Friday, May 20, 2005

My Canaanite Moment

"Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us." He said in reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But the woman came and did him homage, saying, "Lord, help me." He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters." (Matt 15:21-27)
It was about thirteen months ago, that I was unceremoniously removed from a five-star hotel, on the occasion of a prayer breakfast, due to a false accusation made against me. This issue resurfaced again this year, when those in charge of the annual event gave no explanation for the incident, and refused to change their position.

The course of events last year, and their reprise this year, are described herein. It is -- with God as my witness -- a balanced and truthful account of events, to the very best of my memory and ability. It is admittedly long, and possibly self-indulgent. But I am taking that risk, given the benefit of this virtual public square that is the Internet. That, and the furvent desire, not so much to harm the good name of anyone else, so much as to defend my own.

Somebody has to.

Act One

The event in question is the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. The first annual event took place in April of last year, at a prominent hotel here in Washington. There was a Mass scheduled for early in the morning, to be followed by a breakfast, and a keynote speaker.

Now, at various times in the last ten years or so, I've been sort of "free-lancing" as an acolyte for similar events. Whether it's the Old Mass or the New, have cassock and surplice will travel. I've assisted alongside young seminarians, and have trained young schoolboys for such events as well. I have served for both priests and bishops. I was also in charge of logistics and advance detail for the celebration of Mass -- a sacristan, if you will -- for a national convention of lay Catholics for three years running. I got to where I was pretty good at it, if I do say so. At least I wasn't bad enough that I had to be thrown out.

Now then, for this occasion, seeing nothing too forward about it, I used the occasion to offer my services to one Alexandra, the young lady in charge of logistics for the Mass that morning. (I am using real names here; there are no innocents to protect.) Even though there were two boys lined up from a private school to serve, my offer was gratefully accepted.

I arrived the night before, to introduce myself to the organizers, and to get a feel for the place. Alexandra was meeting with her assistants. There was only time to shake hands and say hello, as she was quite frantic in assembling the final details. So I left. But not before taking a look at the place.

They had one of those folding tables for the altar. As such, it was too low for the celebrant to be comfortable. The hotel personnel were also having trouble finding a tablecloth large enough to cover it. So I introduced myself and, making no claims of association beyond what was already discussed, offered to assist them. Out of my car, I got a large white heavyweight bed sheet, two sets of stackable table leg risers, and some duct tape. Between the two or three of us, we had that altar sitting a foot higher, and looking worthy of such a fine establishment. When it was over, we were all congratulating ourselves. I exchanged some small talk with the crew, and the security guards, then left.

I arrived the next morning with my vestments, about two hours before the Mass was to start. I was met by Alexandra, who was looking even more frantic (as if I could imagine that). She appreciated everything I had done, but the hotel security was breathing down her neck about one thing or another, and I'd have to leave until about a half-hour before Mass started. It was quite early in the morning, and I had nowhere to go. "Why don't you go out and get breakfast?" "Ma'am, I came here for breakfast, remember?" She just shrugged it off and left me in the lobby. Following that, I went up to the head security guard, a young off-duty Marine, and told him of the situation. I asked if I could just sit here in the lobby and wait as others were doing anyway. He graciously said yes.

At about one hour to showtime, I stepped out to my car, to move it off the street to a parking garage next door. On the way back, I distinctly heard one of the guards standing by a side door to the hotel, repeating my license plate number into a headset. After he finished, I confessed to him my having overheard, and asked what was up. He assured me it was nothing.


I went back inside. By this time, there were all manner of people milling about near the conference room where the Mass was to be held. I was not aware of any reason why I had to keep waiting in the lobby, since I wanted to be ready in time. So I asked the head security guard if I could go back there, having already told him of my earlier encounter with Alexandra. He told me to wait while he asked. So I stood there, standing next to the other guard. We were both a little uneasy, so I tried to break the ice a bit. "You know, Mister, no one's telling me anything, and I really don't see the problem here. See? Those nuns are walking around back there. You don't see anybody telling them where to go, do ya?"

The guard replied that I should wait while he went and spoke to his superior.

"Subject has left the building."

At this point is where the other shoe dropped.

The head guard came back, gave me his name, flashed his badge, and said that under DC law, he was empowered to force me to leave, or I'd be charged with trespassing. It seems I had threatened the nuns. I was stunned. I never threatened anybody. I turned to the other guard and asked what he told his superior. "What you said," was his reply. I kept trying to defend myself, but it was useless. The head guard repeated his order, and asked if I understood.

I stood there for a moment, in silence. The earlier brush-off, being detained, checking the license plate -- it was obvious I was being set up, but what would possess anyone to do this? The guard asked me again if I understood his order. It was then that I agreed to leave. But there was the matter of fifty dollars that I had paid to attend the event. The head guard took my name and address, and said he'd try to get me a refund.

I was still shaking in disbelief as I was escorted out the door, and heard the words of the head guard into his headset: "Subject has left the building."

In the days that followed, I attempted to clear matters up by phone with the hotel management. Upon inquiry, and with no further explanation, they stood behind the decision of the security guards. I also contacted the New York headquarters of the Sisters of Life, whose members I was accused of threatening. I spoke to two different sisters on two separate occasions. No one knew anything. Furthermore, even with my address, I never received any letter of record, either from the hotel, or any legal representative, summarizing the incident in question and barring me from the establishment in perpetuity.

I got to read all about it in The Washington Times, though:
Sen Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, said descriptions of his battles on the Senate floor last year to ban partial-birth abortions "sound rather heroic" but weren't.

"For five years, I was in elected office and never said the word 'abortion' on the floor of the United States House or the Senate," he said. "It took a herculean effort on my part just to get up and mumble a few phrases on an issue that should shake every person's consciousness."

But it doesn't, because "one of the reasons American Catholics are not as fervent is because many in our clergy are not as fervent in teaching the faith," he said.

The statement was aimed at priests and nuns who "teach a culturally influenced American Catholicism, instead of what the true faith is," the senator said. "Catholics have not been given a proper Catholic formation. Priests get up and talk around issues and not at them."
I also had took counsel with a friend in the building security trade, who explained the dark and ambiguous territory otherwise known as "probable cause." In our post-9/11 world, I wonder at what point that "probable cause" will come to mean whatever someone with a toy badge and a testosterone overdose says it is. (Ah, another subject for another day.)

It might have all made sense even then, given that there were members of Congress on the premises, and they couldn't be too careful. You'd think I would have given the planners of the event plenty of ammunition to come right at me and say: "You'll never attend a prayer breakfast in this town again."

But I didn't -- apparently.

Act Two

I was still waiting for such a pronouncement, when I got a letter in the mail from the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. "I thank you for your generous contribution... Our records indicate that you paid $50 to NCPB for one seat... If these figures are in error, please contact us immediately."

So, I did.

"Hello, Mr Cella. My name is David Alexander. I received your letter dated March 18, and there must be some mistake. You see, I was not allowed to attend last year's event, even though I paid for it." His curiosity piqued, I proceeded to tell him all that happened. It was then that he seemed to remember who I was. He was rather contrite, which certainly surprised me, and offered to allow me to attend this year's event for free. But I told him I wished an apology for how I was treated. He explained that his group was not responsible for the hotel's security policy. I reminded him of what (and possibly who) set them off in the first place. In describing the supposed "threat" I made, I had to explain it at least twice, as he could not believe it. Then I let him have it: "Sir, I am not one of your Beltway insiders on the fast track to papal knighthood. I'm just an ordinary Catholic in the pews. And if we're who we say we are, and doing what we claim to be doing, what was done to me wasn't right, and needs to be dealt with, as the worst thing I could be accused of is being a pushy guy!" Whew. I was out of breath for a moment. He suddenly realized (again?) that he had me mixed up with someone else, and he would have to talk to the Board of Directors and get back to me.

Well, he didn't. Not for at least a month. Finally, I called him. The first time he was boarding a plane, and would call me back. A couple of days passed. I left another message. He called me back on my home voice mail, on April 27 at 5:43 pm, with the following:
"David, it's Joe Cella getting back to you. I spoke with the Board of Directors, and in light of last year's circumstances, the decision remains as I previously discussed, and we just can't allow for any such behavior to occur at this year's Prayer Breakfast. So that is the decision that stands, and I hope that clarifies matters. Thank you. Bye."
Well, it didn't clarify much of anything. Maybe he still has me confused with someone else. Maybe I'm just not welcome. Inasmuch as no breakfast is worth all this, I could live with that. As if that wasn't confusing enough, less than two weeks later I received a formal invitation in the mail, officially inviting me to the second annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.

Now, if I was such a threat to anyone, why did I receive an invitation to this year's event? And if I wasn't a threat, why couldn't they offer a simple apology for the misunderstanding?


As I tried to explain to Mr Cella in that phone conversation, this is not what we are about. Ecclesia semper reformanda est. The Catehism of the Catholic Church makes it clear that the Church is on an everlasting pilgrimage, a straight and narrow path to perfection (769). It may be likened to a procession in a grand basilica, every one of us moving towards the Holy of Holies, following the cross ahead -- eyes forward, keep walking, keep praying, all of us. Or, as the late Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote: "Of course the Church 'should do this, should do that.' She 'should do' everything, and much more than she is ever capable of doing. But should not the words 'the Church should do this' mean 'I should do it?'" (from Elucidations, 1971) All I really wanted was what I paid for, and an apology for how I was treated. No lawyers, no press conferences. To that end, I appealed to Mr Cella, and to our common faith that we share as brothers.

But instead I am left to wonder, if this Catholic Prayer Breakfast -- my interaction with its Board of Directors being any indication -- can ever be a spiritual gathering, as opposed to just another political organizing event with the trappings of the First Estate.

Or is it instead a disturbing commentary on those who would claim leadership in the apostolic work of Catholic laity? This is critical in light of recent scandals amidst the clergy, and in the face of mounting attacks on Catholic belief and practice under the guise of a "reform." At times like these, our faith can be shaken, and we are inclined to look to those who would rally us to the defense of Mother Church. We can rarely go to the mailbox without being asked to donate to some worthy cause of theirs. Therein, amidst a steady listing of photos and endorsements of Catholic luminaries, we are assured that our generosity will further the renewal and the work of the Church.

Or will it?
"There was the same hearty cheering as before, and the mugs were emptied to the dregs. But as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that some strange thing was happening. What was it that had altered in the faces of the pigs? Clover's old dim eyes flitted from one face to another... Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials... Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." (from Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1946)
At what point do we sacrifice our convictions of faith on the altar of politics? At what point do we begin to "make a deal with the devil" to further our ends? What are the dangers if we do not heed this distinction? At least one person who attended last year went on record to wonder the same:
[A] few politicians who spoke at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel admitted to some inner turmoil.

"I'm a publicly elected official who's a Catholic and a Democrat," said Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan. "It seems that in recent weeks that we've been confused as to which comes first: a Catholic Democrat or a Democrat who's a Catholic. Depending on how you look at it, it can be both a blessing or a curse."

His father, Mr. Stupak said, "would often say, 'Bart, always remember that the bum on the street may be your boss tomorrow.' No truer words were ever spoken for those of us who choose to serve in elected office."
Indeed. Sounds like good advice for a lot of us -- both inside and outside the Beltway. You don't have to live in the Nation's capital very long to observe, as the saying goes: "Oh how the mighty have fallen!" If an article in the The American Spectator is any indication, attendees at last year's event might have gotten a foretaste of that lesson:
IN THE QUARRELSOME WORLD of Beltway conservative Catholics, Deal Hudson was both powerful and reviled. In the infighting over this year's first ever National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, I heard several insults flung at him that you wouldn't want to repeat in front of your mother. Or your father...

The Catholic League's Donahue told the New York Times that Hudson had become "the point man" for conservative Catholics to communicate with the Bush administration...
"The point man." Yes, Mr Hudson was an influential man, until a piece in the National Catholic Reporter exposed a past indiscretion with a young coed while a professor at Fordham. Now, Mr Hudson has done some excellent work, taking a faltering Catholic publication like Crisis magazine and building it up. But how has that saved him from scrutiny? And what of the rest of us? How many people supposedly flinging insults that day, ever imagined the same thing happening to them? Are any of them on the Board of Directors?

Act Three???

To this day, no one representing this event has ever told me for the record what I have done wrong! And if they haven't done so before this exposition, it is reasonable to maintain that any explanation of theirs would be found wanting. Barring that, whatever they claim to be, whatever endorsements from unsuspecting high churchmen they may appropriate now or in the future, I am left to wonder why I'd ever want to break bread with them in the first place.

Even if I never do, the event was a lesson in humility I could probably afford. Because if pride is the greatest of all sins, then its opposing virtue is a remedy for any man. And this man did not forsake it by standing up for himself. The deal is done, and I can move on. In fact, life demands that I do so, as for God's forgiveness to mean anything, we must learn not only to forgive others, but ourselves -- even as we demand respect for ourselves.

And so, as this is being posted, the Elect will meet this morning at another of this city's finer hotels. Even the President himself will be able to attend to say a few words, presumedly in gratitude for the Catholic vote (an unprecedented overture, I should think). All the same, I would sooner have breakfast in a local soup kitchen, and simply hand my fifty dollars over to those in charge. I would be serving no less a worthy cause.

What's more, I would probably be dining with a better class of people -- an observation not without precedent:
"I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth." (Matt 8:11-12)
Bon app├ętit.