The Second Vatican Council was over, and it was time to begin to implement its directives. In 1967 I was asked by Cardinal Cody of Chicago to establish a diocesan ecumenical commission with the Council documents as our guide. Within a few months, thirty-two lay men, lay women, religious, and priests were meeting regularly, writing ecumenical guidelines for the parishes, and becoming involved in interreligious activities throughout greater Chicago.
As secretary of the commission, I found myself being invited with some frequency to speak to Jewish and Protestant groups in the area. Accordingly, I had put together three rather brief addresses that could be adjusted to various occasions. They treated the basic ecumenical and inter-faith themes of the day: "dialogue," shared religious services, cooperation in social action, and such. In all three I was careful to give no offense and to avoid all appearance of "proselytizing."
In the fall of 1967, a tall, venerable Baptist minister with a congregation on the Southside of Chicago, who was also president of the second largest Black Baptist convention in the nation, invited me to address a conference of the leadership of his convention. They were to meet in a huge, rococo hall that had been a movie theater in the 1930's, abandoned in the 1950's, and reclaimed in the 1960's as a public auditorium.
My experience with Baptists had been quite limited. Hence, without giving the matter much thought, I pocketed the notes for one of my standard talks and on the afternoon of December 8th appeared in the lobby of the aforementioned hall, there to be greeted by my host.
Years ago in the Reader's Digest and similar publications one often found articles with such titles as "The Most Interesting Book I Have Ever Read" or "The Most Intriguing Person I Have Ever Met." My host deserved to be featured in an essay of this kind. He was well over seventy years of age but stood as straight as a soldier and spoke with a rich, deep voice that might have belonged to a man forty years his junior. Moreover, in his ordinary conversation he regularly oscillated back and forth between what amounted to virtually two languages. The first was the king's English punctuated by courtly gestures, and the second was the dialect of a Southern farmer accompanied by a twinkle in the eye.
"Good afternoon, Father," he said in greeting. "How y'all doin' this fine wintah aftahnoon?"
We made our way down the center aisle of the converted movie theater and climbed up on to the stage where an elaborate pulpit had been erected on one side and a huge cross on the other. The hall was filled on the main floor; and as my eyes became accustomed to the spotlights focused on the stage, I realized that the same was true of the balcony.
My host ascended the pulpit and in his first language, the elegant one, introduced me with all manner of flattering exaggerations. He then resumed his seat on the stage next to mine, gestured toward the pulpit, and invited me to address the congregation. I pulled the notes from my pocket and launched into one of my tried and true "ecumenical talks."
In ten minutes or so the presentation was completed. As I began to sit down next to my host, he turned to me and inquired rather impatiently, "That's not all, is it?"
"Well, yes," I replied. "Usually that's about all they want for an occasion such as this."
"Not here," my host intoned. "We call that just 'warmin'-up'. Go back. The folks'll be hurt and disappointed if you stop now. They're lookin' for a whole lot more preachin' than that."
It was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In the morning at Holy Name Cathedral where I resided I had celebrated two Masses and preached at both. My theme was the utter freedom from all stain of sin of the Mother of God from the very first moment of her existence until she joined her Son in heaven. It was a theme that I loved, a theme richly and authentically Catholic. I decided to develop it a third time here in the converted movie theater, squinting into spotlights and quite unsure as to how my Baptist audience might react.
I started with Chapter Three of the Book of Genesis, identifying Mary as the woman who was to crush the head of Satan. Here and there a few hesitating "Amen's" were sounded. Encouraged, I moved on to Chapter One of the Gospel according to Luke in which the Angel Gabriel greets Mary as "full of grace" and pronounces her "blessed among women." The "Amen's" became more determined and were occasionally joined by some tentative "Tell it, preacher's."
Warming to my subject, I recited a passage from the works of a Roman martyr of the second century, Saint Hippolytus, in which Mary is described as a "tabernacle free from all decay and corruption and lined with pure gold." The "Tell it, preacher's" began to cede to a few very heartening "You got the spirit, Reverend's." So I pursued on, using a stage whisper to gasp into the microphone the beautiful prayer of the third-century martyr, Saint Ephraem, "Thou, Lord, and Thy Mother, You alone are perfectly holy. For in Thee, Lord, there is no stain, nor is there any blemish in Thy Mother." And when this evoked what at least seemed to me to be a torrent of "Hallelujah's," I all but shouted the witness of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception which the fourth-century Bishop Theodotus of Ancyra entered into the Tradition of the Church, "In place of the virgin Eve, who became an instrument of death, God chose a virgin to give life. She was most pleasing to Him, full of grace,...innocent and immaculate, holy in mind and body, ...a lily among thorns."
My address ended with the assertion that embracing in faith the truth of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was the most powerful way I knew for anyone to begin to fathom the wonder of God Who became Man. "He took flesh from a woman, because He wanted to be human like us," I proclaimed. "But the woman from whom He took that flesh had to be free from all stain of sin," I added, "because He is the Son of the All-Holy God." The audience was silent for a moment and then broke into applause.
I rejoined my host. He leaned over to me and whispered, "What you said first was talkin' preachin', Ed. What you just said was preachin' preachin'. And it's preachin' preachin' that makes folks holy - holy like Mary."
Caught up in the spirit of the occasion, I heard myself responding, "Amen, Brother!"
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