I had a chance to talk today for the first time with a fellow parishioner I'll call Mitch. I've noticed Mitch at daily Mass. He is younger than me by a lot but looks like he could be older. Mitch has gray hair, weathered skin, and the seemly humility of a man in his seventies. Mitch has mileage on his tires.
Mitch admitted to me when our conversation was only a few minutes old that life has beat him up more than a little—enough so that after untold years Mitch is returning to the Catholic Church for the first time since ninth grade. Mitch does not exhibit the kind of socioeconomic profile I was encouraged to develop when I grew up, but now that I am finally setting aside childish things, he is a man I am proud to recognize as my brother. This is an amazing thing about the Church: you can talk with an odd stranger for less time than it takes to read the sports page, only to recognize him as a long-lost friend.
In our conversation, Mitch told me he is the son of devout Catholics. He went to parochial school in an old New England manufacturing city, the kind where today the unemployment rate is pushing 25 percent and the felony rate is somewhere north of that. He left the Church, he said, when a trusted priest failed to offer sensible answers to Mitch's most searching theological questions. Without pride, false humility, or dramatization, Mitch admitted to me that he has since survived an unhappy marriage that is in the process of being annulled. He works in the building trades—not as a boss but as a simple "apprentice." He seems to like saying that he works for a carpenter, but when I asked him if the carpenter's name begins with J, Mitch only smiled and shook his head. A boss named Jesus or Joseph would not be the only coincidence in Mitch's renewed Catholic life.
Mitch explained to me that he has been brought back to the Church by one person: the Blessed Mother. He sees Her everywhere: in the last three numbers on a lottery ticket, in an oil slick. It was a book on Medjugorje that first called Mitch back to the Church—a volume he claims he read in the local library even though the librarian there now claims the library not only doesn't have the book, but never did. Mitch only shakes his head again. When I told him that one of the truly determinative experiences in my becoming Catholic was visiting Lourdes in my early twenties, Mitch, who may never be able to afford a trip to Lourdes or Medjugorje, said, "I can only imagine. I can only imagine."
Mitch admitted to me with some chagrin, "One of the things that disturbs me is, I haven't learned to witness yet. I know the Blessed Mother has called me to Her Son for a reason, but I don't know what purpose She has in mind for me yet." I told Mitch that I had experienced the same disturbance when I was in RCIA. What am I supposed to do, I thought, stand on a soapbox in front of the church and hand out leaflets? Walk door to door preaching the Word of God? I wanted to do something, and now, two years later, I have finally found a vehicle that suits me: this blog. I told Mitch about my blog, and he only shrugged again, like, Yeah, I might really check that out some day, though I doubt he will.
When I asked Mitch what he likes doing when he isn't working or going to Mass, he said reading. "I'd like to go into a room and read theology for the rest of my life," he said, and to hear him say this is to realize that Mitch is not only not crazy but in fact very intelligent. I pointed out someone at Church who is a Ph.D candidate in philosophy, and our conversation ended almost immediately. Mitch went off to talk with the philosopher, which I am not.
I do not propose Mitch as a typical Catholic. His intensity, his sincerity, and his single-minded devotion to the Blessed Mother are enough to scare away all but serious seekers. But I do propose Mitch as a reason to be Catholic: humble, smart, determined to grow in holiness, and from today onward, someone I am happy to call friend.
(The lovely image of Jesus as a carpenter is available at this link.)