First Communion

first communionMy father is Muslim by birth, but his real religion is education. “They can take everything you own, but they can’t take your education,” he often told me. So when I got to high school, my father turned to another religion to shepherd my education: the Jesuits.

I once heard a line that went something like, “If two Jesuits came into a town, the first one would open a high school by breakfast and the second would open a college by lunch.” These men in black were academic drill instructors, and this terrible student was doomed. But it started well.

 ***

At freshman orientation they close with mass. I have no idea what is happening. Everyone suddenly stands up. Everyone sits down. Again. And again. How do they know when to do that? Suddenly everyone calls out, “And also with you.” What is happening?

Then comes Holy Communion. This is Christ’s body broken. This is Christ’s blood poured out. This little Methodist knows this part. As everyone starts filing down the isle to receive the elements, I line right up.

I don’t know non-Catholics aren’t supposed to take Communion. And I’m pretty sure they are aware this little Muslim-named Methodist hasn’t taken first communion. But I walk up to the priest holding those little wafers and open my hands. He looks me in the eye, pauses… and then places one in my hand.

“The body of Christ.”

I eat it, and move over to the cup. Now I’m fully confused. In my church, we put grape juice into little plastic shot glasses. Single serve. But here, everyone is taking turns drinking out of the “Big Gulp” of pottery-style wine glasses.

Another priest looks me in the eye, pauses… and then gives me the cup.

“The blood of Christ.”

I’m expecting Welch’s.

I choke and cough and almost spit it out.

So that’s wine.

 ***

While I would keep taking the sacraments at every mass for the rest of the school year, I had no idea what I was doing or what they were really offering. They knew who I was, but they kept serving the body and blood of Christ to me.

I was failing Latin, English and Algebra. I wasn’t going to last beyond this one year. But the priests never stopped trying. And one in particular, Father Phillips, befriended me. His office was next to my locker, and he knew I was struggling, alone, and had no friends. He would invite me into his office and we would talk about anything, like the difference between Catholics and Methodists (seems I’m a 3rd string Catholic), C.S. Lewis (he taught the Great Divorce to his seniors and I had read the Chronicles of Narnia) and Petra (the Christian rock band… we actually talked about them. Or at least he listened to me talk about them).

In one of our last conversations before I failed out and returned to public school, I asked for his blessing. Finals were next week, and I knew I was on the way out. So did he.

“Father, may I have your blessing before next week.”

“Of course.”

I got on my knees. We both made the sign of the cross. He placed his hands on my head.

“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit… I pray for my friend Omar as he prepares for finals, and as he prepares for what is next in life. Guide him. Teach him. Mold him. Into the image of Christ. Amen.”

 ***

I once asked Father Phillips to explain the Pope to me. I don’t remember what he said, but when he was done I asked if there had ever been a Jesuit Pope.

He laughed hard, and after catching his breath said, “Son… there will never be a Jesuit Pope.”

***

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio was named Pope, a lot of news was about him being the first Jesuit Pope. Then he picked a name never used by a Pope, a name after the saint synonymous with care for the poor and humility: Francis.

Then he hopped in an old car to go pay his hotel bill.

He chose to live in the hotel instead of the papal mansion apartment. He abandoned the flashy, expensive accouterments worn by his predecessors. He ditched the fancy cars and started riding around in a Ford Focus.

And the reason he gave was clear: All the money saved needs to go to the poor. He did the same when he was a Cardinal, like taking public transportation, giving up the cardinal’s mansion to live in a small apartment, flying coach instead of first class.

My favorite moment came on Good Friday. Tradition calls for the Pope to wash the feet of 12 priests to symbolize the Jesus washing disciples’ feet the night before his crucifixion. But Pope Francis broke the rules by washing and kissing the feet of 12 prisoners. One was a Muslim female.

Let that sink in: Muslim. Female. Prisoner.

His explanation? Francis said it mean he was at their service.

So it was no surprise to me when he did something I have not seen advertised by any mega church in America: he called for a public day of prayer for peace in Syria.

Peace. Poverty. Embrace…. as his first year played out, I joined the chorus of Protestants who shouted with joy, “I’m not even Catholic, but I love this Pope!”

***

I grew up in a church culture where “we” were Christian, but “they” were Catholic. One was not thought to be the other.

As I have watched and been inspired by Pope Francis over this past year, I’ve come to realize, more than ever before, how foolish such a concept is. As Shane Claiborne said, the most remarkable thing about the Pope is that what he’s doing shouldn’t be remarkable.

He should not be such a big deal.

As a Christian and a pastor, I find it remarkable that someone of the Pope’s stature takes no stock, time or status in where he lives, how he dresses, or who he serves.

I live in a pastoral and church culture that seems to always be involved in capital campaigns to build bigger church concert halls, the next big published fad, celebrity preachers and musicians, and the constant quest to “be relevant.” There are rules and measurements for “success” in ordination and ministry in my world.

And I often find myself caught up in all of it. Then this Pope comes along and breaks all those rules.

In one year, Pope Francis showed me what a lifetime of being a Christian, getting a seminary education, and twenty years “in ministry” could not: how to live like Christ.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”

Pope Francis keeps breaking the rules to be like and to offer Christ. I’m not surprised. Almost thirty years ago his Jesuit brothers broke the rules to offer Christ to me.

That I could imitate him, so that I may imitate Christ.

That’s bread and wine.