Jesus said to his disciples: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you.”
Back in 1997, I was a young, healthy, immature, obnoxious at times, and judgmental seminarian working in an all-boys academy in Wisconsin. As the Dean of Discipline, I learned a lot my first year, but not enough. It was my first “job” as a seminarian and working in a boarding school. It was my first time ever working with Mexican students. It was a tough assignment. I worked 24/7. But it was an amazing experience in which the Lord supplied ample opportunities for me to grow in faith, in wisdom and in love.
One of those “opportunities” arrived on the very last day of the school year. Enrique, a twelve year old, had successfully completed his first year at the Academy. In fact, he had won the highest award offered at the Academy, the Integer Award. This young man was truly an outstanding young man and a brilliant student. While he was waiting for his ride home, I sat with him and we talked. A few minutes into our conversation, Henry walked in. Henry was a man in his late fifties. He was a janitor and at that time had been working at the Academy for at least ten years. I was the new kid on the block and never really had a chance to introduce myself to him. He was a simple and humble man who never made his presence known. While I was talking to Enrique, Henry went about his business sweeping the floor and keeping a safe distance from us. At that, I seized the moment and began to lecture the young mind sitting next to me about success and failure. I told him, “You see that man? This man will work like a slave all his life. What a waste of a life. What a waste of time. He had the opportunity to study and he didn’t take advantage of it. He probably messed up in High School by getting drunk at too many parties and spending way too much time with his friends. He most likely never read a book in his life. God knows what he spends all his time doing now.” While I was speaking to Enrique, I could see that he got the message. This kid had a lot of respect for me. After all, I was the religious and moral figure at the school.
As we were getting up to leave, Henry looked up and came towards Enrique and me. He smiled and said, “Hello Father!” I smiled and said, “Oh Henry, I’m not a priest yet. I’m still a seminarian.” I thought to myself, “This guy doesn’t even know that I am not a priest yet.” Thinking about it later on, I realized that he didn’t know because I never took the time to speak to him. Henry continued, “Sorry Father, I didn’t know that. I was just hoping that maybe you could bless my family if you ever had a free moment. Have I ever shown you a picture of my kids?” I replied, “No. Never.” He began to fumble through his wallet, looking for a picture. In the meantime, I was rolling my eyes. I looked at my little protégé as if I was annoyed. Finally he found a picture. He handed it over to me and I was shocked at what I saw. Henry and his wife were white. His children were not. One little boy was African American, a little girl was Asian. And another child, Asian, was physically challenged. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I asked Henry, “Are these your children.” He said, “Yes, Father, aren’t they beautiful? My wife and I adopted all three of them. We are so blessed.”
At that moment, I felt a lump in my throat and I thought to myself: “What an idiot I am. Who are you to judge others? This man is a Saint! A simple, humble, Saint!
“I didn’t know?” was all I could say. He looked at me and smiled, “Well, maybe next year we can sit and talk once in a while. I would love to tell you my story.”
He walked away and continued sweeping the floor. He should have swept me up too!
That day, God had given me a great big kick in the behind that I would never forget. To this day, with a lot of embarrassment, I tell this story (his and mine) to all the students I meet. Henry will probably never know the impact he has had in my life and in the lives of all the kids that pray for him.
Today’s responsorial psalm is more like a plea: “Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins.”
The problem with judging others is not so much what we say to them. The problem with judging others is that we never say anything to them! It’s not a sin to come up to someone and tell them what you honestly think. What is a sin is to never come up to them and continue to talk about them. It’s so easy to judge others because it’s so easy to keep a safe distance from them and continue to just think and imagine who and what they are.
Today, I handed a box of cookies to a young lady at school who I thought was not paying attention to my homily. She looked up and was shocked that I would give her cookies. I told her, “These are for you. Just make sure to share them with all your enemies!” Before she could think, she said, “Thank you, Father!” Sometimes it is better not to think at all when you are giving or receiving.
We are all used to receiving cookies from our friends. But maybe, just maybe, if I can get closer to my “enemies” with some cookies, then I may very well turn my cookies into friends.