“It was a real pleasure taking him to hang.”
I was immediately taken aback when he said this, even more so because he had just received holy communion.
It happened when I served as a Eucharistic minister at a large suburban hospital over five years ago. When I walked into his room, he looked like anybody’s grandpa. I can still see him lying there: a 90-some-year-old man with smallish frame nestled into the middle of the recliner bed, a tuft of white hair atop a wrinkled but happy-go-lucky face, the flimsy-knit, standard issue hospital blanket pulled up just under his chin.
His was my last visit of the day. He greeted me with great energy when I arrived and swiftly summoned me to his bedside. We chatted a bit, and I remember thinking what a happy, welcoming elder he was. I remember thinking: Wow, if ever I make it to his age, I’d like to be able to meet the world and all its visitors with the same élan and generosity.
Eventually, I asked if he would like to receive communion. “Oh, of course,” he said eagerly, cheerfully.
After reading a short passage from John’s Gospel we recited the Lord’s Prayer together. Then I opened the pyx, raised the host and proclaimed: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
He took the host, and began to chew. Before he had even finished consuming, he pointed to the corner of the room where some of his personal items had been placed on a chair. “There’s a book over there. Bring it here; I want to show you something.”
It was a history book; its edges were worn – a prized possession, I could tell. He shared that he was a WWII vet who had served in the South Pacific. He asked if I had any vets in my family. “Yes,” I said.
Finally, after flipping through and landing on the desired page, he pointed to a black-and-white picture of him as a young 20-year old in green fatigues. He was escorting a captured Axis-power General to the gallows. That’s when he said it: “It was a real pleasure taking him to hang.”
His comment surprised and saddened me. Unsure how to respond, I simply looked at him. I could have sworn I saw unconsumed remnants of the eucharistic elements at the corner of his mouth.
There are a number of issues packed into this one incident. I’ve reflected on it from various angles over the years: how ought we respond in pastorally uncomfortable situations, what’s the Catholic response to war and capital punishment, how are we to regard our enemies, what are the limits of a healthy patriotism, what do we do when civil responsibilities clash with the law of love and forgiveness Jesus commanded?
From all appearances, the elderly man was a good person. He had an apparent love for his faith, his family, and his country. I have no reason to doubt that General was a war criminal and that the elderly man’s 20-year-old self believed his actions were in the service of justice. Sixty-five some years later he exuded an obvious pride about that moment.
But on the car ride home that day, I wondered: after all these years of receiving the Body of Christ, how could someone make a comment like that? After all those years of receiving the bread of life and drinking the cup of mercy, did it ever occur to him to pray for the man he led to the gallows? Or, had he in any way learned to bless persecutors and feed enemies (Romans 12:14-20)?
But this isn’t a post of condemnation. I have no interest in throwing stones because I recognize that I am no different. Though not as dramatic, in equal measure have I fallen into what Gaudium et Spes 1 called one of the gravest errors of modern day — “the split between faith which many profess and their everyday lives.” With frequency, I have bouts of envy and schadenfreude and compete for attention; I’ve mocked others behind their backs; gotten possessive with friendships and tried to control family members because “I knew better;” I’ve lusted; I’ve been stubbornly unmindful how I contribute to systemic injustices; kindness has been withheld and I’ve not bothered to love. Splits abound.
That hospital experience is for me a reminder that all of us have formed habitual, often just-below-the-surface, resistance to letting ourselves be radically transformed by our Eucharistic faith and practice.
Jesus confronted me with questions in the hospital room that day, asking: where do my ultimate allegiances lie, how and in what way am I showing up in the social, political, and religious landscapes of today, where are the splits between my faith and everyday life?
Many church goers have been unable to participate in the liturgy for months. Some are just now beginning to return. Where is the grace in this hiatus and slow trickle back? Perhaps it gives us a chance to pause and ask ourselves where chasms have formed between how we regard and treat others with the radical faith Jesus gifted us.
Perhaps, it gives us a moment to simply ask: What’s the point of going, if the bread changes, but we don’t?