The Pope and Synod: Hangmen of the Great Commission

While I buckled into my window seat before departing Mexico City, the passenger beside me was conducting business from her phone. A new marketing strategy, at a cost in the upper hundreds of thousands of dollars, was being chewed over. The 40-year-old female I would be rubbing elbows with for the next three hours, I quickly learned, would be the one responsible for steering the venture.

Before ending the call, I heard her share (how snoopy of me!) that she’d spent the prior three days partying with tens of thousands of Oaxacans for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or Allhallowtide. The three-day festival, an intensely celebrated amalgamation of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, features parading skeletons, Virgin of Guadalupe statues, ghost-attracting flower bouquets, tiered altars, and the aroma of sweet breads baked for the dead. Overnight candlelit graveyard pilgrimages are taken to pray for the souls of ancestors and loved ones. In its purest form, the 72-hour Day of the Dead, whose origins can be traced back three thousand years, is largely about laughing in the face of death. O death, where is your sting?

But of course, since it is 2022, there was a fusion of fall-down tequila-drunkenness on side streets, carousing crowds squeezed into squares, runaway commercialization, decadence, and voodoo—with which my seatmate began to regale me. Out came the cell phone where she unveiled for me a behemoth photo montage of the merrymaking.

The previous night, she told me, she’d spent hundreds of dollars on a six-course meal with her sister and two friends. Eight Day of the Dead-themed drinks were poured for her and her coterie. For proof, she showed me some of the exotic drink photos. I told her she looked no worse for the wear. “I took a special potion after I woke up this morning,” she said. “It got me back up to speed.”

My seatmate and I made for a delightful pairing because I was in the mood to listen, and she was in the mood to talk.

The airplane was still on the tarmac when a seat-back television screen from the row in front of us was tuned to an American news channel whose hosts were discussing Donald Trump’s campaign visit to Pennsylvania. Five minutes later, I felt like I was the one with the hangover.

My new friend lifted into a rapierlike pummeling of the scoundrel. “I warn you,” she told me in a confidential tone, “I’m a bleeding-heart liberal and I speak my mind; and I’m a huge [liberal Democratic Georgia Senate candidate] Stacey Abrams backer.” Her razor-edged soliloquy centered on the “misogyny” and “racism” of the ex-president. As she droned on, em, delivered her impressions, the plane was still taxiing.

Three hours to go.

When our plane began its climb past the clouds, the conversation turned to her work. I found myself instantly admiring her doggedness, ingenuity, and shrewd mind as she walked me through how she steered a certain piece of “full-body immersive technology exercise equipment” (famous now in America) from the ground up. This woman was not only business-savvy but had equal measures of humor, zeal, and charm. I found her to be the ideal seatmate.

Then talk turned to her very recent divorce of the man “she still loved” but who wasn’t “driven enough.” She explained that her ex was now dating one of her friends, which suited her fine because “she only wanted the best for him.” She, in turn, was also currently involved with a divorced man she loved, who has three children. “I never wanted children,” she told me. “And voilà, now three overnight!”

Later this winter, she told me, she and her boyfriend would be traveling together to Portugal. One word rang in my head. Fatima. 

It was my turn to speak.

First, though, I granted myself a buffer, asking her to share with me her Portugal itinerary. As she spoke, I prayed. Come Holy Spirit, come…Come Holy Spirit, come…Give me words for this woman. Give me the words from Heaven. Let my words lead her to You.  

When she paused, I said, “I want you to go to Fatima.”

She responded with glee: “I keep reading that Fatima is a must-stop. Do you think we should go?”

One might say the starting gate had opened.

Most of the next three hours were spent sharing with her the Gospel, often interrupted with her objections, personal beliefs, and frequent wonderment. When I told her of what unfolded after Our Lady opened up the earth to allow the young shepherds Francisco, Lucia, and Jacinta a vision of Hell, she asked, courteously, “But doesn’t God make Heaven big enough for all of us?”

“He does,” I answered. “But He’s created Hell big enough for those who don’t love Him. It is for those who live outside His will. It is for sinners who rarely, if ever, think about Him. Hell is for those who choose it, for those who live only for themselves.” So I wouldn’t come off as a killjoy, I told her of Fatima’s Miracle of the Sun and explained that God occasionally chooses to gift us with miracles—as He did for 80,000 individuals in Fatima—to reveal His might and love for us and to show us His majesty and desire for us to join Him in His kingdom.

Eternal realities—her opinions and my scriptural awareness and explanations—were hashed out for a large portion of the next hour.

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