I love to travel as a priest and when I travel I always wear my habit or a cassock so I am recognised. Because of this I have participated in so many exceptional encounters and conversations that would have never happened were I not seen to be a priest.

I have prayed with the dying and sick, heard confessions of people who have not been in church for years. I have counselled and consoled. I even had a small prayer meeting with a few stewardesses who were Christian right there in galley. It was tremendous.

I jokingly say that I see many conversions right there as I walk down the aisle of an aeroplane looking for my seat because I can see the fear in the eyes of many people who are quietly praying ‘Please God don’t let that religious fanatic sit next to me!’

The conversations themselves are very varied, sometimes they are superficial, at other times deep and personal. Occasionally I have some lively discussions about the Faith and the Church and these most often arise from among people who are serious about their faith and seek answers.

I admire a good Baptist or Evangelical who can focus on the Scriptures and knows who is Jesus. Indeed I wish that more Catholics could be more clear about the treasure of their faith. Of course there are some who want to save my soul and with whom it is difficult to dialogue. In such cases I usually suggest that we pray the Rosary together and that ends any further discussion.

When travelling I always carry my Bible, breviary and a Bible ‘cheat sheet’. This latter is a biblical reference sheet to practically all of the questions that someone has about the Catholic Church. Here it has been my experience that people usually repeat the same misconceptions that their pastor was taught and his pastor before him. Therefore I am never surprised to hear the accusation that ‘Catholics worship idols!’ 

That of course is as untruthful as the accusation that ‘Catholics worship Mary.’ The truth is that no Catholic worships anyone but God, ‘We revere and respect The Mother of God. If Mary had not freely chosen to be the Mother of Jesus, and said “I will be the handmaid of the Lord”, Jesus would not have been born and our souls could not be saved. Are we wrong to respect and revere The Mother of Our Saviour?’ 

Another accusation that I frequently hear is that ‘The Catholic Church killed millions of people in The Inquisition.’ To which I respond, ‘The Inquisition lasted over 350 years. In those three and a half centuries, 3,500 people were killed, usually by Civil Authorities.’ 

Another accusation is ‘You Catholics aren’t allowed to read The Bible.’ I say look, every priest encourages others to read the Bible and I know this because I am a priest! Moreover the Church encourages the faithful to read and reflect upon the Bible and here I point out that ‘Catholics have a more biblically-based service than the vast majority of Evangelical Churches as we have four Bible readings at every Sunday Mass. In fact the Holy Mass is permeated with Scripture quotes and Gospel truths.’ 

In my conversation I have also heard the assertion that ‘The Catholic Church was invented by the Emperor Constantine in 350 AD.’ Here of course the historical record is clear, Emperor Constantine joined The Catholic Church three hundred years after the first Pope had moved it to Rome, where it grew despite it being persecuted.

Typically in these discussions the salvation question arises. Do you know Jesus personally and have you received Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Now if you think that is ‘a Protestant thing’ and not for us Catholic then you are deeply mistaken. Let us hear the words of Pope Benedict XVI ‘It is necessary to enter into a real friendship with Jesus in a personal relationship with him and not to know who Jesus is only from others or from books, but to live an ever deeper, truly personal relationship with Jesus where we begin to understand what he is asking of us…’ 

So what’s the answer? The answer is that I have been saved, I’m being saved, and I have the hope that I will be saved, while I work out my salvation with fear and trembling, like St. Paul. In other words, according to the Bible, ‘being saved’ is not a one time event, but rather, an ongoing process.

Here then I suggest to my conversation partner that s/he thinks of the salvation journey as an aeroplane trip, ‘I have been on the aeroplane since I first got on (Baptism), I am now travelling on the aeroplane (enduring the sufferings of life for Christ), and I will be on the aeroplane when it lands at my final destination (death and heaven)!’

I love to speak about the gift of the Holy Eucharist using Jesus’ own words (Gospel of St. John Chapter 6) which are radical and clear. ‘We Catholics by receiving Holy Communion obey Jesus’ clear instruction “If you do not eat My Body and drink My Blood you do not have life in you”.’ 

At every Catholic Mass since The Last Supper, bread and wine become The Body and Blood of Christ. We know, and obey, He Who Fulfilled the Prophecies.

So it is that we Catholics have such a personal relationship with Him that we receive His Body and Blood at each re-presentation of The Last Supper. Can you imagine at every Mass we have His life in us!

So I travel and I love it. I love the Lord and I love His bride, the Catholic Church and want others to find Him and Her. I guess as a priest I have only one real duty. I felt it once as I celebrated the Eucharist.

I was holding up His body and blood. And I realise that is what I am to do always. I am to hold up Jesus to the world.

In airports, in aeroplanes, in cramped seats, always and everywhere…

Let us give praise to the Lord. 

Let His light shine forth

Let our witness radiate
His Joy and give comfort
to all we meet on our
pilgrimage through this
valley of tears.

Fr. Michael Shields

This article can be found in Mirror 0416.