"I've never had the chance to talk to a priest before," said the young lady sitting next to me, "but if I don't ask you some questions right now I'll probably explode and have to see my therapist tonight."
That was the intriguing beginning of a rather intense dialogue I had with a fellow passenger while flying to the Bishops' meeting in Chicago last summer.
I should explain, first of all, that I don't like to talk to people while I'm traveling, even when I'm wearing a Roman collar. I prefer to read, rest and relax, and not engage in heavy, sometimes awkward discussions. In fact, sometimes when I travel, especially for vacation, I dress casually, in secular clothes, just to stay below the radar screen.
That didn't happen on my flight to Chicago and my collar attracted my interviewer like a moth to a flame.
Before I agreed to answer her questions, I decided to learn a little about the young lady who had stared at me throughout the flight, even while I was pretending to sleep. I discovered that she was 16 years old, a member of a devout Orthodox Jewish family. Her upbringing was sheltered, she explained, and thus it was that she had never met a Catholic priest before. She attended an Orthodox Jewish School in Chicago. "Do you enjoy school?" I asked. "I hate it", she said, revealing that she was a lot more like other teenagers than she knew.
"Okay", I said, holding my breath. "What are your questions?"
"Well", she began, "you guys believe that if you're not a Christian you can't get to heaven, right?" (I learned pretty quickly that "you guys" could refer to Christians, Catholics, priests or bishops, depending on the question.)
I tried to explain, briefly, that while we believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all people, and that there is something very special about being Catholic, that if people are true to their own consciences, they can indeed be saved even if they're not Christian – whether they be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or anything else.
"Cool", she said.
Other questions quickly followed.
"Why are you going to Chicago?" "You're a bishop?" "Oh my gosh, my mom will never believe it."
"Do you wear that thing (meaning my Roman collar) all the time?"
"Do you always carry a Bible with you?"
"What do you think of the new Pope? My friends and I really liked Pope John Paul. We thought he was cute and he had Jewish friends. But we're not sure about the new guy."
"Don't you think you should get married? After all, if everybody was like you there wouldn't be any children."
"If priests are so holy, why did they abuse so many kids?"
"Isn't Lent when you guys" (there it is again) "get ready for Christmas, or is it Easter?" "And don't you give up something for Lent?" "Why do you do that?" "What do you give up?"
At which point another young lady sitting directly behind us piped up, without invitation, "I always give up candy, but it's really hard, because I like chocolate."
I realized now that other passengers were listening intently to our conversation, no doubt enjoying the sound of me squirming."Will she get a higher place in heaven because she gives up candy?" asked my new friend without missing a beat. "By the way, you didn't tell me . . . what do you give up for Lent?"
About this time, a truly blessed voice from heaven came to the rescue: "In preparation for our landing in Chicago . . ." "Thank you, Lord" I prayed, having never been so happy before to hear the standard message. My personal inquisition had come to an end and I breathed a sigh of relief as I departed the plane
Upon later reflection, I concluded that, despite the awkward circumstances of our personal interfaith dialogue, I had probably accomplished some good. I hoped that my young traveling companion would remember her first encounter with a Catholic priest as a positive experience. I had provided accurate information about our Faith, and perhaps, had dispelled some misperceptions she had harbored for a long time.
Jesus said, "Go forth and teach" and indeed we have opportunities to teach, to share our Faith with family and friends, co-workers and neighbors, everyday, sometimes with words, but always with good deeds and example.
My conversation with a young Jewish friend reminded me that it is possible to spread the Gospel anytime and anyplace, even at 30,000 feet.