By Alex Iben
About three weeks after I moved to Scotland in September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI made a visit to Glasgow and said Mass at Bellahouston Park. I was very excited to learn of the pope’s visit, but most people in the United Kingdom did not share my enthusiasm.
The acceptance of the Anglicans back into the Catholic Church infuriated many Protestants. Some were quite vocal, openly criticizing both the pope and Church. I tried to ignore these attacks, but still found them upsetting and frightening.
A week later, I took a trip to the Scottish Highlands and was shocked to hear many irate Brits still ranting about the visit. While I was browsing for souvenirs in Fort Augustus, a shopkeeper turned on his portable radio and tuned in to the local station. An angry man’s livid tirade poured out of the speakers. “… need to learn to stay within their own borders. These Catholics are power-hungry and want to control the world. I personally will not rest until all of them are shut up and the Catholic churches destroyed in the UK. If that means taking matters into my hands, so be it, ken?” His hatred of Catholics was almost palpable. I left the shop immediately and did not speak to anyone until I was back home in Glasgow.
The man on the radio spoke for many UK residents who hated Catholics and hated me, simply because I was Catholic. This shook me to my core. I called my parents immediately, terrified and crying. I wanted to come home, where I would be safe. I had visions of this man, or someone like him, entering my church during Mass and opening fire with an automatic weapon, fulfilling his personal mission to rid the world of Catholics. I even considered not attending Mass while I was in Scotland. My parents encouraged me to do the opposite and attend daily Mass. They were finally successful in calming me down and suggested I turn to Scripture for further reassurance. Reading the Bible later that night, I found peace in a passage from Isaiah 41:40 which reads: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Since that day, I have vowed to stand even more firmly in my faith. I embrace my Catholicity and proclaim it. I attend Mass regularly, although I must admit, I sometimes look over my shoulder to see who is entering the church and what they may be carrying. I recognize the power of prayer and the rosary, and use these weapons to fight the feelings of fear and isolation, which sometimes try to creep back into my psyche. I also help those who are looking for answers. Many of my non-Catholic Scottish friends are curious about my faith and ask questions; some openly, some behind closed doors. I try to answer their questions with facts or Bible passages, but sometimes the answers aren’t there or are incomprehensible, and my only reply is, “faith.” Some are intrigued by my devotion to something that (they think) I can’t see, hear or feel. What they don’t realize yet is that I do see God in their curious eyes and hear God in their voices when they ask these soul-searching questions. I feel the Holy Spirit working through me when I say something that interests them and causes them to want to explore the faith further.
Last Ash Wednesday in Iowa City, a friend touched the ashen cross on my forehead. “I’ve seen people wearing these today. Why?” “Ash Wednesday,” I answered. “Oh. Do a lot of people do this on Ash Wednesday?” “About a billion,” I replied. 1,121,516,000 Catholics!
Although our numbers are small or non-existent in some parts of the world, we are never alone in our beliefs. We can find strength and support from our Church, with over 2,000 years of history behind it. We have endless love and mercy, salvation and inspiration from the Holy Trinity. We find grace in the sacraments. We benefit from the intercessions of Mary, our gentle mother, the communion of saints, and legions of angels. We are called to stand up for our beliefs and say to the crowds, “Yes, I believe!” Not as the hypocrites do, boisterous and self-serving, but instead quietly with open hearts and minds, ready to listen to and act on God’s word. Each night before bed, I contemplate the meditations of Reverend Bede Naegele, O.C.D. The poignant selection for Feb. 5, based on 2 Corinthians 12:10 reads: “When I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.” Fr. Naegele comments: “Of themselves, human beings are nothing, but with God’s grace, they are everything. God bestows His grace upon all who acknowledge their own weakness and pray with humility and confidence.” May I, too, recognize the times when my faith is weak, and may I have the courage to ask God to guide me through these times; for this life is but a stepping-stone to life everlasting.
(Alex Iben is a proud graduate of Regina Inter-Parish Catholic Education Center in Iowa City. She graduated from the University of Iowa in May 2010 and is pursuing her Master of Letters degree in ancient drama from the University of Glasgow in Scotland.)