By Larry Peterson
We define the Catholic Church as “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic” church. But when you witness those words coming to life right before your own eyes, it is an experience you will never forget.
My oldest son had been married in the Catholic Church once but due to unforeseen circumstances was granted an annulment. He married again on February 17. I freely admit; I had my doubts about this wedding. But I had forgotten something; I had forgotten this was a Catholic thing. I had also forgotten about the HOLY Sacrifice of the Mass.
When I arrived at Most Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Gulfport, FL, I was still feeling doubtful about what was about to happen. But something was different this time. I had not yet put my finger on it.
The pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Church was a man from Kenya. He was a man of color and had been ordained in Kenya. His name was Father George Iregi. This day would be the first time he and I had met. About a third of the congregation was also people from Kenya.
The church was filling up, and the only the people I knew were those in my immediate family. In the back of us, occupying the next two pews were elderly nuns, Benedictine Sisters who lived in the monastery of St. Leo University about 40 miles north near Tampa, FL. Oh yes, the bride, my about to be daughter-in-law, was Father George’s sister, Philomena. She had lived with the Benedictines while she was studying for her degree (She had just received her Master’s Degree in Education).
The rest were parishioners of Holy Name parish, friends of Father George. It suddenly dawned on me that there was a common denominator among all of us. Whatever our skin color was (the word ‘diverse” fit perfectly), we were all CATHOLIC, and we all would be attending Mass together as ONE congregation. Skin color was irrelevant.
Father George had made arrangements for his parents to fly here from Kenya. They had never been out of Kenya and were in their late 70s. It was to be a surprise for his sister who had not seen them in three years while she was in school. And surprised she was.
Father George walked out into the sanctuary accompanied by Father Daniel Bowen, a Mercedarian priest who is stationed at my parish of Sacred Heart. Father Daniel had taken Jr. and Philomena through their marriage preparations (APOSTOLIC) and would perform the wedding ceremony. Father George would be the celebrant of the Mass and Father Daniel would concelebrate.
Everyone stood as the bride, with her mom and dad at her sides, began to walk down the aisle. The Kenyan wedding dress that Philomena wore was something I could not have imagined. It was absolutely beautiful with its display of colors and a headpiece that looked like a crown. They exchanged vows, and the intensity between them was pronounced. I believe everyone could feel that they meant every word they said to each other.
During the Mass, the diverse congregation sat, stood, and knelt in unison when appropriate. The Sign of the Cross was made by all when required. Even though many of us did not speak the same language, our Catholic faith united us all.
The wedding reception was attended by white Americans and dark-skinned Kenyans. We prayed together, ate together, laughed together and danced together. They served Kenyan food alongside Chicken Parmigiana and pasta. Much of the music was Kenyan, and some were standard pop and contemporary. The fact was, it was a wonderful wedding reception.
The significance of this marital union and the joining of such diverse families did not fully impact me until the next morning. And once again it was the Mass that framed the moment. February 18 is the anniversary of my mom’s death. She died 57 years ago, and the 8 a.m. Mass was being offered for her. I am an usher at that Mass, and since I did not expect anyone from my family to be there, I was planning to get someone to assist me in bringing up the gifts.
At 7:00 a.m., I received a text message from Jr. He and his new wife had decided to attend that Mass. They did not know it was for his grandma, a woman he had never even seen. The tears welled up as I watched my caucasian son walk with his Kenyan bride down the aisle with the gifts to be offered at his grandma’s anniversary Mass. The message for me was clear; “Everything is okay, Larry. Congratulations.
Being Catholic is truly a beautiful thing. But for human pride, it actually could unite the entire world.
copyright©LARRY PETERSON 2018