I didn’t start out with the intention of wrecking anything. In fact, when in both cases the meeting ended in angry shouts and people running out the door breathing hard, I was as shocked as anybody. Here is what happened:
The time was the late l970’s. I was a new Catholic, with Jewish roots and a seven-year stint in an Evangelical church where I had learned to revere the Bible. I knew there was a lot of controversy within the Church, but I don’t think I really understood that the gentle “spirit of Vatican II” had turned into a gale-force wind ripping through Good Pope John’s “open windows” and leaving rubble all over the spiritual landscape.
One day our parish bulletin announced a weekly Bible study for adults, which I signed up for with happy expectations. It was to be taught by a young man named… let’s call him Mr. U, for Updated, because he reminded us several times that he had taken a six-month course in Updated Theology under the auspices of the diocese. The word “updated” didn’t ring any alarm bells in my innocent ears at that time, as it did later on when I heard it used to mean something more like “uprooted.”
The first class began tamely enough. We got settled down with our Bibles and Mr. U. began to teach, beginning with the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. It soon became clear that the main fact we needed to know was that the whole thing was a pack of lies invented by a cunning cabal called the Early Christian Community, for God alone knew what reason.
As he continued teaching, I began to notice stricken looks on the faces of some of the students. After demolishing angels, shepherds, Magi, and stars, and throwing doubt on anything that suggested the supernatural at all, Mr. U. tore into the Hebrew Bible. The God of the Old Testament, we learned, was not the true God at all, but a product of the primitive Hebrew mentality — a cosmic bully with anger management problems. At this point my Jewish blood began to simmer. We were all getting restive and starting to object to one thing or another. Mr. U. kept reminding us that this was all “the teaching of the Council,” and anyway, he had taken that six-month course….
He went further. Jesus was not the Messiah of Israel; those Jews had it all wrong, as usual. By this time I had so many things to say at once that I was reduced to silence, like Reepicheep on the slaver’s back. But my guardian angel must have felt sorry for me because he whispered an inspiration into my ear.
“Mr. U,” I said sweetly, “Do you happen to know how the word Messiah — Mashiach in Hebrew — is translated into English?
“No,” he replied.
“Oh,” he said.
“So you’re saying Jesus is not the Christ, right?”
There was a short silence, and then — I have to give him credit for honesty — he said, “Yes, Jesus is not the Christ.”
That little dialog is among my happier memories because my usual practice in these situations is to get angry and blurt out something stupid, as you will see by the end of this story. But this one time, my angel came through and shoved my enemy neatly into a hole of his own making. My fellow students were edified; they might not have been scholars, but by Heaven, they knew enough to call Jesus the Christ.
Still, the demolition went on; confusion spread over us all like smog. At one point Mr. U. enlightened us about the authority and infallibility of the Pope, neither of which existed; it was all a tragic two-thousand-year-old misunderstanding that was finally being corrected. In short, the Bible was a collection of fairy tales and the Pope’s word was nothing but his own opinion. Only one source of truth was infallible and unquestionable: heaven and earth would pass away but the word of Mr. U. would not pass away.
Week Two: I came armed. I brought my copy of the Vatican II Documents, with certain passages book-marked. The meeting was very brief. After we prayed, I spoke up in a polite way.
“Mr. U,” I said. (Everyone held their breath.) “In connection with something you said last week, do you mind if I just read a short passage from the Documents of Vatican II?”
No answer. We sat there a while and then Mr. U. got up and put on his coat in silence. He walked to the door and said in a tone of barely-restrained fury, “If you people won’t accept my authority, I’m not going to teach you anymore!” And he walked out of the house. Nobody begged him to stay. I got a chance to read all my bookmarked passages to the other students and we all had a good talk.
But there were no more Bible studies in the parish after that. And later on I learned something about our teacher which, had I known it beforehand, would have kept me from saying anything. Mr. U. had an inoperable brain tumor; he was a dying man. It’s not unlikely that I hastened his death by questioning his authority. From all accounts he was a good man, popular with everyone and admired for his courage. But he was poisoning Christian souls.
Did I do wrong? I don’t know. God could have arranged things so that I knew about the brain tumor before the classes began, but He didn’t. Does that mean He wanted me to challenge Mr. U the way I did? Who knows?
The whole event had a rather odd post-script. After the first class I asked an Evangelical friend to pray for us. I told her what doctrines Mr. U. was teaching and she was quite shocked. After the second class I told her about the brain tumor and she was relieved to hear it, in a way. “So that’s where he got all those crazy ideas! They were the effect of a brain tumor! No wonder!”
I didn’t think it was prudent to tell her that they came, not from brain cancer, but from the teaching of Catholic Bible scholars in a class approved by our bishop.
Now let’s go ahead a few years. Mr. U. died (God rest his soul). We got a new pastor. The parish became for a while more sane. A few of us got together to form a pro-life group, and our Associate Pastor offered to be our chaplain. “Father O” (for orthodox and obedient) was a fine, dedicated priest who had done the parish a lot of good. Unfortunately he was also a victim of bi-polar disorder and he could be difficult. But we all felt that with patience and prayer we could work together. Maybe that should have been with prayer and fasting, and without the Troublemaker, me.
We got off to a good start, giving out leaflets after Mass and running a booth at a town Health Fair showing models of fetal development. We also took part in some prayer vigils outside our local, um, women’s “reproductive health” facility.
Next we decided to get closer to the root of the problem and arrange a chastity presentation for parish teens. There were several good ones available but Father O. astonished us by insisting on using a program that was notorious for its modernist teaching. I didn’t have to say anything; the whole group rose in protest, explaining what was wrong and asking Father to consider something more appropriate. Unfortunately he was not in the mood to compromise. When someone finally asked Father why he was so set on this particular program, he said it was because it was recommended by someone trustworthy — none other than Mr. U., my departed nemesis.
If my guardian angel was whispering anything in my ear this time (like maybe SHUT UP) I was too upset to listen. I didn’t stop and pray, I didn’t count to ten, I just opened my mouth and sealed my fate — and also, as it turned out, the fate of the whole pro-life group.
“Mr. U,” I declared in my winning way, “was a FLAMING HERETIC!”
Long silence. I suddenly got that déjà vu feeling. But this time it was not the leader who walked out the door but the troublemaker herself, together with her husband. We were, to be more accurate, thrown out, and told never to come back. The pro-life group limped along for a few more weeks and then folded. It was years before another one formed.
Thus ended chapter two of my short and lurid career in parish ministry. Since then I have stuck to more informal attempts at serving God, the kind that don’t involve meetings. Some people just aren’t meant to work in groups. I don’t want to wreck any more apostolates, or spend any more sleepless nights trying to figure out exactly how I went wrong — not to mention the big question of where my overwrought mind had picked up that melodramatic adjective, flaming. Could it be there was lurking in my mind the image of an auto-da-fe? Worse, could I have been taking pleasure in the image?
If anybody wants to know the moral of this story I can suggest two possibilities:
(1) “The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”
(2) Don’t use the word “heretic.” It makes people think of flames.
[Copyright 2009 Catholic Exchange]