Back in 1989 or 1990, and I went to spend a week in discernment with the Oblates of the Virgin Mary in Boston. They were a pretty cool group of guys and all week long we played lots of sports. Most memorable was the game of softball where I was playing right field when this huge religious brother crushed the ball right at me and hit me you-know-where. I was sure that this was a plot to ensure my vocation. Later, I did end up bloodying and possibly breaking a priest’s nose during a game of basketball, which I would have felt guilty about if he had not been such a jerk about it.
That week, while I was staying with them, I had forgotten to bring my toothpaste and so they told me where there was a drug store nearby that I would pick some up. As I walked to the drugstore, there on the sidewalk was a pretty young woman asleep on a piece of cardboard being stepped over by people heading to their various destinations. Her hair was messy and there was dirt smudged on her face from living on the street. That scene so deeply broke my heart that her face became emblazoned upon my memory. For several days I noticed her sleeping on the street near the seminary, I felt such a need to help her but I had no idea what to do. So, like the masses, I walked past her pretending not to notice.
My time with the Oblates ended and I returned to Cincinnati. I realized from my visit that I had lots of issues to work through and that the priesthood was an unlikely path for me. So I resumed my life working and hanging out with friends.
About a couple years later a friend of mine, Jim, and I met a great priest named Fr. Joe. He told us how years before he had started a prayer group that had over 150 members. We asked him if we couldn’t try to build something like that again. So Fr. Joe, Jim, and I started a little prayer group. We all invited a few people that we knew. Fr Joe invited a guy named Dave, whose family owned a small chain of grocery stores. Dave was accompanied by his girlfriend, Paige, who seemed strangely familiar to me. After several weeks of having prayer group and hanging out with each other, it suddenly hit my why this girl looked so familiar, she was the girl from the street in front of the seminary. Quietly, I asked her if she was the same person and she confirmed it. Paige had been in college and decided that she wanted to leave school to pursue other interests. Her parents objected to her decision and so they refused to send her any money, even to just come home. She was trapped with no money in Boston and soon became “just another homeless person” on the street of that large city. She often slept near churches; it gave her a sense of peace. She also kept a picture of the Sacred Heart near her chest while she slept to comfort her. The ordeal caused her to have a nervous breakdown, but finally a friend learned of her predicament and rescued her from the streets. On the way back to Cincinnati, her friend brought her to Steubenville for a quick side trip. Walking across campus, Fr. Mike saw her and began to walk toward her. She collapsed in his arms and he held her and comforted her. He prayed for her, and told her how much God loved her. It was a powerful moment of healing for her.
We became good friends and she became for me a powerful reminder not to simply see a person’s circumstances but to really see the person. For years I suffered under the illusion that I was safe from suffering such circumstances, until it happened to me too. Today, I am grateful for what we have and mindful of how easily it can all be taken away.
As it happens, like Paige, I have had people step over me and treat me like I was garbage on the sidewalk. Recently, I had to spend the day with a few of those folks. To look into the eyes of another human being and have reflected back to you an image of disdain and scorn is a painful experience. Thankfully, like Fr. Mike did for Paige, long ago God lifted my eyes to meet His own. It is in them that I see my true reflection. I am at peace inside because I now no longer let some mere human being tell me who and what I am.