We Are (Not) Nothing
Last spring, on Monday night of Holy Week, the world sat transfixed by the images of one of the great symbols of our Catholic Faith, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, going up in flames. That same night, I and a small band of missionaries took to the streets of SoHo looking for former Catholics, themselves lost in a world without faith. Two memories both haunted and energized me that night. One was my first moment in the Notre-Dame Cathedral nearly 40 years ago. Although at that time I had fallen away from my faith, I found the experience of walking into the great Cathedral, with its walls of stained glass glimmering in the morning sunlight, utterly mesmerizing. Instinctively, I knelt in prayer and, as spiritually lost as I was, I felt God there. The second memory that kept flashing before me last Monday night occurred many years later, in SoHo in 2011. It is recounted in my new book, The Missionary of Wall Street:
"Under a streetlamp in SoHo, a missionary stands alone as the night grows colder and darker. A group of French tourists stroll by. “Surely I’ve got some Catholics here! Why not visit the cathedral? It’s just three blocks away!” A young man within the group declares firmly, “We are not Catholic!” Already, the tidal forces of the little group are pulling the young man to the edge of the circle of light under the lamppost. In moments, he will be lost in the darkness. Barely time here for one last plea. Turning toward the darkening group, the missionary cries, “Not Catholic? Aren’t all French people Catholic? What are you then?” Quickly, almost instinctively, the young Frenchman declares, “We are nothing.” As he speaks these words, he and the missionary lock eyes, both pondering this answer’s true meaning. And then, just like that, the young man from France slips into the cold darkness."
My experience that night in 2011 transformed me from a scared missionary to an energized seeker of souls, determined not to let another lost Frenchman be pulled away into the darkness by well-meaning but confused friends. For the reality is, however loudly our culture protests to the contrary, WE ARE NOT NOTHING. We are beloved sons and daughters of God. But when we deny him, when we cut ourselves off from him, we may begin to believe that we are nothing, that all is lost. We may then begin a slow descent into despair as we perceive our own cathedral of faith going up in flames.
Over the years, my work as a missionary on the streets of New York has left me with the firm conviction that, buttressed by a combination of such massive but unbearably light pillars of our faith as love, joy, and a kind of holy fearlessness, we can make a difference. We can find our lost Frenchman. And we can bring him back. Over more than a decade now, our missionaries in SoHo have spoken with over three million souls. We estimate that we’ve identified roughly one quarter of a million Catholics and brought 15,000 of them back to church for the sacraments of Reconciliation and Communion. Joy, love, fearlessness…and the Holy Spirit. He is with us. We are not alone. And we are certainly are not “Nothing.”
Even secular France will find a way to rebuild Notre-Dame, hopefully to some semblance of its former grandeur. But will we, like the early apostles of Easter before us, help the Holy Spirit rebuild the Faith?