It's no secret that Father Jim Martin and his many literary efforts (I think he constitutes his own book-of-the-month club at this point) have a lot of fans in both high and low places (like my office) and around the world. But we don't often get evidence as pointed as the accompanying photo, which was forwarded to us yesterday. This neat picture was also accompanied by its own thousand words, so we have the tale of the snapshot and a unique perspective on a brush with greatness from one young Jesuit serving in Russia.
Janez Sever, a Jesuit priest from the Russian Province (doing his final stage of Jesuit training, his "tertianship") celebrated Mass in Moscow for Vice President Joe Biden and his team on Ash Wednesday (Biden was in Russia for meetings on trade and foreign policy with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin). Father Sever was asked to prepare an Ash Wednesday service, after which he offered the vice president a copy of Jim's latest book ("The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything"). Biden said he had already had his own copy.
Here's Father Sever's story:
I felt like Forrest Gump today as I did a quick Ash Wednesday service for VP Joe Biden and about 10 others in the hotel where he is staying. It went very well and I had a short conversation with him afterwards. I gave him Jim Martin's book and he said that he already had a copy and had read some of it. He thought it was really well written—easy and delightful to understand. If anyone has Jim Martin's e-mail, you can pass this photo on to him. It was an interesting experience to say the least.
The very first thing which struck me was that the Vice President’s office had requested an Ash Wednesday service this far in advance. It was a real priority of the Vice President! My initial reaction to the idea of getting to give ashes to the Vice President of the United States was one of excitement of getting a “photo opportunity” with him. Then I went into a phase of beginning to become preoccupied with “doing the right thing.” Finally, I “woke up” and took the question to Jesus in prayer. How does God want me to preach the Gospel to this man? By turning to God, I came to realize and accept that I am not there for myself, but that perhaps I am really “being sent” into this opportunity. This was a mission (kind of like the Blues Brothers who were on a “mission for God”). I wondered, how and what am I called to proclaim to this powerful man in order for him to be able to really make this Lent an effective moment in his life. To make a long story short, I went through two very different homilies before realizing that they were “boring” and “burdensome.” I was “led” to remember my 30 day retreat experience and that I could and am called to share from that experience. Jim Martin’s book inspired me to this because Jim’s style is about making our faith and spirituality “accessible.” Jim does it by sharing his own very concrete and humble personal experiences. And these types of experiences are accessible and very key to each and every human being if they are seeking God no matter who they are. We don’t need big words to express how God desires our cooperation and/or friendship. In fact, the “big words” that we usually hear in some homilies in church really don’t help.
Several times before the service it was made known to me that the service should be “short and sweet…” not to last more than fifteen minutes. It was held in the hotel where the Vice President and his staff are staying. It was 8:45 pm, right after the Vice President returned from his meeting with the Russian President Medvedev. Approximately ten other Catholic staff participated in addition to the Vice President. Several of the staff mentioned their ties to Jesuit Universities. Everyone was very tired at the end of their first day in Moscow.
Overall the service was very “light” and informal (I realize today, the day after, that these were signs of spiritual consolation as Ignatius teaches us). I was struck by several things in this whole experience. One is how the first words out of everyone’s mouth were, “Thank you, Father for taking the time!” I felt how these Catholics were genuinely grateful for this opportunity to be connected with the church at the beginning of Lent. As I look back on the event, I sense how it was a “small island, an oasis” of consolation of sorts. The atmosphere was serious, but “light.” Though everyone had had a full day, this service became a moment of God’s presence, God’s consoling presence.
Now one last thing about this whole meeting… I am a person who feels strongly about the pro-life question. This was the man to talk to about this, but how... By taking this concern of mine (and the church) to prayer and consulting some of my fellow Jesuit brothers I believed that this was not to be just about ashes. However, late at night and in Moscow after a long tough day was probably not the time to preach on this specific issue. However, this is a man who has the power to influence. But this issue needs to be addressed somehow. So, in consulting with our Regional Superior, Tony Corcoran (NOR), we decided to draft a letter expressing our deep respect for the man, for the causes to which he has given his life, and suggesting that he relook at his discernment regarding this question, suggesting that this Lent may be the appropriate season for this.