I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I must be the worst Catholic. But Catholic I shall remain unless the Pope himself excommunicates me. Last Sunday, 20 September 2015, I was forgiven for all of my sins and was given my First Holy Communion without first submitting to the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession). This, to me, was obviously a miracle, but apparently my former priest has not yet been granted the gift of miraculous sight from The Holy Spirit, so he excommunicated me. Thankfully for me, though, he could only excommunicate me from himself, and I am still a Catholic.
If you will continue reading this story, I will take you through one day that was full of miracles, but the most interesting one, in my opinion, was how my prayers were answered and God Himself allowed for me to have all of my sins forgiven and receive the Body of Christ, so that will be the main focus. This might not seem very interesting to someone who is not Catholic, but don’t worry—I will try to keep everyone entertained and explain some details about our Church and its professed beliefs, which are often misrepresented by both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The Catholic Church was the original non-denominational church—the word “catholic” is Latin for universal, and within the Church there is a lot of freedom of belief and various religious orders that have differing opinions. So here, I would like to share some of the good things Our Lord has done for me and explain the way I’ve been blessed to see things.
The Bible says Jesus was around the age of thirty when he began his public ministry (Luke 3:23), and this last Sunday was going to be my last Mass before my 30th birthday, so I was anticipating God to become more present in my life this week and was praying for a good Mass. I have been zealously yearning to worthily receive the Body of Christ for many months now, and I was in Catechism classes at my Church preparing to receive this Sacrament, but they were going terribly slow. I was never even tested by a priest to see what I already knew. In the beginning, around Easter, classes were taught by a young seminarian, then we broke for the summer while I went home to the United States to visit family. When I returned to Istanbul-Constantinople in August, we began our classes again a couple weeks later, but this time with the English language ministering priest, Father J—. We started again from the beginning, and classes were going well, learning about the Seven Sacraments and the Ten Commandments, and it was only my fiancé and me in class with him until last Sunday.
My fiancé goes to Church with me every Sunday, and we were attending Catechism classes together as well, her going for Baptism, while I was already Baptized as a baby in 1985 but taken out of the Church shortly after because my father was upset with the way they were teaching classes about Baptism. They told him that Baptism was actually not to take away my Original Sin but just for tradition, and this upset him because he was tired of hearing different priests teaching different things contrary to Scripture to suit their own personal human biases. It wasn’t until after I was already living with my fiancé that Pope Francis himself persuaded me from his Twitter account that I should be in the Church and regularly read the Scriptures, God bless him. I had been following God and living for God for more than ten years at this point, but I had no organizational structure to my beliefs and no community of believers that I could feel at home with. So in November last year, on the first day of Advent, I began going to Church an hour away from our apartment—the nearest Church with an English language Mass—a beautiful gift to Constantinople from a perish in Italy in the Neo-Gothic style.
I told my fiancé that last Sunday would be a special day before we left for Church for a couple of reasons, but mainly because I have felt God very close to me all summer and I have been expecting something big from him for my 30th birthday. While we were in the bus on the way to Church around 8:15am, my fiancé pointed out to me that there was a cloud rolling across the road—no, this was not just a patch of fog, but it was a Cloud descended to the ground. I recognized this Cloud!
This was the same cloud that descended on Mount Sinai when I spent the night up there alone and freezing on 25 December 2008 and then kept me warm, and the same Cloud that would sometimes come to comfort me when I was being messed with for righteousness’ sake. I started laughing with joy, probably a maniacal-sounding laugh, but I couldn’t help it. For my own memory and for story telling purposes, I took out my phone and took a picture of it from a distance and more as we drove right into it, and from the familiar feeling that went through my body and soul at that moment, I knew for sure that this was the Cloud! Praise God!
Our custom is to go to a café near our Church about 45 minutes before Mass begins and have a light breakfast and coffee there while reading the day’s Lectionary readings before Mass, since sometimes it’s difficult to understand the readers in Church and no Missals are provided. I was a little late finishing the readings and my fiancé was hurrying me, but I told her to relax because this is how Providence works—if you’re doing your best to seek and know God, you are in accord with God. We got to the Church about the same minute Mass was beginning, and we took our seats in the last pew to the left. I was really feeling joyful—it’s only an hour a week that I get to gather with a community and worship God in unison, and I was particularly aware of this last Sunday, so I put my whole heart and soul into the prayers and the songs, and I paid close attention to the readings and Father J—’s homily. During the Nicene Creed, a woman sat between me and the young man next to me and bumped me slightly, so I scooted over more towards my fiancé to make room for her, then kept praying.
Of course I did not go up to receive the Eucharist, since by this point I understood the words of Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27, “Therefore anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily is answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.” But I must confess: I had received the Body and Blood of Christ a few times before this, first out of ignorance of the Catholic tradition, since before the priest distributes the Body of Christ, one of the readers always says, “The Eucharist is only for Baptized Catholics,” and I am a Baptized Catholic. There was another time too, during the Sunday Mass before Easter this year, after the Gospel reading of Jesus’ Passion had me in tears, I was aware that I was considered unworthy to receive the Body but then I heard within me the Voice of Our Lord say, “You are Confirmed,” so I went up to the Alter with great reverence and sorrow for all of my sins that caused the Crucifixion of Jesus, and Father J— put the Body of Christ on my tongue, then I went back to the pews and prayed silently for the rest of Mass.
After Mass, I continued praying, since a lot of people have been commended to my prayers and I also try to pray for God’s Miraculous Peace around the world, for all to be blessed with the basic things we all need like food, shelter, clothing, family, love, etc., and for the conversion of the hearts of all the selfish and fanatical people who prevent others from receiving these gifts God is always offering all of us. I got a call on my phone in my pocket, but it was on vibrate so I ignored it until I finished praying for help perpetually converting my own heart away from the greed and fanaticism that prevents the Advent of the Kingdom of Heaven.
After saying Amen and getting up, I noticed the young man who was originally to my left was still there, so I struck up a fraternal conversation with him like I try to do after Mass if anyone’s around. He was a young Indigenous man from South America here in Istanbul for work, so I asked him if there’s anything he needs and if he’s alright here, to which he replied that he’s okay and only here for a couple months, then I told him to give my love to South America and wished him peace and he wished me the same.
I got up and walked towards the hallway that led to Catechism classes which took me in front of the Tabernacle, where I knelt and made the Sign of the Cross, since in there is where Jesus’ Body and Blood resides, in unity with Our Father Above, joined eternally by the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, Amen. Then my phone rang again—it was my fiancé, and she was asking where I was, telling me she was outside with a woman who said she needed help, “She says she prayed for God to show her someone who could help her, and God led her to you.” I told her to bring her in and meet me near the room we used for class. If I wasn’t well accustomed to how God works this way, I would have been a little puzzled, but I’ve seen this happen in my life quite a bit. It was the young woman who bumped into me during the Nicene Creed, and she was distraught due to family issues, wiping away tears as they came. I put myself in her position and imagined the pain she must have felt, so I first asked her if she was in any danger, then after she said she wasn’t, I told her that she was welcome to join us for our Catechism class, but she said she would wait in this room for us to finish. “It will probably be about an hour, or maybe more,” I told her, but she was firm in her decision. “Okay, then let me teach you a prayer I just wrote for when you are feeling hurt, either from someone else or because of your own anger or fear, or even just from natural pain: Christ on the Cross, let me take away your pain, and grant us Your Profound Peace which we cannot imagine.”
I wrote this down for her and explained it before I left her for my class: “Pain in this life is inevitable, we can avoid some of it, but not all of it, so there’s two things we can do when we feel pain—we can feel sorry for ourselves and complain about how unfair the world is, or we can turn our pain into a sacrifice by asking Christ to let his pain be our pain so that we share in His Passion. When we do that, then we are having compassion for Christ, the perfect man who painfully died for all of our sins, which is the opposite of sinning. That’s the first half—the second half, asking Christ to give us His Profound Peace comes from the Gospel according to John 14:27, ‘Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you, a peace which the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.’ That’s why I wrote ‘Profound Peace’ and not just ‘peace,’ because we are not praying for the peace we can imagine, the peace we sometimes see in the world, but God’s Peace, which is beyond anything we can imagine. Are you sure you’re okay here? Pray that prayer a bunch of times while looking at the Crucifix here, pray to God about whatever troubles you, and try to think good thoughts, okay? Feel better, then after class we’ll go out to lunch and talk more.” She smiled and nodded.
* * *
This time class was not just between Father J—, my fiancé and me, but two new members were there, and one who I knew from before the summer, plus one more man who was supposed to also be teaching Catechism. Father J— began class with a prayer to The Holy Spirit to come down and guide our discussions, which we all said Amen to, but I noticed that this was a first time for him to pray for that before class. “Okay, where did we leave off last time, Vincent?” Father J— asked me.
“You asked us to study the Ten Commandments, Father.”
“And what did you learn about them when you studied them?”
“Well, like you said in your homily this morning, all of God’s commandments are based on love. So when the Wise Scribe asked Jesus what is the most important commandment (Mark 12:29-31), Jesus replied ‘The first is this: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one, only Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). The second is this: You must love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). There is no commandment greater than these.’ The first one Jesus mentioned covers all of the first commandments that pertain to how we respect God, and the second commandment covers all of the following commandments of how we treat each other—so if you love God completely and your neighbor as yourself, you will never sin.”
I continued, “Jesus elaborated on these Commandments, too, like for example, he said that we have heard how we shall not commit adultery, but he said that if we even look at a woman with lust, we have committed adultery with her in our heart (Matthew 5:27-28). And that we have heard how we shall not commit murder but if we call a brother a fool, we will be answerable to the court, and if we call a brother a traitor we will be answerable to the Hell Fire (Matthew 5:21-22). Then he said that if we follow these commandments, we will be alright, but if we want to be perfect, we should sell all of our possessions, give the money to the poor, then we will have treasure in Heaven, then come and follow him (Matthew 9:21).”
“Yes, Vincent, very good, and do you wish to be perfect?” Father J— asked.
I considered the nature of his question, but answered simply enough, “Yes.”
“Then why don’t you sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor?”
I felt like I was being set up, so I asked, “Should I be homeless?”
“But Jesus says to sell all of your possessions, Vincent.”
“Well, then, I would if I knew all my money would be put to good use, but I already give a lot to the poor, and I haven’t met anyone yet who I trust would make good use of all my money. But if I found someone who I knew would put my money to good use, I’d give everything to him. Kind of like how the Catholic Church has a lot of money and all this art and stuff, but it won’t give it to the poor.”
“Okay, what I’m saying is that if you want to be perfect, you don’t need to give everything to the poor, just what you can spare, so if you have twenty lira and your lunch only costs ten, give the other ten to a poor person,” Father J— said.
I did not think that that made one perfect the way Jesus meant. I knew the value of handing over your entire life to God very well. But I agreed that it was a great thing to do and I left it at that because this was supposed to be his class, not mine. I was already starting to mourn the good relationship we had when there was no one else around besides him, my fiancé and me. I felt like he was trying to establish his authority over me in front of the others, so instead of continuing, I humbled myself.
“Now today we are going to talk about sin, which is the result of giving into the temptations of Satan. In my native language, the name for Satan is two words joined as one; roughly allow, and happen. So if you allow Satan’s temptation, it will happen. We can look back at the Garden of Eden and see Eve allowed Satan’s temptation, who had turned himself into a snake, and as a result God said she would start to have babies and it would be painful, and that man would strike the head of the snake whenever he sees it,” Father J— explained.
I began taking notes, because I thought his native language’s way of describing Satan was interesting, but I interjected here: “Genesis says that mankind will forever be in enmity with snakes, that the snake will always bite at man’s heels, and man will always strike the heads of snakes (Genesis 3:15).”
“Yes, but has anyone here been bitten by a snake?” Everyone said no. “So that’s not what it means. What do you think it means?”
“It means that people will always be tempted to sin,” I said. The other people were keeping quiet—I didn’t want to keep taking the stage, but no one else was speaking, and they seemed to be watching my conversation with Father J— with intrigue.
“That’s right, and where do we sin when we fall into temptation?” Father J— asked me.
“In our hearts, like when Jesus said if we even look at a woman with lust, we have committed adultery with her in our hearts.”
“Yes, so when we are tempted by Satan, we have to shut our mind and heart to him immediately, because remember, if you allow it, it will happen,” Father J— wisely explained.
“Whenever I’m tempted to look at a woman lustfully, I immediately turn my eyes inward to the image of Our Mother Mary, and I say a Hail Mary or two instead of looking at a woman lustfully,” I offered my strategy to the class. “I mean, Mary is the Refuge for Sinners.” This is why we often see Mary depicted standing on top of the entire Earth with a snake pinned under her foot, because she is the Second Eve, and her Son Jesus is the Second Adam, both sent to allow us to live free of sin, since the children of the first Adam and Eve could never stop sinning, no matter how devout they were.
“Very good, Vincent, and Saint Augustine would run and dive into a field of roses if he ever felt tempted by the flesh so that he would get all scratched up and change his mind about what he was thinking—all the saints had their own ways of shutting out the temptations of Satan. Whatever way it is, when you get there, you have to close your mind to it and say no,” said Father J—.
I don’t like the idea of all those old types of mortification that leave the body permanently scared or damaged. In my opinion, occasional fasting and the natural aches and pains that accumulate in the body when working for the service of the vulnerable is plenty, and if anyone ever needs more, lying totally flat, face down, on a clean floor does the trick, but like Thomas Kempis writes in his beloved The Imitation of Christ, mortification is not for everyone and should not be done in public.
“Now there are different kinds of sin, which we are going to talk about now: there is mortal sin and venial sin. Mortal sin is what we really need the Sacrament of Reconciliation for—this is sin that cannot be forgiven through prayer and repentance alone. Mortal sin is an intentional action that could endanger or end someone’s life. To be forgiven for your mortal sins, you must really be sorry for them, and sorry here means sorrowful, then you will confess them to a priest and he will determine if you can be forgiven for them—there are some mortal sins that not even a priest can forgive, like what’s it called? Abortion—if you had an abortion, your case needs to be sent up to a bishop before the decision is made whether you can be forgiven.
“And then there are venial sins—these are sins against your brothers and sisters that do not endanger life, and that you can pray for forgiveness for, like if Vincent and I here are having an argument and I step on his foot out of anger, he will be okay, and I can apologize to him and confess this to God in my prayers,” Father J— explained.
“Father J—, while we are on this topic, can I see you after this? I would like to do my confession now,” I asked. I had been constantly desiring to receive the Body of Christ ever since I found out that when I received it before, I was doctrinally unworthy. I had already confessed all of my mortal sins to God and felt deep sorrow for them, and I confessed almost all of them to fellow believers in God, to the best of my knowledge. I’d even cried for most of them, if not all of them, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church says remits sins. But I still needed to do my Sacramental Confession with a priest if I was to receive The Body of Christ worthily. This, to me, was my greatest barrier to becoming a regular communicant in the Church, because I really did not think a mortal could understand my life and what led to some of my bad decisions and sins, nor did I myself even truly understand what all I was guilty of and what was done in innocence. I did not believe that any human priest could hear the story of my life, with an emphasis on all of the bad things I’ve done, and still have a good relationship with me afterward. And also, I worried for the mental health of this priest, since hearing what I’ve done might derange him if he was not strong enough to receive my guilt and obliterate it. I worried about all these things and more when it came to the issue of my first confession, and God knew it, not simply because God is Omniscient but because I had been praying about this almost every day. I prayed for help through this obstacle so I could worthily receive the Body and Blood of God’s Son Jesus, who willingly offered himself as a spotless sacrifice so that humanity could have a better relationship with Our Heavenly Father. God knew in my heart how much I longed to be perpetually closer and in Communion with Him.
“No, you cannot confess yet. We are just starting to talk about sin in our classes—you are not ready yet,” Father J— judged.
I sunk my head and whispered, “Okay.”
* * *
Class continued a while longer and before we finished for the day, I mentioned that the Pope would be visiting Cuba and the United States this week, “And on my 30th birthday this Thursday, Pope Francis will address the whole United States Congress! He is really working miracles around the world, doing so much to make peace and reduce greed and hatred around the world. You know, like you were saying in your homily this morning, Father J—, everywhere around the entire world there is so much tension right now, and Pope Francis is working miracles to calm it.”
“Yes, yes, he is, and do you know the cause for all of the tension in America right now?” Father J— asked.
“Yes: hatred,” I answered very quickly. This was something I’d long considered very deeply. The other guys in the room sitting across from me nodded their heads in agreement.
“No, it’s not that,” Father J— said, “it’s the homosexuals there. For example, there is this woman who says she does not want to let the homosexuals get married, that it is against her conscience, and they put her in jail!”
“I don’t think she is a very good representative of Christ, Father J—,” I began, but he didn’t seem to hear me, and he went on, “It’s not the hatred in America that is the problem. I see the black people, they are protesting—for example, there was that white boy who went into that Church and killed seven or eight black people, and now everyone is protesting, but this woman, she does not want to marry homosexuals, and she gets put in jail.”
“Father J—, I’ve got to tell you something about America… we have a remarkable degree of religious freedom, probably more religious freedom than anywhere else in the world, and this is because our Constitution states in the very first Amendment that the government will neither respect the establishment of a religion or forbid the establishment of a religion. Catholics have a pretty good life in America because of this—there we are a minority, about twenty-two percent of the population and a lot of the majority Protestants don’t like us very much, but we have a good life in America, and that is because of the freedom of religion our Constitution guarantees. That woman is a government worker, and to get her job she had to take an oath of office to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. If she does not want to, then she can quit her job. The government is supposed to be like a clock—it’s supposed to work. I don’t tell my clock to worship or respect God, I just keep it working so it does its job. If this woman doesn’t want to respect the Constitution of the United States, then she is welcome to quit her job.”
Now the other man who was there to teach Catechism as well spoke up, “Yes, but in your Constitution, it says that marriage is between a man and a woman, so—”
“No it doesn’t—it doesn’t say anything about marriage in our Constitution, and I can tell you a little bit about our Constitution if you want, but our Supreme Court ruled that it is unlawful for the U.S. government to discriminate between gay and straight couples who want to receive the benefits of married couples. This doesn’t mean that Father J— is going to be put in jail if he refuses to marry two men or two women. No, the Constitution protects his right to object to that within his Church, but as far as the government is concerned, we are neither for nor against any religion, and it must be that way,” I said, pausing to let Father J— speak.
“Your government in America says, ‘In God We Trust,’ so you have got to write your laws based on what God wants, and God says in the Bible that homosexuality is abhorrent to Him.”
“It doesn’t say that in our Constitution, just on our money. Yes, we trust in God, but we are not going to write our laws based on any holy book because then we would be discriminating against other Americans with a different holy book or with no holy book.”
“That’s the thing, Vincent, you’ve got to make clear which God you trust,” Father J— said.
“The Creator! Of course,” I said, “But not everyone in America agrees about what the Creator has said and decreed. We cannot start discriminating against different groups in America, giving these rights to this group but not that group, because when we start to do that, it’s not just bad for the group with less rights, but it’s bad for everyone! We need equal rights to live in peace with each other and treat each other with respect. Look, Jesus tells us not to judge and we won’t be judged, not to condemn and we won’t be condemned. He commands us to love one another, and to love our enemies too! When you put all that together, who do we get to hate? No one! Who must we love? Everyone! He knew we humans are too stupid to know who our real friends are and who our real enemies are, so he tells us to love everyone, pray for everyone, judge and condemn no one. So that’s what we try to do in America—maybe we don’t always know what’s best for everyone, so we just try to move forward through history with freedom and equality as our arrow, our compass.
“Look,” I continued, “Pope Francis was asked if gay people are going to Hell, and you know what he said? ‘Who am I to judge?’ He’s the leader of the Catholic Church and he will not judge or condemn them.”
“Pope Francis was speaking there in his personal capacity, not as the leader of the Church, Vincent. As a person, he cannot judge, but the Church can judge,” Father J— said.
I didn’t contest this point, but to address it now, I think Pope Francis is always speaking as the leader of the Catholic Church by default, unless he goes out of his way to indicate that he is stepping out of his pulpit and speaking as a private person on a particular matter.
“Let me ask you a question, Vincent,” Father J— said. “Suppose I belong to a group of people that gathers for worship once a month, and each month they kill a person for their religious ritual—should we respect their freedom to do this?”
“Actually, this is a common argument and I’ll tell you very quickly why it’s wrong. You have your freedom to do as you please, but so does the person you want to sacrifice, so since you want to take away that person’s freedom and life, you are not allowed to under the law, no.”
I really didn’t like this kind of talk—I took no pleasure in it, but I felt the need to identify hatred itself as the root sin that causes most tensions in America and around the world in general. I am not aiming to judge anyone or condemn anyone in telling this story, but simply telling the stories God has entrusted to me so that I can glorify Him and teach His Commandment to love. I’m convinced that most of the objection to gay people having equal rights stems from fallible people’s sin of hatred, and not respect for Biblical Law—after all, Jesus said that the two most important commandments were to love God and love your neighbor, and that no other were as important as these, and that indeed all of the Law and all of the Prophets rests on these Commandments. If someone believed that all of our problems were due to ignoring a verse in Leviticus against homosexuality, then why wouldn’t that person believe more so that all of our problems are because of people with tattoos, which is also banned in Leviticus and is much more widespread than homosexuality?
“I have a gay person in my family, and I can tell you as a witness that he was born that way, that this is not some sinful choice of his to go against God, but from the moment he could start talking, he was talking like a girl and wanted to play and dress like a girl—he was not even aware of himself as an individual yet. And do you know how many problems he’s caused in our family? Zero. How much trouble has he been for us? None at all. But let me tell you all here now what is a mortal sin: when you tell that young boy that all of the tension in America and all of the evil in the world is his fault, because lots of boys and girls like him take this condemnation to heart and they kill themselves!” After saying this, it clicked for me, and I knew exactly to whom Jesus was referring to in his Sevenfold Indictment of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:13-32).
“Jesus cured a sick man at the Pool of Bethesda, and then he immediately told him to ‘Get up, pick up your sleeping-mat and walk around,’ (John 5:8). And what did the Pharisees see? Did they see this miracle that Jesus just worked? No, they saw a violation of the Sabbath, since during the Temple period it was considered unlawful to carry anything during the Sabbath. They did not see the miracle of freedom that Jesus just gave the sick man, but could only see the minor infraction against Biblical Law. And it was Jesus himself who told him to commit this infraction, and Jesus himself did not deny this, because later (John 5:14) Jesus met the sick man again and told him, ‘Now you are well again, do not sin anymore, or something worse may happen to you.’ This is exactly what’s happening here when people don’t see the miracle that is the amount of freedom we have in America but instead want to spread hatred by choosing to ignore the greatest Commandments to love each other and nit-pick about lesser ones.
“And now let me tell you, these are the people Jesus was referring to when he accused the Pharisees of straining out gnats but swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24), and washing the outside of their cups but leaving the inside full of filth (Matthew 23:25-26). He scolded these Pharisees by telling them, ‘Go and learn the meaning of the words: Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13, cf. Hosea 6:6). All commandments are based on love, and all sins are based on hatred—how right Jesus was about all of this.”
“Okay, Vincent, I think we’re about finished for today,” Father J— said.
“I agree Father J—, but you know there’s one way to settle this for sure: We’ll just have to wait and see what the Pope says to the United States Congress on my 30th birthday.” I truly feel sorry for anyone who looks at all the trials and tribulations of today and thinks, ‘Homosexuals are the cause of all this.’ I feel even sorrier for a priest who thinks Pope Francis is going to address the U.S. Congress and tell the world that God’s wrath is being brought down upon us because we won’t prohibit gay couples from having the same rights straight couples. Pope Francis will probably talk a little bit about complementarity, and yes, what child does not want to wake up and run downstairs and have a hearty breakfast with his mom and dad who love each other and him and all his brothers and sisters completely? But we have to be grateful for and love the family members we inherit as well as the family we are born with, and make sure that everyone enjoys the benefits of family. None of them are perfect. What I’m certain Pope Francis is going to spend most of his time addressing Congress on is the great human tragedies of war and poverty and environmental destruction all brought about by hatred and greed, greed being a form of hatred in that it stems from not loving your neighbors.
* * *
After everyone but Father J— and his friend, the other Catechism teacher, left the room, I approached Father J— and said, “I hope you were not offended by anything I said, but this is how we talk politics in America. You know, freedom is not easy—nothing that’s good comes easily, which is what we have to have these difficult debates in order to find the best possible way to share this world with each other.”
“No, no, I understand, we have to have these difficult talks, it is not easy.”
“Yes, Father, and that’s another beautiful thing about America, is that I can open my mouth and talk like that without being taken away to jail, when in a lot of other places the police would have been called on me for that a long time ago.”
* * *
Our new friend waited in the other room all this time, and my fiancé found her and they were talking while I was finishing up with Father J—. She seemed much calmer now.
On the way out, I said, “Now here’s the hard part—we have all this Grace from going to Church, but how long can we keep it with us on the street? This is the challenge. Did you know that’s why priests often walk around with their hand over their heart? They’re trying to keep The Holy Spirit in them. No seriously!”
Laughter is a great form of medicine, and it seemed to help our friend. When we sat down at lunch, she told me how strong her trust in God was, and that she felt totally secure, “I won’t even take medicine if I get sick,” she said, “but I just trust in prayer, and I know God will take care of me.”
“Faith in God is great and important, sister, but I’ve got to tell you something about how prayer works… If I am sitting at one end of a table and my dinner is at the other end, should I pray for God to have it sent over to me?”
She chuckled, “No.”
“Right, that would just be laziness, and God doesn’t indulge our laziness. It’s the same with all this medicine people don’t want to take.”
“Well, I’m just talking about headaches and stuff,” she said.
“Oh, well, yeah, most headaches can be cured with a cold glass of water, but for the more serious stuff, we should go to our doctors. God gave us a lot of intelligence, and we used that blessing to invent a lot of good medications, so maybe instead of ignoring that, we can ask God to help us find the best doctors who will help us get the right medications for us when we need them. It’s like the Islamic Prophet Mohammed said when his prophethood was challenged since he would tie up his camel. His critics used to say, ‘If you’re a prophet, why do you tie up your camel? Why won’t God keep it where you leave it?’ Mohammed would reply, ‘Trust God, and tie your camel.’”
More laughs and more smiles all around. “Now you will have to let me ask you a question: you said that you prayed for God to show you someone who could help you. How do you think God showed you me?”
“He just told me I would find someone at Church, and I walked in and saw the space open next to you and just took the seat, then when I saw how you two were with each other, I knew you were the one God told me about.”
“Well, ideally, that would be anyone at Church—that’s what Church is supposed to be, a big family here to help each other out,” I said, then we talked more in depth about her family problems that led her to Church today, and I gave her a list of ideas she could keep in mind and use when necessary, but I told her to first protect her safety and after that ask God to help her see the best possible way to handle this fluid situation, and remember these ideas in case she sees that one of them is the thing she should do. I also gave her a couple other Bible passages that I thought would be helpful for her in this situation, and she wrote them down on the back of my prayer I wrote down for her.
We enjoyed a good lunch together after saying a quick blessing and thanks for the food, and I told her something else I read in Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, “See this meal, it looks good, and we’re grateful for it, but always remember to be grateful for every little good thing The Lord allows us, and we should be grateful for the smallest blessings like they are the biggest blessings—we should thank God for this meal and every meal like He just saved our lives.”
After she agreed and smiled some more, the three of us said Amen and ate, and soon we were joined by my fiancé’s cousin who would be going back to our neighborhood with us after lunch. Our new friend took her leave, and I told her to never hesitate to contact us if she was in need of anything, then my fiancé and I each gave her a hug, which might have been the best thing for her, and she left to go back to her neighborhood. God bless her, and remember her in your prayers, please.
* * *
On the way toward the bus to go back to our neighborhood, we passed our Church, and I longed to go inside for one more quick prayer before I turned thirty this week. I asked my fiancé’s cousin if she had ever seen the inside of this Church and if she’d like to since it’s so beautiful. But she said no, she wasn’t that interested, so I said okay, and paused there for a minute looking at the cross on top of it and crossing myself once.
“No problem, I just thought it was worth a try since I could always go for a quick prayer,” I said.
“Oh, if you want to say a prayer, let’s go in! I don’t want to stop you from saying a prayer,” she said, and my face lit up, thanking God and thanking her.
I felt extra blessed walking up into Church this time since this was one more chance to pray before this week that I didn’t expect. I always love taking people into this Church since it’s so beautiful, and I try to tell everyone going in for the first time to leave the world outside because the point of going into such a beautiful Church is to go into yourself—everything you will see in there is in you. I crossed myself upon entering, and not ten seconds later the bell for the beginning of Mass rang. Which Mass was this? The English language Mass was only in the morning on Sundays. There was a small congregation up front and a rope blocking off the walkway to the Alter to keep tourists from joining them. I listened for their language and heard it was English! So I went into the pews that were not roped off and stood up and began the Mass with them. Why not, I thought? My grandparents used to do two Masses each Sunday—I’ll just do the general confession at the beginning and a couple more prayers and then go back home with my fiancé and her cousin.
But I couldn’t take myself away, and I kept sitting through the whole Mass. I figured out that they were a Pilgrimage group, tracing the steps of Saint Paul, who himself was from modern-day Turkey. The priest’s voice sounded so kind and gentle, a bit tired from life perhaps, but no hint of being tired of worshiping God at Mass. Most of the people in the pews with me were tourists or locals watching a Mass, possibly for the first time, but there were a few others praying along with us and standing and kneeling at the appropriate times. Then before the Eucharistic Feast, the priest explained, “Now I’m going to do something very special for you all—this is something only available to Pilgrims, so you are very blessed to receive this. It’s called a General Absolution so that everyone here can come up and receive the Body of Christ. I am going to forgive all of your sins, no matter how grave, no matter how long it’s been since your last Confession, even if it’s been thirty, forty years. Now bow your heads and think back for a minute on all of the sins you have not yet confessed, and pray for forgiveness of them all and the ones you cannot recall as well.”
I looked up to Heaven in shock, then bowed my head, crossed myself and followed his instructions and started crying silently, both for the miracle that was taking place and for the whirlwind of hatred, selfishness, obscenity, hurt, lust and more flashing through my mind and soul, some very specific sins I’d long wanted true absolution for, and for all the ones I could not remember or perhaps understand. And then the Father performed his Special Absolution and I kept praying for forgiveness for all of my sins, until I physically felt The Holy Spirit enter me in full. I kept my head bowed until the priest said Amen, then I crossed myself once more and looked up, totally mystified and feeling bad for being unable to express my gratitude deeply enough.
I just kept saying thank you to God, and prayed with the Pilgrims for the rest of Mass. Then when it was over, I let myself past the rope, went to the front row, knelt before the Alter, crossing myself, then sat down and said hi to the Pilgrims, “I just prayed with you through your entire Mass—it was actually quite miraculous because I walked in for a quick prayer and then the bell rang, and I’ve been desperately seeking forgiveness for my sins but haven’t been able to confess yet. Anyway, can I speak to your priest to ask him if I received that special Absolution too?”
“Sure, he would love to talk with you. When he comes back out I will tell him for you. My name’s H—, and I’m the guide for this Pilgrim group. What’s your name?”
“I’m Vince, and I’m sort of a Pilgrim too, which is why I want to ask if the Absolution was for me too. You see, I listened to the homily and found out you all are tracing the steps of Saint Paul, and well, I’ve followed in some of his steps, and I’ve walked the Via Dolarosa in Jerusalem, and I’ve spent the night on Mount Sinai and I’ve lived on the Mount of Olives—you see, I was a U.S. Marine and first came to this region when I was sent to Iraq ten years ago, and I’ve been coming back nonstop and now living here ever since, and I keep having miracles like this happen to me all the time. Look, I’ll show you this picture…” I took out my phone and nervously started scrolling through my photos. “So Saint Paul was on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus when a flash of light blinded him and he had his conversion; well, here I am, going in Damascus, on my way to Jerusalem in 2009, and someone took this picture of me, and well, there’s this really pure light right there, kind of pouring down over my head—you see, all the other lights in the picture are yellow, but this one is the sun reflecting off a mirror or something and well—”
“Oh! I see it! I saw it right away!” H— exclaimed.
Then the priest came out and H— introduced me. I tried to rattle all of the same information off to him to make my case for being a Pilgrim, but when I said I was once a Marine, he replied, “I was with the Marines too, in the Chaplain Corps.”
“Wow! Semper fi, Sir! This is all really a miracle, you see, I already did Mass in the morning today, then I went to Catechism class, then I went to lunch with my fiancé, and on the way to the bus to go home after lunch, I stopped in for a quick prayer, and just ten or twenty seconds after I walked in and crossed myself, the bell rang, and I joined you for your entire Mass. So what I want to ask you is, did that special absolution you granted the Pilgrims apply to me too? I’m sort of a Pilgrim here too.”
“Did you pray as I instructed the congregants when I performed the Absolution?”
“Then you received it,” he said.
“Well, then can I receive my First Holy Communion now? I am a Baptized Catholic—I was Baptized when I was a baby, but my parents took me out of the Church soon after that and then they got divorced so I didn’t go to Church until I got here. Now I’m a congregant of this Church, but I’m undergoing Catechism. I’ve tried to confess and receive Holy Communion, but the process is so slow.”
“Oh, you’re in Catechism? Well, you will need to symbolically go through the Sacrament of Reconciliation still,” he said.
“Okay, but can I receive First Communion from you now? Am I worthy?”
“You want First Communion now?”
“Yes, Father. I’ve been yearning for it, but the process is so slow.”
“Okay, come here,” he said, leading me to kneel in front of the Tabernacle. I knelt, crossed myself and began to pray an incomprehensible prayer of thanksgiving for this miracle, thanksgiving for this Sacrifice on my behalf, and repentance for all of my sins that crucify Jesus.
The priest opened the Tabernacle, withdrew The Lord’s Cup full of His Body sacrificed for many, and he presented the Body of Christ to me, saying, “The Most Holy Body of Jesus Christ, Our Lord.”
Yes, because Christ himself said it was (Matthew 26:26), and everything Christ says is true, so I replied, “Amen,” opened my mouth and put my tongue out slightly to receive Jesus, in Unity with the Father and The Holy Spirit. In my mouth I felt his Body break up, and I prayed as I received it, asking Jesus to keep me forever with him and Our Father, and the priest put his hand on my head and blessed me as I consumed the Body, inseparable from the Blood, of Christ.
After that I stayed and prayed for my family and friends and for the whole world, but I had to say Amen quickly, so that I could get the priests information so that my priest could ask him if he didn’t believe I received First Holy Communion. This priest wrote down his phone number and name for me, then said he had to get going because his Pilgrims were waiting for him, and I said, “Yes, Father, I will walk with you—I don’t want to keep you from your Pilgrims,” and I explained a bit more about myself, how I was a sort of permanent Pilgrim.
On the way out the door, I parted with him because I should have gone back in and prayed some more. I thanked him again, from the bottom of my heart, and he said, “You be a good boy now,” smiling at me and waving goodbye.
* * *
God is so good to me, not because I was a good person to begin with—no, God was always good to me because he loves us all, and this helped make me into a good person, and the better I got, the more readily I’ve received God’s goodness. All of the Kingdom, all of the Power and all of the Glory belong to God, forever and ever.
* * *
This is where I made a mistake. I parted with the priest at the door because I should have gone back in, knelt in the pews or in front of the Tabernacle and prayed some more, as you should always do after you receive Communion and are closest to God. But I was so thrilled and I wanted to exclaim the greatness of the Lord as soon as possible, like how Mary sang her Magnificat after receiving The Holy Spirit by the Announcement of an Angel of the Most High: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour; because he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant. Yes, from now onwards all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name, and his faithful love extends age after age to those who fear him… (Luke 1:46-55)
So I went back into the hall where we have Catechism class and called Father J— trying to tell him over the phone but eventually giving up and telling him that I needed to speak to him in person. He soon came downstairs and we went into the same room where we had class before lunch, and I tried telling him everything, beginning like this, “Father, it was a miracle, today has been nothing but miracles…” And I tried to quickly tell him about the whole day, beginning with the young woman who believed God led to me for help, and how I had asked Father J— to hear my confession earlier but he said I wasn’t ready—but God thought I was ready—and Father J— kept nodding along, but when I got to the part about receiving First Holy Communion he got angry with me and started yelling at me. At first I tried to calm him and explain that this was a miracle, but he wouldn’t see it that way, and he said that if I feel I’ve received Christ, then he would have nothing more to do with me, but if I admitted deception, he would forgive me and allow me to continue in his classes.
“I cannot deny that this was a miracle and that I’ve had my sins all forgiven and I’ve received Christ! That would be denying the work of The Holy Spirit, and Jesus says that’s unforgivable,” I replied.
The yelling continued, and instead of looking at him most of the time, I either looked down and cried because for the second time in my life, I was being torn out of the Church, otherwise I looked up at the large, life-like Crucifix on the wall and quietly repeated my prayer, Christ on the Cross, let me take away your pain, and grant us Your Profound Peace which we cannot imagine. I also made sure to see the Hebrew name of the LORD written in pure, radiant light over the Cross, like holes torn through the world of space and time from the realm of Eternity, pouring in The Holy Spirit.
I started to cry harder, and exclaimed, “I’m innocent here!”
“What did you say? You’re ministering here?” Father J— fumed back at me.
“What? I said I’m innocent here! I didn’t lie to anyone. This is a miracle!” I cried harder and slammed my head down on the table, then trying to control myself, I wiped one of the tears from my eyes and made a cross with it on my forehead while looking up at the Crucifix. At this, Father J— walked out of the room, and I recited a quick prayer in Latin: Per signum crucis, de inimigis nostris, libera nos, Deus Nostra—In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.
When I heard him let a door slam behind him, I felt much better, and prayed my prayer a few times more before composing myself and walking out of the room. There was another, larger life-like Crucifix on a table in the hallway, and I stood there, put my hands on the knees of Christ, mourning the excruciating pain he suffered, and I said my prayer again, kissed his foot, and walked out of the Church. There was a Mary statue immediately outside, so I knelt and prayed an Ave Maria and the end of the Angelus, a Gloria Patri, a Pater Noster, then I did the Sign of the Cross and felt as good as new. Nothing would stop me from being eternally grateful for receiving Christ this day.
* * *
I found my fiancé and her cousin at the café nearby and told her everything was good, and I’d explain in more detail later. On the bus home, I felt bad for raising my voice back there, and I wanted Father J— to feel at peace, so I text messaged him, telling him I understand his anger and I want him to know I hold nothing against him, and that Christ calls us to reconcile (Matthew 5:23-24).
The next day I heard back from him, and we arranged to meet again in person on Tuesday, the 22nd, just before The Day of Atonement began with the sunset. I apologized for any anger I showed on Sunday, and he apologized for raising his voice as well, and I told him I hold nothing against him, “I pray the Lord’s Prayer I don’t know how many times a day, and each time I get to the part where we ask God to forgive us our sins as we forgive our debtors, I search my mind and ask God to help me forgive everyone who might have sinned against me, so we can all have our sins forgiven and enter The Kingdom.”
We still disagreed about what happened on Sunday, and he said he would call the priest to see who deceived whom, but I told him to not rule out the possibility that it was a miracle and that neither of us deceived the other. But he still refused to see it that way. So I asked him what he wanted me to do with his name when I write this, and he said he didn’t care, he wasn’t afraid of being known for this, because he is just following the rules of the Catholic Church, and in the end he will be judged harder than me, citing Mark 9:42, “But anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones who have faith, would be better thrown into the sea with a great millstone hung around his neck.”
“I understand, and I hold nothing against you at all, and I want to leave you with peace now, but let me tell you that we are not going to be judged—look at John 5:24, “In all truth I tell you, whoever listens to my words, and believes in the one who sent me, has eternal life; without being brought to judgement such a person has passed from death to life.”
From there we agreed to disagree about everything else, and we hugged, wished each other peace, and I blessed him with the Sign of the Cross on the way out. I took my Baptismal record with me and plan to mail it to the priest who gave me First Communion, for him to write that detail and mail it back to the parish where I was Baptized thirty years ago. I won’t try to receive Communion again until the Pilgrim priest signs off for me. I hope he will be able to see the miracle that took place last Sunday, 20 September 2015 in Istanbul-Constantinople, and he will not object to signing that he gave me First Communion and that I’m ready to start classes for Confirmation. Did Jacob not truly receive his aging father Isaac’s blessing, even though he dressed himself as Esau and lied to get it? (Genesis 27:19) No one had to deceive or be deceived for this one.
* * *
On the way out of Church on Tuesday, I knelt before Mary again and prayed all the prayers I know, feeling deeply saddened that I was again out of the Church, but hopeful because at least I’m still a Catholic. I realized that the hatred Father J— let show on Sunday by blaming gay people for America’s ills is what prevents him from having sight of the miracles that occur around those seeking God every day, and all I can do is offer my prayers for him that he will let go of all hatred and be less rigid so that he can see the gentle workings of The Holy Spirit. He said he didn’t care if I used his name here, but I still left it out because I don’t want anyone to think less of him personally for his faults. I don’t want anyone to seek him out and correct him for these things, except God Himself in the most benevolent ways.
After last Sunday I understand why my dad took me out of the Church so many years ago and I was raised without any religion, and I understand why different groups of Christians have broken off from the Church built on Christ’s Rock, Peter, but I ask everyone to remember Jesus’ last wish in his distressed prayer before his Crucifixion: May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me (John 17:21). I pray that one day all of my family and I will go to Mass together, and I hope all the different Christian communities of the world will be more welcoming and loving of each other, that we will always be willing to pray with each other, and that we at least won’t rule out a future where we are in full unity. As Children of God, we should be happy and eager to work with people from all different faiths and backgrounds to establish peace and end poverty and human exploitation. I understand that the word ‘God’ means many different things to different people, but to me God is Eternal and Faithful Love. That’s why I don’t get upset when I hear people say they don’t believe in God, even though I fully do—I am only really troubled by people who do not believe in Love.
I just want everyone to be more patient with the faults of others, and instead of seeking to correct everyone all of the time, first have patience with others and resort to kindness and prayer, for them to be liberated of whatever holds them back from seeing The Kingdom of Heaven before them, and we should always ask for God to help us be free of all the same faults within ourselves before saying Amen, because to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we have to do as Jesus said to let go of all duality between us: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. To anyone who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek as well; to anyone who takes your cloak from you, do not refuse your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your property back from someone who takes it. Treat others as you would like people to treat you… Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and there will be gifts for you… (Luke 6:27-31, 36-38)
You don’t have to call yourself a Christian to believe this is sound teaching and follow this advice to overcome what prevents us all from receiving God’s love and entering His Kingdom even here on Earth. Indeed, it is the notion that the Kingdom can only be entered into after death which causes us to have such a reckless disregard for this world and those who live in it. For look, the Kingdom of God is among you. (Luke 17:21)
But just like everyone else, I need a lot of kind help and patience to get along in this world, so therefore I ask Blessed Mary ever Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to The Lord, Our God. Amen.