When I started flight school in the fall of 2007 and, that same week, began working as the youth minister at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church in Duluth, MN, two things were true about me: I had never touched the controls of a plane and I wasn’t Catholic. While I’m sure that’s usually the case in flight training, I’m quite sure it’s rarely the case in Catholic youth ministry. I know that more than a few parishioners scratched or shook their heads in confusion as to why Fr. Eric made his decision. Thankfully, he had been hired as a Catholic youth minister before he was Catholic, so he could identify well with my situation.
My two life paths at that time, aviation and considering Catholicism, looked quite the same in a lot of ways. With flight, I’d researched a little bit and the desire and awe within had been gaining strength; with the Church, my desire for truth had been enkindled by attending a Mass out of curiosity and had developed into me reading an old copy of the Catechism at this Barnes and Noble for four hours a day, dog-earing my spot, and then hiding it behind other books until the next day because I couldn’t afford to buy it and I sure-as-heck didn’t want someone else to buy it, either.
My inaugural day immersed in both was also quite similar. At the end of our first day of classes, the instructor showed us the sign up sheet where we could reserve our spot to be “up in the plane” within 24 hours, which my fellow students and I couldn’t believe; and, my first morning on the job, Fr. Eric proudly walked into my office and thumped a gleaming copy of the new, accepted, authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church down in front of me, with a handwritten note inside, making it MY very own copy, which I couldn’t believe. Now, suddenly and unbelievably, I had “slipped the surly bonds of earth” and was getting paid to study the Catholic Church!
And so the journey of learning to soar began. Over then next few months, there were many parallels between flight and faith. Often, I’d be studying something like the Coriolis effect or lift and how we use them to achieve flight, and I’d stumble upon CCC 354, which states, “Respect for laws inscribed in creation and the relations which derive from the nature of things is a principle of wisdom and a foundation for morality” or CCC 159, which states, “The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”
Not only were science and religion suddenly connected in a far deeper way, but the daily life of the Church began transforming my experiences at the yoke. When I’d be lined up at the end of the runway, waiting for clearance, not only would there be the normal prayer that I used whenever I merged onto the freeway on my motorcycle, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”; now, I’d also be quietly reciting a passage from Psalm 143 in the Liturgy of the Hours: “Let your good spirit guide me in ways that are level and smooth”.
However, of all the aspects of Catholicism I discovered that began to shape my life, few impacted and deepened it in a more powerful and steady way than that of Pope Benedict XVI. My journey had been a constant process of hacking and sanding away the pile of prejudice and misconception toward Catholicism that I’d built up in my life and, along the way, two statements by Baba Bene were the most instrumental in hewing some of the largest boulders away.
First, in the forward to his book Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Pope Benedict says that “everything depends” on “intimate friendship with Jesus”. As a fervent Protestant Christian, having a “personal relationship with Jesus” was my eternal tag line, and seeing the Pope, leader of what I’d previously heard was the “whore of Babylon”, place such supreme importance on intimacy with Christ caused me to second-guess my prior stance. After all, if the mouthpiece of Catholicism thinks that all the Tradition and theology pivots and hinges on a personal relationship with Jesus, how bad could the belief system be, especially since, “It’s all about Jesus, man!” was my daily motto?
The second, more powerful, quote is the famous line from Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” When I first read those words, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Here, in one sentence, the head of this enigmatic entity, the Catholic Church, had summed up everything I’d known about Christ. As much as I was impressed–or nearly addicted–to the “Disneyland of Theology” I was finding in Catholicism, this one line kept coming back to me as the most complete line of apologetics for the Church I’d read so far. I kept thinking, “Who IS this guy? He talks like a Protestant!”
About eight months after starting my two paths of study, I’d joined the ranks of wanna-be pilots who had done their first solo flight and the ranks of the Church Militant. Fittingly, the two were linked, yet again. On the return trip of my solo, because of a combination of a couple of extenuating circumstances, I lost my heading, and, being that it was a small plane with no GPS, I was lost. I had no clue which way to go. In ground school, we were told that if you lose your way, simply locate a town, descend low enough to read the water tower, and you’ll know where you are, all of which I did. I don’t know if I’d ever been so happy to see the town McGregor, MN!
I now knew my way home, and as I climbed back up to a comfortable level the words of our beloved B16 came to mind as clearly as if B16 was chillin’ in the control tower and talking through my headset: “a new horizon and a decisive direction”. It was clear then, as it has been virtually every day since, that the Church, through the Sacraments, is able to bring us into the deepest possible intimacy with our Savior. Pope Benedict, through his utmost service to the Sacrament of Holy Orders, has been the only pope I’ve known, so I guess I am a bit biased, but I don’t know if I could have dived into this Faith without his loving, Fatherly example each step of the way.
I may never meet Pope Benedict in this life. The odds are against me getting a private audience, at this point. And I’m pretty sure I’ll never get to sit down and watch “The Sandlot” with him, as I’ve always wished. However, I am planning to meet him on the flip side. I do know that his fatherhood brought me into the fullness of the family. And I am certain that his decision to resign was done in love and wisdom, and will result in the betterment of the Church.
Thanks, prayers, and love to you, Pope Benedict XVI, my Protestant Pope.