When unexpected plans yield great results
Catholic Schools Week was always one of my favorite times on the academic calendar as a student. For five days we had interruptions in our schedule for games, activities and special treats. I still remember the motto for one of the Catholic Schools Weeks: “Great Beginnings Last a Lifetime.”
When I was in first grade, our grade school had a free-throw shooting contest among the teachers. The winning teacher’s class would be treated to a pizza party, but our class did not hold out much hope. Our class was taught by a Franciscan, Sister Carol, and she was indubitably the veteran leader of the staff. We thought she taught the Twelve Apostles themselves. If there were a cursive contest, she would have won hands down. But hoops were a different story entirely. To our amazement, sister sunk quite a few shots from the foul line. We certainly did not have the most athletic faculty in the diocese, but Sister Carol was clutch when it counted. I remember us asking her how she did it, and I remember her reply: “Nothing to it! I play on God’s team.”
In a strange way, that probably was the first time I thought about a vocation. Initially, I was more interested in how God could help me play sports, too, but there was also something in how Sister Carol lived. She could play hoops and talk sports while also being able to show us how to be a friend to Jesus. In retrospect, that week of interruption was not really an interruption. It was an opportunity that allowed me to remotely begin pondering what God desired for my life.
Interruptions that awaken our faith can come in many different forms. I am reminded of a story that I heard once about Mother Dolores Hart, the Hollywood actress who became a Benedictine nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. When she was filming the movie “Francis of Assisi” in 1961, she had an audience with Pope St. John XXIII. She introduced herself as the actress playing Clare of Assisi. However, Pope John XXIII corrected her. “No,” he replied, “you are Clara!” Dolores Hart said she could not shake that encounter and that the pope’s words stayed with her and allowed her to reflect on something deeper even though religious life was not on her radar.
It is remarkable how God operates in the interruptions of our plans. I was asked to talk to our kindergarten class about saints and their importance. Their teacher and I developed a lesson plan for the day, which we thought was rather good. I told some of the stories about the lives of the saints, and we showed them a short clip about St. Francis. We even had saint puppets.
However, the students were not very interested. The entire time there was a girl in the back of the room who was dancing with a ceramic statue of St. Joseph. Her teacher and I were not sure if she was trying out for “Dancing with the Stars” or was merely bored. Seeing as our plan derailed, we asked her what she was doing. “Is this real?” she asked us.
We looked at her quizzically, and then she replied, “Is this person real?”
“Yes,” we told her. “St. Joseph is a real person, and this statue represents him, like a picture. He is in heaven with Jesus.”
“He is!” she shouted. “Can I be a statue? I want to see Jesus!” That was the best lesson we could have hoped for, and we had nothing to do with it.
When Pope Benedict XVI was elected on April 18, 2005, he said the following from the balcony at St. Peter’s: “The fact that the Lord can work and act even with insufficient means consoles me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers.” The pope emeritus certainly knew something about God’s will prevailing regardless of whether the events are momentous or seemingly mundane. We actually only need to get out of the way and let God work.
That should give you and I comfort that we may be fostering vocations and building the Church while we play basketball, film a movie or even dance with a little ceramic saint. Great and unexpected beginnings can truly last a lifetime.
FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the pastor at Resurrection Parish, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School in Pittsburgh.