Saint Judas

After seeing this story out of Buffalo, New York in yesterday’s news, it seems to me that I need to get my novel and screenplay about seminary life (Saint Judas) written at the first opportunity. As it turns out, life is sometimes more salacious than fiction.

What I learned from my seminary experience was basically this:

1) it was an institution riddled with people who didn’t know who they were

2) since they didn’t know who they were, they were insecure and shifty; in a word: they lacked integrity

3) these people would say one thing and do another, thus fostering a climate of distrust

4) at that point, Satan could schedule a long vacation… he had other people to carry out his charism of sowing division

In shorthand: identity issues led to integrity issues, and integrity issues led to trust issues. It’s as old as Genesis 3.

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abandonment

I wrote this short story as part of a creative writing course at Franciscan University. It also appeared in the University’s literary arts magazine in 1991.

Ben stared emptily at the fresh mound of brown earth that sat beside the deep rectangular pit. The strong rays of the April sun that morning were eating away at the snow as though trying to reconcile this patch of brown with the surrounding landscape. Lance is down there, Ben thought to himself. Lance. Ben’s face, yet untouched by the blemishes of puberty, betrayed his attempts to hide sadness. Taking his cue from the dry eyes around him, he squinted just enough to keep the torrent inside and tightened his jaw so that his chin would not quiver in the chill of grief.

I’m going home in a few minutes, he thought to himself, and my brother is going to stay here. He mused over that thought for several moments but the more he thought about it the less he believed it. His father’s voice coming from the parking lot soon tore him away from this mystery. “C’mon, son” his father called.

Ben maneuvered his way between puddles toward the purr of the running stationwagon where his parents and three sisters sat waiting. Approaching the right door in the rear, he caught a cold and sour glance from Rebecca and immediately rushed around to the other side.

Reb had been a real brat since Saturday, he thought to himself. He hadn’t seen her cry once yet, although he suspected that in a moment alone she had probably bawled her eyes out. She was proud of her self-control and had shoved it in his face on that first afternoon when she found him crying in his bedroom. “Benjamin’s a crybaby,” she had teased. “Poor baby. Maybe I should tell Daniel to come over and see what a wimp you are.”

“Cut it out, Reb,” Ben had protested. “Lance is dead, Reb! Lance is dead!”

“I know that. Doesn’t mean you have to go crying all over the place like a pussy. Look at me. Do you see me crying? Stop acting like a baby. Crying’s not gonna change anything.” She left him with these words, went to her bedroom and turned up the volume on her stereo.

The purr of the motor was silenced suddenly and Ben realized that he was home. The family filtered into the house and immediately lost itself in the flurry of arriving mourners. Ben stood alone in the midst of the shuffle and listened to the sonorous beat of the grandfather clock at the end of the hall. Everyone was busy, his mother reminded him. Why didn’t he go play on the porch until everything was ready?

As he shuffled out the front door and settled himself halfheartedly in front of his Legos, he watched the approaching parade of flagged cars. Friends and relatives crowded into the house one after another. Their cheerful conversation seemed to deny what had happened, to deny that there was an emptiness inside the house now. Ben still felt the emptiness, though, pulling at his stomach like a vacuum.

For the most part, he was oblivious to the blur of people who, smiling weakly, passed him and occasionally ran their hands briefly through his blond hair. Amidst the grey glances, however, he caught a flash of blue in the eyes of a young woman of seventeen who was approaching the porch. It was Gina, Lance’s girlfriend. “Hey , Ben,” she said softly as she knelt down beside him. “Can I have a hug?” He conceded. “How ya doin’, buddy?”

Her tone of voice was consoling, but Ben couldn’t muster up the strength to look into those pools of blue that were focused on him. If he had gathered the courage he would have seen networks of red vessels surrounding those pools. He didn’t see them, however, for he was focusing on the Lego pieces before him with mind-numbing concentration. He hadn’t talked to her since the accident on Friday night and now felt caught without a word to say. “Okay,”he replied and then waited for an uncomfortable silence to usher in a lighter topic.

She began to play with the Legos too, hoping to earn a quick glance at his face. “I miss him a lot too,” she whispered to him after a long pause. Change the subject, thought Ben. Please talk about something else.

“We can still do stuff together. My sister and I are going to the matinee in town this weekend. Do you want to come along? Reb could come too.”

This suggestion sent Ben’s heart soaring for several seconds. He used to love it when Gina and Lance would include him in their activities. They had taken him to the zoo, the theater, the park and numerous other places in town. He always felt so welcome, so appreciated; losing himself in the presence of Gina’s bubbly personality and Lance’s playful spirit, Ben would forget that he was a tag-along.

His spirit faltered, however, upon those last words of hers. Yeah, Reb could come. Reb could come, and the world could end tomorrow. He preferred the latter idea. Besides, he thought, how much fun would he have when Lance wasn’t there? No Lance. There was the emptiness again, and he felt his stomach caving in like a drenched sandcastle. Lance was gone and there could be no replacement.

Suddenly he realized that he hadn’t responded to her. “I’d like that,” he said with hollow enthusiasm. He didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

“Okay, it’s a date,” she said as she stood up and patted him on the shoulder. Finally he stole a quick glance at her eyes. The redness confused him and he looked down immediately. Just then his mom caught sight of Gina and called her inside. Ben was alone again on the porch.

Alone. He rarely enjoyed being alone. Solitude was a punishment: You’re in the way, so we’ll throw you out of our lives until we have time to trip again, the voices in his head seemed to say. He felt as though he were alone in a desert, miles from any sign of life. When silence laughed at him in his aloneness, Ben remembered how much he counted on having people around, people that he feared would leave him behind. It was a stupid fear – like his fear of the little area under the basement stairs that Reb would always kid him about – but it was a fear that never went on recess. It was always there, waiting for a quiet moment when it could bully him.

Just then Lance’s friend Bob walked up the driveway. “Hi, Ben,” he said in a near whisper. “What’s goin’ on, big guy?”

“Not much,” Ben replied quickly. He was relieved to see Bob pass quickly into the house. This was one of the only times in recent memory when Bob hadn’t called him “Savage Slinger,” an unpleasant name that reminded him of a tantrum he had had over Lance’s SuperShot Plus slingshot.

When he was six, he had wanted that slingshot like nothing else. His mother noticed and bought him a cheap imitation. Ben could still hear Bob’s bruising laughter as he and Lance compared the two slingshots: He remembered feeling rage, furiously attacking them with his slingshot, whipping their denim-covered legs with his weapon and hoping to see red stains of blood penetrating the blue denim. He had always resented being second-best. His tantrum had been incredibly funny to Lance and Bob; the sight of a six-year-old flailing his fake SuperShot at them was hilarious – so he became known as the “Savage Slinger.”

Ben didn’t want to be on the porch anymore. He walked inside quietly and had no problem avoiding attention: Everyone was gathered in the kitchen, hovering over the potato salad and green Jell-o. As he headed for the stairs leading up to his bedroom, however, he met Reb as she came up from the cellar with a gallon of cider. She looked down when she caught his glance and supervised her feet carefully as they led her to the kitchen.

Once upstairs, he climbed onto his bed and tried to fall asleep. He was too restless to sleep, however. Not knowing what to do next, he sat on the edge of his bed and surveyed the room pensively. After resting briefly on the SuperShot which Lance had given him, his eyes finally fixed themselves upon the fluorescent blue crucifix hanging above the light switch by his door. It was different from the crucifix at church which showed Jesus’ head bent down upon his chest. This glowing blue Jesus stared out toward him with a pained expression: What was he looking at? Ben wondered. It almost seemed that Jesus was crying for someone else. He wasn’t screaming out in agony; instead, he was weeping gently – there was a small tear on his right cheek. Ben remembered how, several years ago, his mother had found him standing on a chair by the light switch, trying to wipe that tear from Jesus’ face. “It won’t come off, honey,” she told him gently. He didn’t like that tear. It made him uneasy. He preferred the crucifix at church with the hidden face.

Just then, a soft laugh wafted up the stairs and interrupted the rhythm of the grandfather clock: It was Bob’s laugh. It wasn’t his usual mocking laugh, but it was Bob nonetheless. Ben cringed.

Ben had always been jealous of Bob. When Bob was around, Ben felt about as important to Lance as the winter hat Lance would throw into his backpack every morning when he was out of his mother’s sight. Ben remembered an afternoon at the amusement park when Bob and Lance had ditched him as he stood in line for the haunted house. Ben had dreaded the thought of going through that dark green Victorian mansion that was issuing smoke and occasional shrieks, but the boys had promised to go through with him. He remembered turning around and discovering that they had left him alone in the line. As the large door of the house grew larger Ben fully expected them to return. They never did. What did I do? he asked himself. I’m sorry, Lance. I heard you sigh when Mom asked you to take me with; I should’ve just stayed at home in my room. He remembered being afraid of the ghosts, the stiff-legged Frankenstein and the spider webs, but most of all he remembered the wrenching cramp that knotted his stomach as he stepped out of the house and still could find no trace of Bob or Lance. He had trusted them completely and they had ditched him. Ben didn’t feel that they had just left him behind: He felt as if they were making fun of his weakness.

A reluctant tear gained enough courage to force itself out of hiding. It was all right to cry, he told himself as he looked at the tear on the glowing blue face. He crawled back onto his bed and fell asleep.

When he awoke, a wave of loneliness came crashing over him and he found himself beached at the door of eleven-year-old Alicia’s bedroom. He knocked and, since there was no answer, put his ear to the door. When he heard a faint whimpering within, he tried the knob, but it was locked.

He approached Jennifer’s room next. As she invited him in, she pushed aside the magazines she had been browsing through to make room for him on the edge of the bed. “Hey, Ben. What’s up?” It was a greeting and not a question, so he kept quiet, knowing that if he tried to talk his throat would probably start to tighten. He crawled onto the bed beside her and she put her arm around him. “You didn’t want to be downstairs either, huh? Listen, I know it’s sad without Lance but I bet he’s pretty happy up in heaven. Remember what Father Ted was saying today? Just think about seeing God and the angels all the time. I bet Lance is having – ”

Just then the phone rang. Jennifer rushed across the room to answer it like any pious fifteen-year-old. It was her best friend Susan. Ben knew it would be a long conversation, so he excused himself and wandered back in the direction of his room.

Once there, he grabbed the slingshot and headed to the top of the stairs. He listened vigilantly. Happily, there was no sound but the methodical pendulum echoing in the hall: The guests were gone. He crept down to the main floor as silently as he could, trying to avoid the creaks in the stairs. After slipping out the back door, he followed the wooded footpath toward the cemetery with his fingers wrapped tightly around the slingshot. Jennifer was right, he knew. Lance was not alone. Still, he needed to visit his brother.

The mound was gone and the pit had been filled in. Flowers were arranged neatly atop the patch of damp brown earth. The bouquet was now complete with the addition of the SuperShot Plus. Ben stood there for a moment in silence, the spring breeze massaging his cheeks with its cool hands in the approaching dusk. Then he turned and walked back in the direction of home.

That night, he went to bed at eight-thirty as usual. After all, tomorrow was a school day. He never fell asleep at eight-thirty, though. He always waited until he heard Lance pounce up the stairs at nine o’clock for the Top Ten at Nine, his favorite radio program. Then he felt he could fall asleep.

Tonight the ninth toll of the grandfather clock was followed by a piercing silence. Ben’s stomach began to knot itself once again. A little later, however, he heard the stairs creaking heavily as someone slowly ascended to the upper level. Glancing past the glowing blue cross to the hall beyond, he saw his father turn on the light in Lance’s bedroom and walk inside. Ben jumped out of bed and softly padded down the hall to investigate. As he peered around the edge of the door, he saw his father sitting at the chair near Lance’s desk, his grey sock rubbing the carpet back and forth, back and forth. He was bent over the glass desktop, looking through at the photographs below. Ben quickly returned to his bed and pulled up the covers.

The light went out, the stairs creaked again, and the distant beat of the clock moved him further from his brother with every measured sound. All he could see was the small blue figure. He welcomed the arriving tears and let them dampen his pillow as he fell asleep. He remembered his father. He remembered Reb and her downcast glance. He remembered Alicia’s locked door, Gina’s eyes… and the permanent tear on the glowing blue face.

the priest as chaplain

Today I’ve published another one of my old papers. As part of my seminary education, I completed a summer internship at Regions Hospital in 1995, serving as a chaplain alongside other seminary candidates from various denominations. Among other things, it gave me a chance to reflect on priestly identity and the role of the priest in pastoral care:

Theological Integration Paper

My reflections were centered around C.S. Lewis’ essay, The Weight of Glory, so it seems appropriate to publish them on this blog.

NOTE: After a lengthy discernment with various turns, I have reached a decision in the past year to remain a layman rather than pursue what I once considered a call to ordained priesthood in my life.

the Church in the Sudan and Saint Bakhita

In January of 2001, I had the privilege of interviewing William Saunders for an article about the persecuted Church in the Sudan. Just three months earlier, Pope John Paul II had canonized the first Sudanese saint, Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita, and so Saunders told me a bit about her in the context of helping me understand the situation of the Church in the Sudan.

Since Pope Benedict XVI references Saint Bakhita at the beginning of his encyclical, Spe Salvi, as a model of Christian hope, I’ve decided to reprint my article about the Church in the Sudan.

The Church in the Sudan Gives Witness to Christ During Persecution

This article originally appeared in the April 2001 edition of The Catholic Servant.

“In the holy days of Lent the ‘offering’ assumes a deeper meaning, because it is not just giving something from the surplus to relieve one’s conscience, but to truly take upon one’s self the misery present in the world. To look at the suffering face and the conditions of misery of many brothers and sisters forces us to share at least part of our own goods with those in difficulty…. The world expects from Christians a consistent witness of communion and solidarity.”

These words, taken from Pope John Paul II’s message for Lent 2001, invite all the faithful to examine the suffering face of Christ present in today’s world. The image of the suffering Christ manifests itself vividly today in the trials borne by the people of the Sudan. William Saunders, an attorney from Washington, DC, who is the founder and director of Sudan Relief and Rescue, Inc., spoke about the sufferings of the Sudanese people at a conference on evangelization held this past January at the University of Saint Thomas.

The Sudan, Africa’s largest country, is situated just south of Egypt and has a population of nearly 30 million people. A third of the population lives in the southern part of the country, where about half of the Sudanese people are Christian, and half are animists. Since 1983, when civil war broke out in the Sudan under increasing pressure from Islamic fundamentalists to impose sharia (Islamic law) on the country, more than 1.9 million people have died from war-related causes: starvation, bombings and other atrocities. This death toll—which is larger than the number of deaths due to the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda combined—averages out to about 14 deaths every hour since the outbreak of the war. Another 4 million people have been displaced from their homes. This is an Islamic holy war, or jihad, carried out presently by the ruling government, the radical fundamentalist group known as the National Islamic Front (NIF). The NIF, representing only about seven percent of the Sudanese population, overthrew the elected government in 1989 and immediately intensified persecution of all non-Muslims in the Sudan. William Saunders notes that the Christian population—in particular the Catholic Church—has been a special target for persecution, since it is seen as an obstacle to the NIF’s goal to make Islam the sole religion of the country. Catholic churches, hospitals, and schools are a regular target of bombings and other forms of oppression. However, moderate Muslims, who are tolerant of Christians and other religious traditions within the population, are also persecuted by the government.

The jihad—which seeks to eliminate all non-Muslim elements of the population through tactics such as torture, bombing, and the withholding of food and water from non-Muslim populations—operates on the premise that Islam is the rightful religion of the Sudan. However, Christianity was the religion of the land for hundreds of years before the rise of Islam in the seventh century. In fact, as Saunders notes, the Church in the Sudan has apostolic roots. According to the book of Acts, one of the first non-Jewish converts to the faith was an Ethiopian from the court of Candace, who received the gospel from the deacon Philip. Scripture scholars say that Candace is a reference to modern-day Sudan. Christianity was eventually suppressed by the rise of Islam, but made a revival in the nineteenth century through missionary efforts. Then, in the mid-twentieth century, when the Sudan achieved independence from Britain, Christians again began to experience intensified religious persecution.

Since the southern part of Sudan is almost entirely non-Muslim and non-Arab, persecution is currently most intense in this area. Bombing raids are carried out regularly from high altitudes; according to Saunders, the precision of the bombing is not as important to the government as the creation of an atmosphere of terror. Many people have been forced to seek shelter in remote areas, such as the higher elevations of the Nuba Mountains in the south. Interestingly, the Christian population has been growing in the Sudan, flourishing amidst the persecution.

The Sudan also has a long history of support for the slave trade, and the present government has legitimized the practice of slavery; in a holy war, it is not considered a sin to take slaves. In a gesture that rankled the conscience of the present government, the Catholic Church canonized its first Sudanese saint in October of 2000, Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita, a woman kidnapped and sold as a slave late in the nineteenth century. Saint Bakhita eventually arrived in Italy, was emancipated, and became a member of the Canossian Daughters of Charity. Her writings, which document the torture she endured as a slave over a number of years, are also a beautiful testament to her virtue, willingness to forgive, and the natural goodness that contributed to a holy Christian life when she was later catechized and received into the Catholic Church.

Saunders says that although there are regional efforts to put pressure on the Sudanese government, complicating factors have given the NIF some leverage. A border war between Sudan’s neighbors to the east—Eritrea and Ethiopia—has prevented these countries from uniting their efforts against the oppressive Sudanese regime. Also, the government is now profiting from the Sudan’s newly-discovered oil resources; by selling oil to other countries—most notably, to China—the Sudanese government has obtained a lucrative source of income to fund the jihad.

The greatest sign of hope for the persecuted Church in the Sudan has been the prophetic presence of a courageous, native-born Catholic bishop, Reverend Macram Max Gassis. He is bishop of the diocese of El Obeid, an area of Sudan that is twice the size of Italy. Named a bishop in 1988, he began speaking to international organizations such as the US Congress and the United Nations about the Sudanese atrocities. The NIF declared him a criminal for exposing the government’s human rights abuses, and he now lives in exile in neighboring Kenya. Saunders says that Bishop Gassis regularly carries out clandestine operations into Sudan to bring in supplies of food, water, seeds, and building supplies for wells, schools, churches and hospitals. The bishop also helps educate and house 1,200 orphaned children. In one region he visits, northern Bahr-el-Ghazal, there have been no resident priests for over twenty years. The faith is spread by courageous catechists, many of whom are women trained as part of Bishop Gassis’ efforts to advance the education of women in a country where women are considered to be second-class citizens. Gassis calls the catechists “heroes of love,” who live under the threat of torture and even murder. The bishop makes great efforts to be present to his people, holding clandestine Masses in the thick of sycamore trees for hundreds of Sudanese Catholics at Christmas and Easter. Sudanese Catholics travel many miles to receive with joy their faithful shepherd. During the holy days, the government will often launch bombing raids because they know the Catholic population will be gathered in larger numbers at these times.

William Saunders met Bishop Gassis in 1997, when Gassis was in Washington, DC, speaking about slavery and genocide in the Sudan. At the request of Bishop Gassis, Saunders founded Sudan Relief and Rescue, Inc., an non-profit 501(c)(3) organization designed to fund and support the work Gassis is doing in his native land. This is volunteer work for Saunders, whose livelihood is his pro-life and human rights work as an attorney.

Saunders has traveled with Bishop Gassis to the Sudan, notably during the Christmas season in 1998, and has moving stories to tell about visiting with orphaned children, viewing damage from government bombings, and participating in clandestine liturgies in the Nuba Mountains. Saunders is not simply a human rights activist; he is also, like Bishop Gassis, a man of deep faith who can penetrate the meaning of the suffering of the Sudanese people. “The persecuted Catholics in the Sudan are offering their sufferings for the whole Church! As Bishop Gassis says, the Church of the Sudan is a donor Church, offering up its sufferings on behalf of all the faithful,” says Saunders. They are expressing their communion with us; how will we express the same to them?

Acutely aware of the gift of the Sudanese people, Saunders notes the great witness they offer to the Church in this country, and notes that the current situation gives us the chance to serve our persecuted brothers and sisters across the globe. “If you say, ‘I am a Catholic’ in the Sudan, you are going to suffer. So if you don’t mean it, you don’t say it! In the materialism of America today, our enemies are more subtle and we don’t realize the compromises we’re making. It’s a great blessing for Christians here to realize what it costs to be Christians in other places; it wakes us up here in the United States so that we can help to alleviate the suffering of others and build up the Church.”

What, practically, can we do to reach out to our Sudanese brothers and sisters? First, Saunders says, we can offer our prayers. Second, we can make financial contributions to Sudan Relief and Rescue (SRR) to assist Bishop Gassis in his work of building hospitals and schools, training catechists and seminarians, caring for orphans, and providing food, water and medical treatment. While there are other relief organizations, SRR reaches territory that no other organization can reach: “The UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan, a kind of a consortium of relief groups, had to negotiate an agreement with the government in order to be able to deliver food. The government won’t let them go into these areas where we are going. They do a lot of good in other parts of the country; I’m just saying that if you want to help in the areas served by Bishop Gassis, just about the only way to do it is through our organization.” Third, we can ask our elected representatives to push for a UN-backed no-fly zone over central and southern Sudan in order to end the bombing raids.

As Pope John Paul II noted last October during the canonization of Saint Bakhita, the plight of the Sudanese people is the responsibility not only of world governments, but of every Christian: “I plead with the international community: do not continue to ignore this immense human tragedy. I invite the whole Church to invoke the intercession of St. Bakhita upon all our persecuted and enslaved brothers and sisters, especially in Africa and in her native Sudan, that they may know reconciliation and peace.” May this Lent be a privileged time for Christians worldwide to express their communion with the persecuted Church of the Sudan.

To contact the Bishop Gassis Sudan Relief Fund, write to: PO Box 7084, Merriffield, VA 22116-9798 or call toll-free: 1-888-488-0348. You may also visit the organization’s website at: www.bishopgassis.org. All donations are tax-deductible.