He had a welcoming hand and listening ear

He had a welcoming hand and listening ear

I still remember an autumn day years ago. Fr. Tim O’Neill took the freshman class from Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, all 380 of us, on a retreat. There, following mass, he told us about Jesus. Fr. O’Neill was a young priest with reddish-blonde hair, blue eyes and an impish grin. But when he spoke about our faith, we were transported.

Before that day I parroted what I had been told by my parents and clergy. After that retreat I wore a cross. If someone asked me, I would have said I had a deep faith.

But as we all know, life isn’t easy. As a lifetime Catholic, I thought that part of my life was simple. Although I had differences with the church, I continued singing at mass, worshiping weekly. I still believed. And then I found I no longer fit in.

One day I ran into an old friend, Evan Fischer. I had served as a therapy handler with my dog, Hannah, alongside Evan years ago. Evan is an episcopal priest. I asked for his counsel. He listened. I felt heard. And then the pandemic began.

I was one of those Catholics who seldom missed mass. Suddenly, not only did I feel I didn’t belong, but also I was unable to attend the church I’d loved for 50 years. I still prayed, but there was a hurt in my heart that isolated me. I never felt so lonely in my life.

When I began to put my toe in the water after the vaccines became available, I went to St. James. Unlike my former church, the congregation, the building, the choir, everything was small. And Evan was there. His words each week were a comfort. And before a few weeks were over, everyone knew my name. I was welcomed. We had coffee and sweets that lasted over an hour. And it was all because of Evan.

A few months ago, Evan announced in church he would be retiring in May. I was startled. The year before, I truly found my place at St. James. I was in choir. I made enduring friendships. Evan even came to see my Christmas tree and played with Zuzu. He started a dog and cat food program to help the poor. He welcomed homeless people to our church. I found him to be the living embodiment of kindness. How could we go on without him?

But then I remembered the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who once said, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Hadn’t I faltered just like that? Wasn’t I uncertain of my direction? But God had steered me, through Fr. Tim, through Evan.

I had to once again put trust in God. I had to believe he had helped me find the way in my own personal darkness. I had to simply trust.

Last weekend Evan retired from St. James. We had a big party for him. At his final service, many of us cried. Our choir director chose songs that had special meaning for Evan. As I hugged him goodbye, I whispered, “You will never know what you’ve done for me.” There was no brash self-confidence emanating from him, just sincere kindness when he said, “God was leading you.”

Ours is a fallen world. All you need do is listen to the news. People hate because of color, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, for every reason imaginable. How can Jesus, a God of love, connect us amidst such vitriol?

My priest merely held out his hand in welcome. That’s what Jesus did too. He did not invite a select few but all. He never judged those who were imperfect or differed in views but accepted everyone.

One day long ago, I asked Fr. Tim, “What if you are wrong? What if there is no God?”

He answered, “Well then, I still did the right thing, didn’t I? So I am content with that.”

Helen Keller once said, “Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.” Remember, those words come from a woman who could not see.

I think I like the way Helen Keller saw, don’t you? Sort of like Evan Fischer. Like our beloved Jesus.

And so Evan, as Fr. Tim, my Irish friend, would often intone the Gaelic Blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

Leslie Pearce-Keating can be emailed at leslieannpearce@gmail.com.

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