Friday, May 29, 2015

"R U Saved?" An ecumenical colloquy on a sidewalk at Yale University

I was recently in New Haven conducting research in the Knights of Columbus Archives, and I attended mass in the chapel of the K of C administration building, a 22-story tower with an impressive view of New Haven and Yale University. From the top floor, I could spot the spire of St. Mary's Church, where Father Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in the church basement back in 1882.

From my vantage point, I could see that St. Mary's was located just a short walk from my hotel, and so I decided to attend the 5 PM mass at St. Mary's.  Father McGivney's crypt is located there, which I wanted to see, and I understood that the church had been recently restored and was lovely.

And so I attended my second mass of the day. The Gospel reading was the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man who called out to Jesus on the road to Jericho and was healed. The priests at both Masses stressed that when Bartimaeus approached Jesus he threw away his cloak, abandoning everything in the hope that Jesus would restore his sight.

Even though I was in a place where a future saint (Father McGivney) once had walked, my mind wandered at the afternoon mass. I remember asking God in my prayers what he wanted me to do with the rest of my life, but I had been praying that same prayer for more than a year and God had not answered.

When the Mass was over, I knelt at the altar to St. Joseph and remembered to say prayers for my important intentions, but I was unable to light a candle because I did not have the change in my billfold to buy one. Had I not given a couple of bucks to a panhandler who had accosted me on Georges Street, I would have had the three dollars I needed to purchase a candle. Would God credit me the two bucks I had given to a guy who swore to me that he was hungry if I lit a candle and only contributed a one-dollar bill? I decided not to risk it. It seemed unlucky to light a candle at St. Joseph's altar and not pay the full price.

And so I left St. Mary's Church feeling restless and dissatisfied.

St. Mary's is only a short distance from the Yale campus, and I found myself wondering how those Irish Catholics had managed to buy such a prime piece of real estate back in the 1850s, located so close to one of the great bastions of Protestant ascendancy. "There goes the neighborhood," the Yalies must have muttered to themselves as the Catholics began constructing their lovely church.

Walking back to my hotel in this unspiritual mood,  I passed an African American woman standing on the sidewalk in front of one of Yale's great edifices.  "Are you here for the Yale reunion?" she asked me.

Hmm, I thought to myself: another panhandler. And now that she has made eye contact, she is going to ask me for money.

"No, I'm not a Yale man," I answered. I considered adding that I had done my graduate work at Harvard, but that response seemed gratuitously supercilious and totally inappropriate; and besides, I am definitely NOT a Harvard man.

Still, her question seemed to require me to account for myself, so I added that I was in New Haven to visit the Knights of Columbus office.

"Oh," she said, agreeably surprised. "Then you're a Christian."

Caught completely off guard, I stumbled out a reply. "Yes, I suppose I am."

"Praise be to God," she responded, with great satisfaction--perhaps joyful satisfaction.

"Look at the license plate on my car," she then said, pointing to an old Toyota parked on the street. The plate said, "U SAVED."

"Very nice," I said, beginning to realize that I was entering a totally different conversation from the one I had anticipated.

"And see that R?" she added. I looked at the car again and saw the letter R pasted to the car bumper below the license plate.

"OK, I see the R," I told the woman.  "But what does the R represent?"

"R U Saved?" the woman replied slowly, as if I were a simpleton. "And are you? Are you saved?"

Againc aught off guard by the audacity of her question, I immediately replied, "Yes."

"Praise be to God," she repeated, completely taking me at my word.

"God bless you," I blurted out, trying to convey that I had suddenly recognized her for what she was--a truly humble and guileless woman who had given me a blessing. She was Christ, and I was the blind man on the road to Jericho.

And as I walked on, I realized that the Holy Spirit had visited me once again, as it always did, when I least expected it. The woman was right; I am a Christian. I am a Catholic.

And I was in New Haven for a reason--to find documents in the Knights of Columbus Archives that would help me tell the story of my glorious American Catholic heritage. This is what God wants me to do. He has given me the tools to do this well, and he put a mysterious African American woman in my way to show me back to my path.

Servant of God Father Michael McGivney: Pray for us