Some things are universal.
I was reminded of that this weekend when Father Tony Ricard blew the roof off the 21st annual Eucharistic Convention in Auckland, New Zealand.
Father Tony is big time home boy, and major momma’s boy, from N’awlins. After Katrina hit in 2005, when everybody who could GET OUT of New Orleans, GOT OUT, Father Tony stayed as a shepherd for his battered people, and they rebuilt.
Father Tony – also Catholic chaplain to his beloved New Orleans Saints — is one of those rare Priests who can sing. And dance. And strut. And tell bodacious stories that make you laugh out loud. And, the very next instant, make you cry.
He traces his gift for story-telling to his people, who came to America 300 years ago as slaves. And, because he grew up in an alcoholic home, he has personal pain of his own to talk about.
It never ceases to amaze me that New Zealanders, who tend to be a bit reserved and not too keen on “tall poppies”, absolutely love show-off American Priests who make them laugh.
And this last weekend, Fr Tony did that in spades, with his own stories and the retelling of the oldest jokes in the world, like:
… when Satan himself appeared in a church during Mass, and he leaned over one side of the church and bellowed in rage, and half the parish fled for their lives. Then Satan leaned over the other side, and screeched even louder, sending the Priest and the rest of the terrified people stampeding for the door. Well, everyone, except for one old man. So Satan raced up to him and screamed and thundered and roared twice as loud, to no avail. “Don’t you know who I am? Aren’t you terrified of me?” he screeched. The old man, leaned out on his cane, shook his head slowly and said, “I been married to yo’ sister for 57 years. Why should I be afraid of you?”
And the time when a holy old woman was in a battered church, late one night, devoutly praying her rosary. A workman who had been sleeping high up in the scaffolding decided to have a bit of fun. So he said in his most commanding voice, “Hello to you down below.” But the old woman kept praying. So he said louder, “Hello down below!” Nothing. So he shouted as loud as he could, “This is the Lord, listen to me!” To which the old woman said, “give me just a minute, Lord, I’m not through talking to your momma.”
There is no questions that Father Tony put some fire into the bellies of the 1,000 or so people who heard his three talks over the weekend, which of course he fully expected to do. That’s his job, his gift, and he’s been doing it for decades.
But what surprised him was that, pretty early on, he realized that God had brought him to New Zealand for a special reason – not to speak to our “normal crowd.” It happened like this…
It was arranged for Father to be welcomed onto Te Unga Waka Marae in town. A “marae”, in today’s NZ terminology, is sort of a meeting house/community center for local Maori (indigenous people). It’s also a very spiritual place for them, and a place for practical support.
Because Father Tony “performs” when he preaches, In L.A. or Auckland, he likes to be joined on stage by dozens of singing/dancing/spirit-filled young people.
In New Zealand, these young people were Maori and Pacific Islanders in their teens and early 20s from the Mother of Divine Mercy Refuge. All of them, ALL OF THEM, have been physically/mentally/sexually abused, usually by their father or another relatives. All of them, through love and kindness and an amazing woman named Mother Susana, have over time reclaimed their lives and faith by forgiving the abusers and trusting in God’s Divine Mercy.
At his welcome on the marae, Father Tony, dressed in his black Cassock and holding his signature carved cane, was stunned when given a hand-made, feather “korowai”. This, my friends, is a very big deal. Father Tony, doing his best to hold back the tears, could only say: “You have no idea… You have no idea…”
For you see, Father Tony is a writer. His most recent book is called “the Eagle Story”, which is his retelling of an inspirational folktale handed down from generation to generation by slaves tracing their roots to Ghana in West African. The symbolism of the feathers hit Fr Tony right in the heart.
The next day, when he was visiting the Mother of Divine Mercy Refuge, learning about the place, singing and joking and praying with the young people, he quite simply fell in love. So instead of just using the MDM choir for his entrance at the convention talks, he decided to use the kids all the time.
When they were on stage, singing and dancing and stomping (as Pacific people do); and when four of the young people told their personal stories of abuse, despair, family suicides, forgiveness and redemption, it was as powerful a thing as you are ever likely to witness.
Father Tony is already planning to come back to New Zealand next year. “Because ya’ll need to be blessed to be in my presence again,” he kids, but he knows deep down inside that he needs to be in their presence just as much, if not more.
Truth be known, Father’s heart was captured by these young people, just like he captured theirs hearts.
And that is a very good, and a very holy thing.
*If the videos mentioned above do not show in the U.S., sorry, there may be a You Tube copyright issue.