Tag Archives: friendship

Of Godchildren, Detox, and RCIA

22 Jan

old-fashioned-baptism

“Three times a week Sister Aloysia came to give me a catechism lesson….”
~ Dorothy Day

My students were finding their seats, pulling notebooks out of bags, silencing their phones (praise God!). One of them, Michaela, had recently started a regular babysitting gig for a former student of mine and her young family – a young family that happens to include my godson, Dominic.

“How’s my godson doing?” I asked Mic. “Didn’t you sit for him last night?”

“Yes,” she replied. “He’s doing fine – he’s so cute!” I smiled – no argument there.

Next to Michaela sat Kat, another of my med-surg students, who piped up, “How many godchildren do you have anyway?”

I teach at an Evangelical college, so few of my students are practicing Catholics, and I’ll generally jump on opportunities like this one to do some simple catechesis. Besides, my students are accustomed to my answering straightforward questions with anecdotes and long digressions, and I didn’t want to disappoint.

“Let me tell you a story,” I said. “A friend of mine in Chicago, the man I call my godfather, used to tell me that he couldn’t remember all the godchildren he had.” It’s true. Jim, longtime resident of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and a legendary pillar of the do-gooder community there, has served as godfather for countless babies over the decades – including one of my own. “I always thought it was scandalous,” I told Kat and Mic, “because baptism and godparenting duties are so sacred and important. I used to think that I’d never forget my spiritual children should I ever have the privilege of becoming a godfather.” They nodded their understanding, and I continued.

“After I became a Catholic myself, I got my chance,” I said, “and I’ve gotten my chance again and again. Now I can’t remember the exact number any more, although I do pray for my godchildren collectively every day – sometimes by name if God brings them to mind.” I added that I’m certain my godfather does the same, and, by way of catechetical clarification, I added, “Jim’s not really my godfather by the way – I was already baptized when I became a Catholic. Really he was my sponsor when I joined the Church, but I just call him my godfather.”

“Sponsor?” Kat asked, raising an eyebrow. “You mean like AA?”

There was a weighty pause as I considered her comparison – one I’d never considered before. “Well, yes,” I finally agreed, “yes, a lot like Alcoholics Anonymous!”

I think Kat’s onto something there.

Consider: Without grace, we’re addicted to sin, aren’t we? We develop dependencies on our self-destructive behaviors, and we come to crave the evils that keep us separated from God. In fact, we routinely refer to “habits” of vice, just as we refer to “habits” of virtue – perfidy and purification as moral extensions, in opposite directions, of our human reliance on rote action.

Baptism is the drunk tank of our withdrawal from sin. It’s an ecclesial intervention to disrupt the downward slope of our unregenerate routines – a sacramental wake-up call, a liturgical splash of cold water in the face. When we receive baptism as adults (or seek full communion with the Church via the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), we’re in effect embracing the first step of AA’s famous 12-step program of recovery:We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (read: sin) – that our lives had become unmanageable.” Simultaneously, we’re also ticking off our acquiescence to the next two steps as well – namely, that we believe that a “Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and that we’re turning “our will and our lives over to the care of God.”

The overlap between Catholic conversion and Alcoholics Anonymous is all the more illuminating if you take the full communion route, for while non-Christians will require baptism when they join the Church, those who were baptized previously need only make a profession of faith and make a good first confession. With that in mind, get a load of the next four AA steps:

  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  2. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  3. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  4. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Sound familiar? Whether you stumbled through it as a second-grader, or sweated through it as a grown-up, you’ll remember all those elements in your own first confession.

Then there’s the last two AA steps which constitute the essence of Christian praxis – communion and witness – regardless of when we’re initiated. Step #11 starts off, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God,” and step #12 follows with a restatement of the Great Commission: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics (read: other sin-addicts) and to practice these principles in all our affairs” – that is, get out there and preach, but be sure to practice what you preach.

I know a little about this stuff because my dad was an alcoholic and he was an AA meeting regular – at least when he was sober. In fact, I seem to recall going to a meeting with him once as a teenager, but that might be wishful thinking on my part. In any case, I definitely grew up yearning for his sobriety constantly, and I came to associate his teetotalling lulls with his participation in AA programs.

And I remember he always had a sponsor.

“How does sponsorship help the newcomer?” reads an AA pamphlet. “It assures the newcomer that there is at least one person who understands the situation fully and cares – one person to turn to without embarrassment when doubts, questions, or problems linked to alcoholism arise.” For one thing, the AA sponsor is a recovering alcoholic himself – he’s been there; indeed, he is there. The sober sponsor can truly empathize with the fellow addict at the very cusp of recovery. But, even more important, the sponsor will be there long after sobriety is reached, because it’s a “continuing responsibility for helping a newcomer adjust to a way of life….”

Precisely. The same goes for the RCIA sponsor – at least, the same goes for Jim.

“The candidate should be accompanied by a sponsor,” reads the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. “If someone has had the principal part in guiding or preparing the candidate, he or she should be the sponsor” (#396). And what’s the sponsor supposed to do? The RCIA gives us a clue in paragraph #75.2: Prospective Catholics “become familiar with the Christian way of life and are helped by the example and support of sponsors….”

Jim was there for me when I had doubts, questions, and problems as I considered the outrageous claims of the Church. He was that one person I could rely on to shepherd me through controversy and qualm, and to assure me that my stumbles and scruples were not exceptional – he’d been through it all himself.

He’s continued to be there for me after 30 years. Thanks, Jim. I can only hope and pray I’ll be the same kind of sponsor/godfather for Dominic – your spiritual God-grandson.
____________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Did He Show Up?

20 Oct

This is primarily a tribute to my friend Tim Roemer. Tim died last year just before Christmas, and I’ve been mulling over his death and life ever since.

It’s high time I got some of that mulling out of my head and into words, especially  with the first anniversary of his death approaching. I owe it to him, to his wife, Nancy, and to his kids, Peter and Anna. I owe it because, even though I’ll forever be in Tim’s debt, that’s no excuse to skip payments. Consider this a belated first installment.

A friend like Tim doesn’t come along very often, and he came along in my life at a crucial moment. He was fiercely loyal, embarrassingly generous, and extraordinarily self-effacing. Tim could also be infuriating at times (neglecting to pick up his wedding cake until an hour before his wedding comes to mind), and fantastically stubborn—just like the rest of us. In his case, however, it seemed like those were very small flaws compared to his many gifts and grand magnanimity.

Also, Tim was an idealist and a dreamer—a war tax resister, for example, and a regular at the Uptown Catholic Worker—so we found common cause as we stumbled around like a couple urban Don Quixotes, tilting at windmills and laughing at our foibles.

During this same time, I was discovering the Church, and, in time, embracing it, and my friendship with Tim gave me firsthand insight into what it meant to be a thoroughgoing Catholic. In fact, he was, along with my godfather and others in Uptown, among the first thoroughgoing Christians I’d ever encountered—thoroughgoing in the sense timthat Tim’s faith wasn’t an attachment or an addendum or just one aspect of his life, but rather it was his life, in a very natural, integrated way. So integrated, in fact, that he didn’t talk about it all the time, nor did he feel a need to draw attention to it. It was simply a given for Tim; it was assumed.

Three stories about Tim neatly summarize that integrated demeanor he modeled for me and which I’ve tried to emulate ever since. The stories all have Sacramental themes, and together they form a kind of catechetical triptych which continues to inform my own faith to this day. Maybe you’ll find them helpful as well. At the very least, if you’re a convert, you’ll appreciate these three Sacramental anecdotes, and why they helped me find my place in the Catholic universe.

First, Confession.

Tim loved to tell about battlefield priests during World War II who would hear Confessions of soldiers prior to major combat actions. “Are you sorry for your sins?” the priests would ask. “No,” would come the honest reply from war-hardened troops accustomed to less than saintly behaviors. Knowing that the troops faced the probability of death, and so anxious to grant them absolution, the priests would then ask, “But are you sorry that you’re not sorry?”

It sounds apocryphal, and maybe it is. Nevertheless, the story illustrates something profoundly true about the Church and her work of mediating the love of Christ to the world—namely, that He’s desperate to give it to us. Unlike the rather rigid formulas that most people associate with Catholicism, the God we encounter in Christ, the one we see in the Scriptures, the one the Church presents to us, is one who will go to any and every length to give us life and love and even Himself.

As Jesus said, God won’t be outdone by human fathers who generally provide good things for their families. Does a dad give his children stones when they ask for bread? Or scorpions when they ask for eggs? No, and usually he is working extra shifts to not only give them food and shelter and clothing, but cake and ice cream as well. Maybe even a trip to Disney World.

Yet human fathers are only a pale reflection of our heavenly Father who wants much more for us than treats and trips. He wants to give us heaven itself, and adoption, and eternity. He’s desperate to do it, and desperate times call for desperate measures. And that’s pretty much what the Gospels are all about.

Second, vocation.

This story hearkens back to the days when Tim and I were both wrestling with our life callings. Like him, I was oblivious to the painfully evident fact that God hadn’t called me to the priesthood. Tim figured it out way before I did—no doubt because, as a cradle Catholic, he was equipped to read the vocational tea leaves more readily. Nevertheless, until he finally relented and embraced his true vocation of marriage and fatherhood (in which both arenas he thrived), Tim had made halting progress in the discernment and seminary application process with the Archdiocese of Chicago.

During one of his interviews, my friend was asked what he thought about the role of women in the Church. Without any hesitation, Tim responded, and it was a simple, direct, vocation-squelching, yet wise classic: “Women’s role in the Church? Same as men: To become saints.” Clearly this wasn’t what the vocation folks in the chancery wanted to hear.

Rather, they wanted some nuanced and politically sensitive ramble about changing cultural attitudes, development of doctrine, and expanding opportunities for women’s participation in the liturgy and church governance. This was in the Cardinal Bernardin heyday, and the archdiocesan middle management was overwhelmingly “progressive.” Orthodoxy had to be gilded with a liberal patina in order to survive such vetting episodes.

None of that for Tim, however. He, like me, saw that the Church needed priests, and he pursued ordination accordingly—out of a sense of love and duty more than a sense of calling. But even if some fancy Jesuitical footwork could’ve enabled Tim to fly below the vocation office’s orthodoxy radar, it was a price too high, and that interview foretold the eventual demise of his priestly quest. That was a good thing, of course, because as Nancy and the kids can attest, his vocation lay elsewhere.

Here, too, Tim became a role model for me, as he took up marriage and fatherhood with the same tenacity and drive that characterized his do-gooder Catholic Worker-ism. “If God has called me to become a saint through marriage and family life,” I can imagine him saying, “well, then, dammit, let’s get on with it!” If he didn’t actually say those words, that’s certainly how he lived, and I took his example to heart.

Misa_Mosaico_SMarcosFinally, the Eucharist.

I lived with Roemer, along with our mutual friend and my godfather, Jim Eder, for a longish portion of my Uptown, Catholic Worker days. All three of us were daily Communicants, although we often went to Mass separately and at different times. Often I would go alone to the 8 am weekday Mass at St. Thomas of Canterbury. When I returned to our flat, I had a pretty good idea of what I could expect.

Eder would already be off to work, having attended the 6:45 am liturgy. Tim would be home, sitting in an easy chair and reading the Tribune amid the clutter and mess of our apartment. Entering our six-flat building and climbing the stairs to the third floor would involve enough noise that Tim would be alerted to my imminent arrival. When I entered our flat, Tim would invariably drop the paper enough to make eye contact with me and utter his favorite question deadpan: “Did He show up?” My answer, always in the affirmative, would be met with a grunt of approval, and the paper shield would be restored.

What might sound like sacrilege or, at best, irreverence always struck me as a preeminent sign of Tim’s secure faith, and I admired his comfortable familiarity with the miracle of the Mass and the wonder of the Church. He was truly at home in that vast Catholic Thing, and I envied him.

In addition, however, Tim’s seemingly flippant question was rooted in a profound insight regarding, first, our own utter dependency on divine grace, and, second, our dire responsibility as well. The humor in Tim’s daily query is that He always “shows up,” no matter what—it’s what He promised us, after all. “And, lo, I will be with you until the end of the age,” He told the Apostles just before the Ascension.

The real question, you see, is whether we show up—or rather, whether I do. He will always be there, no question, ready for whatever problems or difficulties or sufferings I might bring Him, and ready to give Himself totally to us, to feed us with His very self. Will I come to that encounter hungry for Him? Will I come ready with an open heart and a submissive will? Will I come prepared for what He wants to give me and do for me no matter what?

Rest in peace, my friend. Thank you for the Faith lessons you taught me: that God desperately wants to save us, that he desperately wants to sanctify us, and that all we have to do is let Him. Pray for me that, like you, I may show up whenever He does.

_____________________________________________________

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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