The Bishop, the Boy and the Soggy Sneakers

Word was sent far and wide — to uncles, cousins, grandparents — that the boy who loved conducting odd science experiments and making buildings from trash was at last interested in a competitive sport. Shortly after practice started we bought him a brand new pair of track shoes, gleaming white with royal blue stripes.

He brought them home and, while we all admired them, he asked a big question: “Mom, do you think we could get Bishop D'Arcy to bless them?”

“Why the bishop, honey?” I asked. “Why not Father?”

“It's important, Mom,” he said. “Could you just ask him?”

I hesitated, but then agreed to take the shoes to the next event attended by our diocese's chief pastor. It was a May crowning, part of a Mass celebrated for the local home-school group. After Mass but before the cookies, I nervously popped the question.

“Sure I'll bless them,” our dear bishop said affably. “Go get the holy water from the altar — we'll do it up right.” And then Bishop John D'Arcy, ordinary of South Bend-Fort Wayne, Ind., blessed my son's sneakers.

I snapped a picture for my boy to see when I got home. He wore them proudly to the very next practice — and was promptly cut from the team.

I held my breath for the first crisis of faith I was sure was about to follow. Would he blame God? The bishop? His coach? Me? I looked around the gym after the announcement. Others who were cut were fighting back tears. My son stood, tall and silent, just staring for a few moments.

At last, he spoke: “Mom, can we go to the big meet anyway? I want to cheer for the team.”

Days went by. We showed up at the big meet. We cheered our team, and they won. On the way home, my son was still silent — but not with rage. With thoughtfulness. Finally I had to ask. “Son,” I said, “are you wondering about why you were cut? I mean, you know, after the bishop blessed your shoes and all?”

“Mom, I asked for a blessing,” he said. “Not a spell.”

For me, this was an epiphany. My baby's grasp of theology, it seemed, was beginning to exceed my own. For in that precious moment, I knew that my son had something to teach me about faith. And, given the attention focused on all American Catholic bishops these days, it occurred to me that his insight might be fitting for a lot of others as well.

Had he acted on some of the emotions he surely must have felt that day, my son might well have carped about Bishop D'Arcy, sworn off extracurricular activities and tossed his blessed shoes in the trash. Instead, he chose to trust and make the most of the situation he'd been handed. He seemed to know instinctively that you don't need to be a player to make it to the winner's circle, that you can get to an equally rewarding place by being an intercessor.

I've seen a lot of those shoes since then. Now they're torn and caked with mud from endless crawdad hunts at the riverbank. During one fishing expedition, they were worn as waders, and my mind flashed back to that old Anthony Quinn film The Shoes of the Fisherman, a story that movingly conveys a sense of the rich heritage of the Church and the papacy. I remember watching it on TV with my dad, whose eyes welled with tears at the moment the new pope was chosen.

“This is what we're all about,” Daddy told us eight kids. “All the popes and cardinals and bishops march through time in the shoes of Peter, the fisherman.” The one called by Christ himself. Our bishops have been ordained by God, their offices handed down through the centuries from a man just as flawed as any of them. If you think that's an exaggeration, remember that Peter, Jesus' right-hand man, essentially disowned the Lord — during Jesus' darkest hour, at that.

God doesn't expect perfection. He expects trust. I suppose that, as we listen to one another discuss the bishops' role in the present scandals, the meeting in Dallas and everything before and after, we could all find plenty of fault. But how much more blessed we will all be if we appreciate what they are trying to do. And remind ourselves who they are in Christ's eyes.

No bishop in the world wants to endanger young people. They never did. They never will. We also thwart our own healing when we start demanding: “This is our Church; we want more say in how it's run.”

The truth is, it isn't ours. It's God's. If we really look, we'll see the Holy Spirit's light upon our dear bishops; if we listen, really listen, we can hear a voice like thunder in our hearts saying, “These are my beloved sons. Listen to them.” I am very proud of the way the U.S. bishops have looked straight into the jaws of hell in this scandal — and never lost their trust in God. There's certainly more work to do. Let's let them do it. Let's pray for them, love them, listen to them.

My son, of course, heard all the painful stories from victims of abuse. We wept together over it, our whole family. We felt the pain and rage and confusion. Again, I wondered how it was affecting our children's faith, so I asked my boy: “Do you still trust our priests?”

He rolled his eyes again, sighing, as he rummaged through the refrigerator. “Mom, it's not the priests. I mean, it's hardly any priests. More people hurt kids who are just plain guys. Besides, if anybody ever tried to hurt me, no matter who he is — I'd just tell you, and you'd tell the bishop and the cops. Now that everybody knows about all that stuff, every-body's smarter.”

Munching on some leftover pizza, he added: “Have you seen my track shoes?”

We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a people set apart. Onward we march in blessed, albeit tattered, shoes. Where are we going? To the foot of the cross. There, behind our shepherds — flawed, sometimes stumbling — we are refreshed, renewed, cleansed.

Recognize this spot? It's our winner's circle.

Susan Baxter writes from Mishawaka, Indiana.