A Little Bit of Heaven
Michael J. Graham, S.J.
The picture on the inside cover has a nice story behind it. Actually, it has several—and one in particular. I was in Rome for a conversation on Jewish-Catholic dialogue with about 60 people from across the country, including half a dozen or so from Xavier, two of them students. We spent several days with a variety of Vatican officials involved in Jewish-Catholic relations as they explained their offices and shared their views.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was without a doubt the intellectual highlight of the trip. The hour or so that we spent with him flew by, and the way the air around him crackled with energy and enthusiasm kindled kindred sparks in us all.
But if the meeting with Cardinal Kasper was the intellectual highlight of the trip, the audience with Pope Benedict was the emotional one. I had never been to a papal audience before, so there was a good deal to take in: the pageantry of the ceremony itself, the pomp and precision of the Swiss Guard, the faith and spirit of the crowd.
I was one of four members of our delegation privileged to meet the pope, each of us introduced to the Holy Father by Cardinal William Keeler, recently retired as Archbishop of Baltimore and long a champion of Jewish-Catholic dialogue. Our conference leader, Gunther Lawrence, presented the pope with a small Menorah, a replica of a much larger one given to the North American College in Rome several years ago and now gracing a small courtyard there. (Gunther got quite a laugh from the German Pope when he patted him on the hand and said, “Next time I come, I’ll bring you some nice Weisschnitzel.”)
The 20 seconds or so of my personal audience went by in a blur, in part because it was much more emotional than I was expecting. Funny how it just hits you. Although older looking up close than he appears in pictures, the Pope is clearly a vigorous man and has a way of seizing you with his lively eyes.
Cardinal Keeler introduced me to him, and I said something about how privileged Xavier University was to work to advance Jewish-Catholic relations as we could. He shook my hand and congratulated me on “this important work,” and then was gone, on to the next pilgrim waiting for him, smiling.
Several people down the line came the image that will always stick in my mind as I think back on the day. An Arab Christian boy from Jerusalem, about 10 years old, was there with his mother. Dying from cancer, a baseball cap pulled tight over his bald head, he had hoped to see the Pope before he died because, as he had put it in a letter, the Pope was the person closest to heaven here on earth. His letter came into the hands of the Israeli Ambassador to the Vatican, who arranged for the boy to be in the audience and who came himself to make sure the boy got his wish.
Seeing the four of them together—the Pope, the Ambassador, the boy, his mother—seemed exactly what the boy hoped it would be, at least to my eyes: a little bit of heaven, breaking through on earth. Right there in St. Peter’s Square Which is what the season of the Church year in which we now find ourselves is all about, after all. We have come again to Advent, and to its rich readings, especially those passages from Isaiah about the way that things should be now and one day, God’s Day, will be: weapons of war reforged as instruments of peace; lions and lambs—enemies—lying down together as friends; the nations of the earth streaming as one to God’s mountain for a feast that never ends, from which no one will be turned away. Bracing images to keep the winter chill away and light our lives as the days grow shorter.
But these Advent readings are a challenge to us as well, it seems to me, because they pose for us a question: What might we do in our day, in these weeks of Advent, to make God’s future kingdom present now, if only in some small way? The Israeli Ambassador to the Vatican, a Jew, brought a sick Arab Christian boy to see the Pope in Rome. Surely there is someone, somewhere, in need around us who we can likewise accompany this Advent season, the better to find ourselves on the road that runs, not to Rome, but to Bethlehem. Blessings to you all—through Advent, to Christmas and throughout the new year to come.