'A hug of the eyes'
December 16, 2011
Back in the deep winter of 1981, I had the opportunity to make my first private-directed Ignatian retreat. It was an experience I shall never forget. It is a spiritual experience that I have repeated each year for the past 30.
Anyone who has had the blessing of making a directed retreat will tell you that it is an intimate encounter with God. Most needed for this experience are a Bible and an open mind and heart. Usually made for eight days and in complete silence (save for the daily meeting with one's director), God in the retreat attempts to touch the deepest parts of a soul. It's up to the person being directed to let God do so.
Icing on the cake
My first directed retreat was clearly such an encounter. I went into that retreat in January 1981 struggling still with a past sin that God had forgiven me but which I had not yet forgiven myself.
(You may remember that, shortly after I arrived back in Pittsburgh in September 2007, I wrote in this column about my witnessing an automobile accident on Route 51, Saw Mill Run Boulevard, in June 1980 where three people were instantly killed. While I first got out of my car to see if I could be of assistance, when I saw that there were others who did the same, I selfishly left the scene. It was easier to not get involved! Halfway home that night I realized that, in so doing, I betrayed what I believe Jesus expected of me as a priest.)
I did confess my sin. I did so sincerely. My confessor gave me absolution and a penance. God forgave me from his heart and in the sacrament of penance. But I did not forgive myself. And so, with six months' guilt in my gut, I came to my first directed retreat with a heart tight shut! It took eight days. God finally got through to me. What helped it happen? The Bible passage my director insisted I stay with was the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).
"The icing on the cake" came at the end of the retreat when my director gave me an artist's replica of what happened when the father met his prodigal son. It captured the scene. The father was smothering his son with a hug of mercy. The rendering so moved me. It depicted the Scripture passage I had been praying over that entire week. I finally let go — not only of my sin, but especially of my penchant to handle this matter by myself — and let God's mercy take over.
After that retreat, I affixed that artwork to the cover of my favorite Bible. (The expert staff at the Pittsburgh Catholic has been able to reproduce it for you as part of this reflection.)
During my recent ad limina visit in Rome, I encountered a hug like that again. Only this time from our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. On Wednesday, Nov. 30, I was honored to meet our pope eyeball to eyeball in a personal encounter in an audience that he conducted. As I personally shared with him the love and loyalty of you, the family of the Church of Pittsburgh, he responded with a "hug of the eyes," eyes dancing with an obvious love for Jesus, for the church and, yes, for the Church of Pittsburgh, you and me. He said to me: "The Church of Pittsburgh is so important, so special. Please share with the faithful my love." The "hug of the eyes" said to me that he meant what he said.
"How can I help?"
When the bishops of the dioceses of Pennsylvania — Allentown, Altoona-Johnstown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Scranton and Pittsburgh — met in a very warm and cozy setting with Pope Benedict on Dec. 2, I saw and felt "the hug of the eyes" again. In a setting that was as informal as a meeting between brothers, we shared with the Holy Father how frustrated we felt. Despite all that we have done to respond to the sexual abuse crisis, when the painful Penn State scenario became public, once again the church took a number of endless insulting hits. I have yet to read one article, hear one story, that at least acknowledges how hard we continue to work as a church to create safe environments; how much we have tried to arrive at a study on what are the root causes of sexual abuse, a serious problem in society at large; how much we truly are pained that even one person would be a victim of abuse. With the "hug of the eyes" the pope said: "How can I help?"
When we shared with the Holy Father our concerns about how loud are the secular voices that attempt to drown out the voices of truth about God, his love, his gift of life, his gift of freedom, Pope Benedict reminded us that, in the end, the timeless voice of the Holy Spirit will win out. It cannot be drowned out by the time-barred voices of the world's powers. Once again, I saw in him "the hug of the eyes."
When we expressed concerns that our country, built on the preamble that "liberty and justice for all" threatens to become a historical memory rather than an enduring reality, once again the "hug of the eyes" from our Holy Father joined us to him, not only by our ecclesial relationship, but most especially so as leaders who clearly share a fraternal bond with Peter as did the early apostles.
These days in Rome took me back 30 years to a retreat that made all the difference. And what a difference both made! And what is the bond that joins both? A "hug of the eyes!"