The Church, The Pedophiles, and the Filipino Party Tree
When I stepped onto the treadmill Monday morning the guy jogging next to me made some small talk, like people do whilst on treadmills. “How was your weekend?” He asked.
“Really good, actually!” I said. “A friend of mine was ordained a Roman Catholic Priest up in Atlanta, so I went up and celebrated with him and some of my other friends. It was really awesome.”
“Oh that’s cool!”
“Did you tell him to stay away from little boys?”
Stunned and deadpan. “No. I didn’t.”
I’ve recently been reading some CNN.com articles in a convenient effort to keep up with current events (Definitely open to other suggestions). The Vatican has been making several appearances lately, what with Obama’s healthcare mandates, the leaky butler, and the renegade nuns (oxymoron) going back and forth with the Pope. CNN’s rhetorically slanted coverage of these issues is frustrating enough, but then, for some reason I am always compelled to read the responses at the end. Every single time, no matter what the issue is that’s being reported about the Catholic Church, more than one person makes a comment bringing it back to the pedophile priest scandals, and more than one other person makes a comment along the lines of, “Give it up, already... The Catholic Church isn’t working anymore... Nobody trusts the Vatican... It’s time to hang it up...” And my personal favorite of these comments: “You’ve had your time. We call it ‘the Dark Ages’.”
One particularly hot, summer day back in the 80’s, when I was about 5-years-old, my Grandmother took me to this Filipino party somewhere out in the country. Sometime after she had me stand on top of a table and sing a Whitney Houston song for everyone on the Karaoke machine, as per the usual, I went outside to find some other children to play with. Usually at these Filipino parties there would be a bunch of children running around together somewhere, but here I didn’t see them right away. (Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a story about a pedophile. It’s going to be about a tree). Then, several yards away, I saw a couple of little kids run off and disappear into the leaves of this giant tree in the middle of a field. (See? I told you.) I don’t know what kind of tree it was, maybe an oak, or a maple... I wasn’t really aware of these kinds of details at the age of 5, but it was huge, and dense, and it had branches all the way down to the ground.
After I saw a couple more children run across the field and disappear into the tree, I decided to head towards it and check the tree out for myself.
The closer I got to the tree, the bigger it seemed to get. As I approached, the tree appeared animated and alive with voices and laughter; leaves rustling around in random places all over. I was timid and a bit apprehensive, but entirely drawn and curious. So I went in.
When I crossed the threshold of the outer leafy boundary, it was like stepping through a doorway to a different world. The temperature dropped significantly in the coolness of its shade. Rays of sparkling light were pouring in through the leaves, twinkling with their rustling movements. Everywhere I looked, up and around, there were dozens and dozens of other children playing happily on the branches. It was the kind of climbing tree that children live for. These branches were so strong, sturdy and close together that we could climb very high and still feel very safe. There was a boy who was obviously “it”, trying to tag some other children, so I joined right in with a loud squeal. He came after me as I climbed away from him like a little monkey. We all played for hours in that tree, climbing up and down and around, talking, exploring, having our own little party while the grown-ups did whatever it is that grown-ups do when they get together... Who cares?
Now here is where I bring up webworms. I don’t know about other parts of the U.S., but anyone who’s lived in the Midwest has seen the work of these nasty little things. They live on the outer branches of trees, and you know they’re present when it looks like some dirty, flavorless cotton candy has attacked a tree branch and they both died in the battle. Dirty, dead cotton candy on a dead tree branch. Got it? It’s actually really gross. Depending on how many branches are affected, an infestation can make your trees look hideous.
Now, let’s say for a moment that the Filipino party tree had webworms too. Even though it didn’t in real life, it is not a far stretch of the imagination. After all, it’s a great tree, which makes it very vulnerable to bugs that eat yummy trees. Let’s even say that it had so many webworms, it appeared to be dying. Looking at it from a distance, I would have seen the webworm damage and devastation caused to some of the more visible parts of the branches, and I might have figured the tree itself was sick and in the early stages of decay. But here is the point: The little moth larvae we call webworms are not the tree itself. They are the worms; the tree is still the tree. And it is not going anywhere. Webworms can’t kill a tree this strong.
Standing outside of the Church and looking at her from a distance, especially with the slanted voices of misinformed skeptics explaining the circumstances in our ears, there is reason to be alarmed and somewhat grossed-out. I have spent most of my life seeing it from this angle, so I understand. But now, I have disappeared into the leaves with the other children who play in its expansive shade mixed with sparkling light. I am currently sitting on a branch with my back resting against its massive trunk. From this angle, it is not at all what you would have expected from the outside. The closer we get to the center—which is the real presence of Jesus Christ himself—and the more time we spend observing the world from there, the more we are able to distinguish the Tree itself from the worms and know that they are not one in the same.
As we climb the branches, we learn to trust the strength of the real thing, and stay clear of the flavorless cotton candy-looking stuff. We observe with curiosity and wonder the markings that tell the story of the Tree’s growth throughout her long history of becoming such a Tree. Here, wind knocked off a branch. There, lightening must have struck the side of the trunk many years ago. Look, an owl must have lived in this hole at some point, or a family of squirrels. “Tag! You’re it!”
We grow to love the Tree itself and desire that she be free from the worms that plague her. There is damage done, and some branches have been ruined, which is a grievous loss. But it’s not the end of the Tree. She is very much alive and well. It is simply a time that requires intense pruning, which, as anyone who knows anything about trees can tell you, will only make her living branches stronger in time.
It’s strange for the children to sometimes hear people observing from the outside refer to their Tree as “That dying webworm tree.” We know that doesn’t even make sense. These are only the voices of ones who have no idea just how deep these roots go, how much they have survived already, and the strength of the branches that hold the children up and keep them from being afraid.
The webworms will be done away with in time. No doubt, more may come, and they will go as well. But the Tree will remain right where she is, with children playing in her branches until the day has ended and the children are called to go home.
“...and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Matthew 28:20