I am certain of Christ
Posted by Lorenzo Fazzini on 1 March 2010 ·
Of Jewish origin (through his mother); an Islamic scholar; formerly a Buddhist adept. Now, a Catholic priest in the Holy Land, after working in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. If you wanted a poster boy for the postmodern concept of globalization, you could find it in this missionary from California, a “beanpole” of almost 2 meters (“6 feet 2 inches, to be exact”) who can’t be missed in the alleys of the Holy City. He is Fr. Vincent Nagle, priest of the Fraternity of St. Charles, stationed in Jerusalem since 2007. After first teaching English at the Catholic University of Bethlehem, he then headed the Catholic parish of Nablus: “The patriarch sent me. No priest would look after the place,” he says. He is now the assistant pastor at Ramallah in the Palestinian Authority, also serving as the spiritual father to two houses of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s sisters.
“I am certain of Christ.” Padre Nagle often repeats this phrase, which manifests a faith rooted in long experience. But what can it mean in the Holy Land – that place of contradiction, of division among Christ’s followers, crisscrossed by perennial hatreds between individuals and peoples? “Here Christians are 1.3% of the population, and one can feel isolated. But I can’t come before Christ and think of myself as other than being in an ongoing experience. Often I say to myself: if I am here in the Holy Land, it is not to improve the situation of Christians, but because Someone sent me. I see this from the changes in the lives of some of those around me: when there is someone who no longer has reasons to live, and at a certain point he finds them, I know Whom he has encountered. When I see patriarch Twal confronting impossible questions and then, after a night of prayer, go out ready to face the situation, I understand that I am certain of Christ”.
This “Christian certainty” has its roots in Fr. Vincent’s life story, which is colored by adventure. “I was born in San Francisco into a family with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, the 6th of 8 children. The first 4 received a Christian education (Catholic school, parish, etc.), but the four younger ones, myself included, much less so. My dad had begun to have “problems” with the Church, given his far-left orientation. I was 4 when the family moved to the country, still in California, near the sequoias. It was there that 1968 hit … three years earlier was ’65, when there began to be hippies and flower children. My mom followed a guru; at 15 my oldest sister became a fervent Buddhist, and for years, I went to Buddhist meetings. We were immersed in the spirit of the times.”
Vincent began high school near San Francisco, and a friend who attended a Catholic parish invited him to a meeting: “But the content of the faith wasn’t there. The Church in the United States at that time was soaked in the dominant progressive culture.” The awareness of being Jewish remained very alive in the young Californian: “When they asked me if I was going to join the army, I said no. But I added: for Israel, yes! My mom instilled in me a strong Zionism: I knew all about the Holocaust, the Nazi persecution…”. Vincent then began to attend college: “I understood that there was Someone in the world, that religion could not be reduced simply to living together happily, that there was something that could change people’s hearts. A priest said to me that this was Jesus Christ. I had never read any Christian authors, because I thought they weren’t worth my time, so convinced was I that they were ‘anti-human’. Then my mom’s guru, during a discussion on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, blurted out: ‘But of course it’s true! If we have come from the divine, we must return there with our bodies.’ It was at that point that I began to read Christian writers.”
Vincent continued his studies at the University of San Francisco, which is a Jesuit university, but he found little of Catholic inspiration there. He signed up for humanities, devouring the classics of western thought. After finishing his studies, he went to Morocco to teach English, from 1981-1983. “My colleagues were members of the Muslim Brotherhood (one of the most important organizations in radical Islam, ndr). It was they who forced me to take seriously the question of God. I remember one night when we were talking, they said to me: God is God; he is not according to your idea of him.’ And I understood simply that He is God, and I’m not. I had done a lot of Buddhist meditation, but I had never prayed. I wrote to my mother, asking her to send me something to pray with: she sent me a missal from a Catholic goods store. Later I found a rosary, and began to use it.”
Vincent then experienced a rather intriguing parenthesis: from 1983-1985 he taught English to Saudi Arabian spies at a secret center near Riyadh. Then, back in the U.S., he studied literature at Berkeley. There he encountered his old milieu, that of the American left: environmentalism, the homosexual movement, supporters of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. “I read the writers of the Catholic dissent, Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx. But I felt I was onto a treasure, a diamond that was in the Church, even if it was covered by 30 feet of mud – but it was there. And I wanted to know more. I understood that many of those around me had no interest in this diamond – they only wanted to remake the Church. I looked for someone who would help me rediscover that treasure. I began to spend time with some traditionalist Catholic students, but this began to make me always angry at progressive Catholics, because I thought they wanted to destroy my treasure. It was at that point that I met Communion and Liberation. For me it was precisely – a liberation! I understood that everything about Christianity simply boiled down to a question: come and see!”
From there, everything flowed for Vincent like a waterfall of grace: he entered the seminary of the Fraternity but, having already studied theology in the U.S., was directed to study Islam at the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies (PISAI), where he had Maurice Borrmans and Samir Khalil as teachers. Then he was transferred to the U.S., where he was a hospital chaplain, and finally to the Holy Land. “I am certain of Christ.” After such an adventure, the certainty of this truth for Fr. Vincent is a diamond to be invested in over time.