[This is my last post in this little series written on retreat. It may take a bit for me to get writing again. Blessings and Happy 4th of July!]
I just met a man the other day who teaches up North at an inner city all-boys high school. It sits right in middle of the most dangerous neighborhood in the city, a neighborhood filled with gang violence. The man himself is a character, quick-witted and very sharp. He was telling me the story after story about the boys he teaches, how difficult their lives are. It’s really unreal. Most of them are from lower income, single mother homes with dads nowhere in sight. Most of these young men, he said, in the absence of a strong positive male role model will inevitably wind up in a gang, addicted to heroine, in prison; and will probably be dead within 5 years. Within the strictures of public school, he tries to share his faith with these boys and encourage them to find a way out of their neighborhood and go to college. Many of the Hispanic boys have Catholic mothers, but the mothers are too afraid to take their boys to church by way of public transportation (the only way to get them there) as that’s frequently how these boys get picked up – i.e. kidnapped – by the gangs. He said lots of these boys really want to find God, do the right and go to church, but they don’t see how it’s possible.
So this man does all he can to give them devotions to pray on their own that can, as he said, “act in the place of Mass.” The Divine Mercy Chaplet is especially successful, he said, and lots of the boys will tell him they pray it every night; or pray, “Jesus, I trust in you” before sporting events or tests. He mentors them after school, using tutoring and coaching as an “in” to get their trust so he can give them wisdom on life. Some of the boys have gone on to college and escaped that world, but many or most have ended up in a gang. A number of them, dead. He said, “Man, if I could find other teachers willing to band together and bring faith to these kids, we could make a difference. I don’t care if they’re Catholic or Protestant. It’s tough to find people wiling to put their faith out there. But I’m telling you these boys just need God in their life to get enough hope to escape that world of violence and become something more than the gangs have to offer. They want to feel like they belong, and that’s what church is supposed to give them. I’m always asking the saints to pray for these boys and I pray a decade of the rosary every day. It’s hard, though. It’s an uphill battle. They got the deck stacked again them at every point. I’ll tell you, if we had a tough Irish priest who could walk into this school and speak to these boys every day, it’d be a game changer. One strong father figure who represents God and ‘Bam!’ They’d be sold.”
Reminds me of Tattoos on the Heart.
By the way, that is the lay apostolate in full throttle.
His last comment reminded me of a real-life priest I was close to many years ago. He was an inner city priest whose parish was lower-middle class blue collar. He was affectionately called the “Street Padre” around his parish as he often wandered the streets during the daytime visiting apartments, shops, bars, restaurants and such to connect face to face with the people who lived within his parish boundaries. He would ask how a man’s sick wife was doing, query another man about why he’d been away from church for a few months, offer a blessing to a pregnant woman or hear a young man’s confession on the spot. This boy told the priest with brazen pride he’d been sleeping around and Father said, “Time for confession.” I walked away.
In fact, this young man – 16 years old – eventually got caught up in a drug ring and disappeared for quite a stretch of time. His mother would come to this priest in tears asking for his help. Eventually, the boy was found beat up badly and eaten away by the drugs. This priest stayed with him right to the end in the hospice, speaking into his ear right until the boy died. It was heart breaking, but the beauty of this Street Padre’s fatherly love was overwhelming. And although he was not able to save this boy from the dark world of drug violence, he was able to bring hope to the boy at the end, and to the mother. This priest confided in me once that for years upon years his personal prayer life had been like “eating dust,” dry and emotionally unrewarding. But, he said, “it gave me great strength for my work.” He said he knew it was God’s built-in gift to his priesthood so he could sacrifice for his people. When he was first ordained he traveled to Ars, France, the town of St. John Vianney, and asked God to make him a good parish priest who wants nothing more than “to remain in a parish to the very end.” It’s the one place where, he said, “you can make the soil of the graveyard a reliquary. And that’s my vocation.”
Hidden saints. Pillars of the world.