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Column: Chance encounter underlines importance of the priesthood

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by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

During August, I had the opportunity to visit the Apostles of the Interior Life in Italy, the Community of the Lamb in France, and participate in World Youth Day in Spain.

In the coming months, I hope to share through this column some of the inspiration and insights gained from this three-week pilgrimage.

On Aug. 2, I flew from Kansas City to Philadelphia to catch a flight to Venice, Italy. In Philadelphia, I had a more than three-hour layover. The gate area for my flight was very congested and noisy. After surveying the vicinity, I noticed a nearby area that was practically vacant. I hoped to pray a good portion of my breviary and to begin reading one of the books that I brought with me.

As I got my carry-on luggage situated and sat down, I noticed a man seated about 20 feet from me who seemed to be staring at me. I attempted at first not to make eye contact. However, as I opened my breviary and glanced up, the man was still staring right at me. I closed my prayer book and asked the man: “Is there something I can do for you?”

Immediately, the man got up and sat next to me. He began by apologizing if anything he was about to say seemed inappropriate. He then asked: “In America, is it possible to commit sexual harassment by just making a phone call?” I had been preparing myself for some of the usual questions that priests are asked, but this was not on my list. I told him that it depended upon what was said in the phone conversation.

He proceeded to tell me that he was a native of Liberia and served in his nation’s military. He had been sent to participate in a course being offered at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. A few evenings before, he had called a female officer, who was participating in the same program. She did not answer, so he left a voice mail saying that he had been thinking about her and wished her a good night.

A few days later, he was summoned to a hearing before a military tribunal. He was informed that he had been accused of sexual harassment. He was provided with no legal representation. The commanding officer for the academy was away. The officer presiding over the hearing, for reasons this man did not understand, had manifested some hostility toward him since he arrived at the academy. He said that he had never experienced racial prejudice before, but suspected that this man did not like him because he was black.

The hearing resulted in his dismissal from the academy. His embassy had been contacted and provided him with an airline ticket home. By the time the commandant for the academy had returned, there was no time for him to look into the matter without delaying the flight back to Liberia which my airport acquaintance was unwilling to do — afraid this would only further provoke the embassy staff as well as his superior officers back home.

As you might imagine, the man was extremely upset. He was returning to his country in disgrace. His military superiors were angry with him for being dismissed from the program. He told me that Americans were greatly respected in Liberia. He doubted anyone would believe his version of the events. The best he could hope for was a demotion, which was unacceptable to him. It would take him years to regain his current rank. He could not understand how this had all happened to him so quickly.

It was impossible for me to know the actual facts of what had happened. Something evidently motivated the female officer to lodge a complaint. Sadly, it is quite possible that he was the victim of racism.

The man was not requesting anything from me. He was not asking for financial assistance or for me to try to intervene on his behalf. He evidently just wanted to talk about what had happened and was hoping that I could help him make some sense of the whole matter.

The man was not a Catholic. He had been raised a Methodist, but was not actively practicing his faith. He admired the Catholic bishop in Liberia, because he had the courage to stand up to the dictator who had done so much harm to his nation during its recent civil war.

I encouraged the man to do his best to defend his good name upon his return to Liberia. Perhaps, the commanding officer of the academy could be asked to conduct a further investigation of the incident as well as the process by which it was adjudicated. Sadly, the man kept becoming more and more agitated as he recalled the events that had brought him to this premature return to his homeland. I did not sense that our conversation was helping him very much.

I was wearing the pectoral cross that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn had given to me when he visited the Little Sisters of the Lamb in Kansas City, Kan. Etched on the front of the cross is a depiction of the Lamb with a pole topped by a cross and a pennant. I showed the man the cross and asked him: “Do you know who the Lamb is?” He replied by asking: “Jesus?” I said to him: “Yes! Jesus was a victim of our sin. He was the lamb who was sacrificed for us so that we could have abundant and eternal life.” The man nodded.

I turned the cross over and showed him the words etched in Latin — “Vulneratus diligere nunquam desinam” — which translate into English: “Wounded, I will never cease to love.” This is the beautiful motto for the Community of the Lamb. Even though he could not control whether or not others would believe him, he knew the truth of the matter and, in this, he could find peace. While he had every reason to be angry, I counseled him if he allowed this anger to dominate him, then he would continue to be victimized by those who had treated him unjustly.

I referred him to the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis whose brothers had treated him so unjustly by selling him into slavery. Yet, God eventually turned their injustice into a good for Joseph and his family. I assured him that God could do the same for him, if he drew close to Jesus, the lamb, who gave his life for us.

I was not certain how this man would receive my counsel, but he seemed truly grateful and much less agitated. I prayed for him and blessed him. I gave him my email if I could help him in the future.

I was deeply moved by this encounter and continue to pray for this man. Our conversation was a dramatic reminder to me of the importance of the priesthood. This man believed he had been gravely injured by a white American. Here I was a white American, but, because I was a priest, he felt safe to approach me.

This experience also made me grateful again for my association with the Community of the Lamb. “Wounded, I will never cease to love” is a beautiful and powerful summary of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, a follower of the lamb. Striving to live this motto in the challenges of everyday life is truly the heart of the Christian life.

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Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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