I travel a lot for my mission in Magadan, Russia, always wearing my religious habit or a clerical cassock to identify me as a priest. Exceptional encounters and conversations arise that would not otherwise happen if people didn’t know I was a priest.
I have prayed with the dying and sick, heard confessions from people who haven’t been to church for years. I have counseled and consoled. Once I had a small prayer meeting with a few Christian airline attendants right in the plane’s galley. It was tremendous. I jokingly say that I witness many conversions on plane trips as I walk down the aisle looking for my seat. I can see the fear in the eyes of many who are quietly praying, “Please God, don’t let that religious fanatic sit next to me.”
Plane conversations are varied and sometimes superficial. Other times they are deep and personal, including lively discussions about the faith and the church. Many of those conversations come from those who are serious about their faith and seeking answers. I admire a good Baptist or Evangelical who can focus on the Scriptures and who knows Jesus. I wish more Catholics embraced the treasures of their faith.
Sometimes I meet Protestants who want to save my soul — these are the hardest to dialogue with. I usually just ask them if we can pray the rosary together and that ends any further discussion.
When traveling, I carry my Bible, breviary and a cheat sheet — a reference guide on key questions and objections that often come up about the Catholic Church. I’ve found that people often repeat the same misconceptions their pastor was taught and his pastor before him. There aren’t many surprise topics.
One of the more common objections is that Catholics “worship” idols and the Virgin Mary. In these situations I explain that as Catholics we revere and respect the Mother of God, because if she had not freely chosen to be the Mother of Jesus and agreed to be “the handmaid of the Lord,” then Jesus would not have been born and our souls could not be saved. Are we wrong to respect and revere the Mother of Our Savior?
Sometimes a fellow traveler will claim that the Catholic Church killed millions of people during the Inquisition. I explain that the Inquisition lasted more than 350 years, during which time 3,500 people were killed, usually by civil authorities, not the Catholic Church.
Other times I hear the charge: “You Catholics aren’t allowed to read The Bible.” I then explain that Catholic priests encourage folks to read the Bible. I know this because I am a priest. I add that the church also encourages and provides in-depth teachings on the Scriptures. I also share that the Catholic Mass is actually more bible focused than most Evangelical churches, as we have four Bible readings at every Mass. And the words of the Mass are permeated with Scripture quotes and references.
I have heard this charge as well: “The Catholic Church was invented by the Emperor Constantine in 350 AD!” To this, I note that the clear historical record shows that Emperor Constantine actually joined the Catholic Church 300 years after the first pope had moved the central leadership of the church to Rome, a place where the church grew despite intense persecution from political authorities.
Often these discussions finally come down to the issue of salvation, something like: “Do you know Jesus, personally, and have you received him as Lord and Savior?” This is a good question for Catholics to ponder. Read the words and the desire of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “It is necessary to enter into a real friendship with Jesus in a personal relationship with him and not to know who Jesus is only from others or from books, but to live an ever deeper, truly personal relationship with Jesus where we begin to understand what he is asking of us…”
So I respond to the salvation question by noting that I have been saved, I’m being saved, and I have the hope that I will be saved, all while I work out my salvation with fear and trembling, like Saint Paul. In other words, according to the Bible, “being saved” is not a one time event, but rather, an ongoing process.
In some ways, I think of the salvation journey like an airplane trip. I have been riding the airplane since I first got on (at my baptism), I am now traveling on the plane (enduring the sufferings of life for Christ), and I will be on the airplane when it lands at my final destination (death and heaven).
Throughout these many discussions, I love to speak about the gift of the Holy Eucharist. Using Jesus’ own radical and clear words from Saint John’s Gospel, I explain that we Catholics take to heart Jesus’ straight-forward teaching: “If you do not eat my body and drink my blood you do not have life within you.”
Catholics fulfill this instruction during Holy Communion. At every Catholic Mass since the night Jesus and the Apostle shared The Last Supper, bread and wine have become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ during the Catholic Mass. We know and obey Christ who fulfilled the prophecies. We have such a personal relationship with him that we receive his Body and Blood at each re-presentation of The Last Supper. Can you imagine at every Mass we have his life in us?
So I travel and I love it. I love the Lord and I love his bride, the church, and I want others to find him, and her. A priest has only one real duty. I felt it once as I celebrated the Eucharist. I was holding up his Body and Blood and I realized that this is what I am to do always. I am to hold up Jesus to the world. Even in airport terminals and cramped airplane seats, Christ can be praised.
The writer is pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia.