the way the church is portrayed in the media, and because of some of the unexaggerated tragedies, like the sex abuse scandals, inflicted by people who were supposed to be symbols of the church, I don’t expect a lot of love for the institution from those outside it — or, in some cases, inside it.
For many, even the word “Catholic” carries weighty baggage. Someone might think the church an unfeeling place that won’t remarry a divorcee without an annulment or a social strong-arm that advocates for culturally outdated policies.
I was reminded of this when I was on a plane again last weekend, and the lady next to me asked what I was reading. The book was “The Future Church” by Catholic journalist John Allen, and I was completely enthralled with the thing, which identifies and explains 10 trends the global Catholic Church will face in the 21st century. I kind of was hoping she wouldn’t ask about it, since I knew the kind of conversation that could ensue, and I did not feel like a plane was the right place for me (or the people around us) to hear her air her thoughts on Catholicism.
Flipping to the cover, I showed her the title, adding, “It’s fascinating.”
“Hmm,” she said. A second later: “So, are you Catholic?”
“Yes,” I said. A second later: “I guess that’s probably why this book is so interesting to me.”
“Hmm,” she said again. She looked down.
I wish I knew what to say then, but I also think airplane evangelization is unfair, since it’s like a hostage situation. And what would I say? What was this woman thinking? So I went back to reading, feeling judged without knowing the judgment.
I felt that I had failed at being a Catholic witness, or, as Denver auxiliary bishop James Conley put it at an Oct. 23 Newman conference, a “business card” for the church to proclaim her inner strength and beauty.
In the 2002 book, “The Courage to be Catholic,” author George Weigel writes in the wake of the sex abuse crisis, and rightly calls American bishops to have courage to proclaim the faith, and lay Catholics to share in this responsibility. With the prevalence of hostility and misunderstanding about our faith, we have a responsibility to shed light where there is darkness — and we don’t have to leave it solely to people who are twice our age, despite their titles, degrees or holy orders.
Only seven verses into the Book of Jeremiah, the Lord speaks to him, who, in the first few verses, sounds a lot like me, saying, “Lord, I know not how to speak; I am too young.”
God answers the timorous Jeremiah: “Say not, ‘I am too young.’ To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord. . . . See, I place my words in your mouth!”
And that gives me courage, because I often don’t know what to say on my own.
Read Maria Wiering’s excellent Q&A with John Allen here.