by Larry Johnson
I thought this was going to be a story about myself and a moving moment that shook and transformed my existence. But it turns out really to be about the workings of the Holy Spirit and a brave Franciscan priest.
The beginning of this story finds me in Rome, walking across St. Peter’s Square as the evening darkness is shrouding the sky and the lights on the basilica dome are emerging in warm gold. I had already been inside St. Peter’s early in the morning for Mass, a tour of the basilica, then a meander through the museum, coming out at last through the Sistine Chapel. The rest of the day had been spent shopping and eating good food along the radius of streets surrounding the Vatican. And now here I am limping badly on my injured knee in the winter cold, crossing the Square once again. I am heading with all intention for my hotel a few blocks away, visualizing a warm shower and a glass of wine. But then I turn inexplicably and walk back up the steps into St. Peter’s.
I wandered around for a bit looking at statues and side chapels, nagged with a subliminal urge, almost an instinct at the edge of consciousness, that this would be a good time to go to Confession. Eventually I found myself past Bernini’s main altar, in the back area of the Basilica near the Holy Spirit window. There were stately wooden Confessional boxes scattered around the vastness, each with signs indicating what languages could be understood by the priest inside. Mind you, I am just idling along with this somewhat unformed notion that I ought to go to Confession.
Just then, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was such a palpable, physical touch that I turned part way around to see who might have come up behind me. There was no one there! But my turning faced me toward one of the Confessional boxes a few feet away. At that moment, a priest leaned out of the box and waved his arm.
“Hey, you want to go to Confession or what?” he said loudly.
“Yeh, I guess that I’d like to, that’d be all right.”
“Well, you better get on over here, ‘cause it’s getting late and they’re going to throw us out of here in a few minutes.”
Once inside the box, I had barely started with the ritual mumbling of “Bless me, Father . . .” when the priest interrupted and startled me with a question.
“Are you in a valid marriage?”
“Well, uh, no, I guess I’m not really.” And I was not, this baptized cradle Catholic, having been married years earlier in a ceremony in the Unity Church to another baptized Catholic who did not have an annulment from her first marriage. So these were my more or less “fallen away” years, although the marriage was a good one in human terms, and I had continued blithely going to Mass and Communion without fail, yet with misplaced passion. And then came the zinger.
“Well, here’s the way it is. You are not living in a state of grace, you are living in a state of sin. And I can’t confess you, I can’t absolve you, and from this moment on you have to stop going to Communion until you can validate your marriage. All I can do is to give you a blessing.”
He continued to talk to me with great pastoral tenderness, this plain-spoken Franciscan priest. And, out of all the priests around in the various Confessional boxes, this one had providentially worked on a Marriage Tribunal for ten years.
And so began my journey toward a validated marriage, which became a reality somewhat more than three years later. It was a long and arduous process, a time totally without the comfort of receiving the Eucharist. My joy was extreme when I could take in the Body and Blood of Christ once again with full grace.
And here is where the story turns to the larger picture. The Holy Spirit is alive and working. I’ve no doubt it was the tap of the Holy Spirit that landed on my shoulder that night. And I came into the presence of a Franciscan priest who had the guts to tell me what I needed to hear to save my soul.
It is this kind of bravery that we can only pray that many bishops and priests will show when faced with the siren call of culture and politics. We can legitimately demand that these ordained men, keepers of the Church, deny Communion to politicians and others who persist in grave sin and public scandal by supporting abortion and same-sex marriage. There are those bishops and priests who proclaim that they will not “politicize” the reception of the Eucharist by denying Communion to who continue to violate Catholic morals and teachings.
They would do well to model themselves upon the bravery of a lonely Franciscan priest in the darkening shadows of St. Peter’s. They have a duty toward the saving of souls, so politics and making nice be damned. What’s fair for one is fair for all.