Have you ever wanted to share a spiritual experience from earlier in life so badly with your significant other, that it leaves you with a bittersweet longing? The experience itself is wonderful and positive, but because your life partner was not there it was somehow not complete.
About 14 years ago I was vacationing in Las Vegas with friends. Being the only practicing Catholic in the group, I set off on my own to the nearest Mass on Sunday morning. The local parish happened to have a visiting priest that day, Fr. Tom Hagan, who regularly presided in Haiti. He delivered what turned out to be the best homily I had ever heard.
I was truly blown away, not just by Father’s work with his outreach mission Hands Together, but by the way he was able to tie together his compassionate ministry’s message with our everyday lives.
He articulated how we all could be missionaries just by loving those around us a little bit more. He had different pieces of advice for young people, parents, and retirees. He spoke of rejecting materialism, in the face of a society that celebrates it in many ways. He emphasized the importance of diversity, and encouraged parents to teach their children to love people of all races, backgrounds, religions, nationalities and ideologies. He also urged us to love our Catholic faith.
These were themes I already held dear, but he added the perspective of someone who had experienced the world from a much broader scale. The homily was overwhelmingly positive but also very heavy. He kept coming back to the descriptions of life in Haiti.
The level of poverty among the communities he served was shocking. The mortality rate among infants and toddlers was heartbreaking. The level of violence due to military coups and regime change was horrid. And this was all prior to the devastating earthquake of 2010 which exacerbated the already tragic living conditions.
John Rachel, author of The Peace Dividend, writes uncynically, “It’s not that people don’t care about suffering. It’s that most individuals care first about the suffering of those immediately around them.”
This accurately describes my feelings about Haiti prior to the homily. I had never before given the country much thought, and was not familiar with its plight. But even after hearing about it, I wasn’t entirely sure how to act upon my newfound empathy. Sure, I donated money when the second collection came around, and stepped up my prayers for Haiti for a while. Not everyone is called to go overseas, but I knew there was more I could do.
It turned out my calling was here in the States, as a husband and father. Fast forward a few years, and I am happily married to a woman whose work with the poor I deeply admire (she is a poverty lawyer for a nonprofit organization). Together we are blessed to be raising two wonderful kids. And my connection with Haiti has far from ended.
Before I met Katie, she had done social work in Boston with the Haitian community. She had always felt a strong emotional and spiritual pull towards Haiti, and often spoke of wanting to extend her knowledge of the French language to become fluent in Haitian Creole.
In 2014 we began sponsoring two beautiful Haitian girls via the relief organization Food for the Hungry. Aside from being able to assist them financially and in prayer, we have deeply enjoyed our occasional correspondence by letter, our exchange of pictures, and just the opportunity to know them as they grow up. Some day we hope to take a family trip to Haiti so we can meet each of these girls who have touched our lives.
This was a milestone in the bond Katie and I shared regarding Haiti. But there was one piece that had always been missing: Fr. Hagan’s homily.
The one thing I lamented about having heard it was not having been able to share it with someone. I knew Katie would have loved it, and I had always wished that experience for her. But I wished it for us … inasmuch as it had helped strengthen my own faith, I wanted to have that progress together. I wanted her to hear some of the things I always felt were the greatest about being Catholic.
I never really expected that my wish would be fulfilled.
Out of all the parishes in the country, what were the odds a visiting priest who spent most of his time in Haiti would end up at ours? Perhaps in one of the bigger cities we had lived, like New York, but not in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where we had moved for Katie’s work. We had also recently moved from the downtown area to a smaller nearby township, and had joined a new and unfamiliar parish.
So you can imagine my amazement when a few months later, as the visiting priest at our parish began his homily with a familiar humorous anecdote. He joked of how he had confused the Spanish word pecado (sin) with pescado (fish) while serving in Mexico.
And then it hit me that this was the same Fr. Hagan from Las Vegas a decade before, and this was going to be a virtually identical homily to the one I had heard.
Now Katie could finally hear about the “little bit of heaven” as Father proffered, for each of us to recognize in our own families. She could finally hear the message of hope amidst tragedy in Haiti, straight from someone who was the steward of such positivity despite having been on the front lines of it all. She could share the joy I felt when Father assured us how exhilarating it would be when we finally die, and meet not only Jesus, but people we would have never expected.
The congregation applauded at the homily’s conclusion, and I wept tears of joy. God surprises us in the most wonderful ways sometimes.