An Interview with a Franciscan Monk

Some of my most interesting experiences as I have been engaged in itinerant evangelism and Bible-teaching work throughout the years have been on railroad trains, for there one comes in contact with all sorts and conditions of people, and there are often splendid opportunities for witnessing for Christ.

The incident I am about to relate occurred a number of years ago when with my wife and elder son, who was then but a little boy, I was laboring in one of the north-western provinces in Canada. We had left a town in the southern part of the province early one morning to go by rail in a very roundabout way to a larger city where I was to preach that night. The day was hot, for it was harvest-time, and as there had not been much recent, rain, the dust, heat and mosquitoes were rather trying.

When the train stopped at a wayside station, a missionary priest of the Franciscan order boarded it. He was attired in the customary garb worn by members of his fraternity, and thus his calling was readily recognized. I noticed that he walked all through the car looking for a seat, but although a number of people were occupying double seats no one moved over to make room for him. He was evidently a man of meek and kindly disposition, and he did not insist on anyone’s giving place to him. Finally I noticed that he was trying to make himself comfortable on the wood-box in the rear of the car. In those days wood-stoves furnished the heat in winter-time.

As there were three of us occupying two double seats facing each other, I suggested that we should re-arrange our luggage a little, and thus make room for another, for it occurred to me that this might be the Lord’s opportunity for a conversation with this particular priest which might result in his eternal blessing.

So going back to where he was sitting, I intimated that if he were not averse to traveling with a family, we would be very pleased to have him in our section of the car. He accepted most cordially, and the moment he spoke I recognized from his accent that he was accustomed to speaking in French. However, his English was very good.

After we had become settled, we chatted a little concerning things in general, such as the weather, the state of the crops, and so forth, when finally he gave me the very opportunity I wanted by inquiring whether we were residents of the province or tourists traveling through. I replied that our home at that time was in California, and that we were not tourists, but were engaged in special service. He then asked if I were a commercial man, representing some house, to which I replied, “Not exactly, though I do represent a wonderful House, and have splendid goods to display to those who are interested!”

He smiled, and asked, “What then is your calling? —if you do not mind telling me.”

“Well,” I replied in all seriousness, “the fact is, in some respects it is very much like your own. I am a catholic priest engaged in missionary work.”

He looked up in surprise, glanced at my collar, and then—rather suspiciously, I thought—at my wife and little boy, and said, “I think you are jesting with me. You surely are not a Catholic priest!”

“Yes,” I replied, “I am indeed a priest in the holy catholic church. I am thoroughly serious in telling you this.”

“But,” he said, “you are not wearing a Roman collar!”

“No, I did not say I am a Roman priest, but a priest of the catholic church. Personally, you will pardon me if I say that to my mind ‘Roman’ and ‘Catholic’ do not fit very well together. One speaks of a restricted communion; the other of a universal church.”

“Ah, I think I understand you! You mean that you are an Anglican clergyman.”

“No, not that either, for ‘Anglican,’ too, would be restricted; but I am as I have told you a priest in the holy catholic Church, the apostolic Church instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.”

“I do not understand you. I presume that you are a clergyman in some one of the different sects of Protestantism.”

“Not at all! I do not call myself a clergyman, but a priest. Perhaps it would make things clearer if I give you some account of how I became a Christian, and how I was made a priest.”

“I would indeed be most interested in this, if you care to tell me!”

And so I spent some time telling him of my boyhood, my upbringing in a Christian home, my early concern about my soul, and how when I was a lad of fourteen, realizing that I was even then a lost sinner I went down on my knees one night to plead with God to save me. And as I was praying, it occurred to me that I was asking God to do something which He had wanted to do for me for years. I remembered that my dear mother had said, “The place to begin with God is Romans three or John three,” so I got my Bible and read carefully the third chapter of Romans. While I could apprehend the general drift of the chapter, there were terms and expressions there that were beyond my understanding at that time, so I turned next to the third of John—a chapter which I already knew, almost by heart.

But as I read it that night the Holy Spirit opened it up to me in a wonderful way. I saw that just as the serpent of brass, lifted up of old, was for the healing of every Israelite who looked upon it, so Christ had been lifted up on the cross that all who look to Him in faith might be saved. As I read verse eighteen, “He that believeth on Him is not condemned,” the light broke upon my soul, and I cried, “Lord, I do believe, and I dare to trust Thy Word. I am not condemned!”

The Franciscan had listened most carefully, and at this juncture he broke in, exclaiming, “That is most interesting! I have never heard anything like it in my life. You remind me of Saint Augustine.”

I was a bit amused and puzzled, and tried to think in what way my simple story would put him in mind of the great Doctor of Hippo.

“I do not quite understand,” I said, “why you compare me to him!”

“Well,” he answered, “do you not remember it was through the Book that the light to came to him, without any individual’s speaking to him? And so with you—the light came through the Book!”

“Ah,” I replied’ “I do get the connection perfectly. It was indeed through the Word of God itself that I was led into light and peace and the full assurance of salvation!”

“But now,” asked the priest, “what did you do next? Augustine, after he became a Christian, went to the priest for further instruction, and finally became a great doctor of the Church.”

“Well,” I replied, “I sought out a little group of Christians with whom I soon had happy fellowship, and I continued studying my Bible. It was as I studied the First Epistle of the Apostle Peter that I made a very great discovery. I found out that I was not only a child of God, the possessor of eternal life, but that the moment I was saved I became a priest in the holy catholic church. The Apostle tells us in the second chapter, verse five, ‘Ye also, as lively (or living) stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ;’ and in verse nine he says, ‘But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.’

“From these scriptures I learned that I am a priest, set apart in Christ Jesus as a worshipper, and that it is my blessed privilege to be Christ’s representative in this world, seeking to make known the riches of His grace to others.”

Smiling, the Franciscan said, “I understand now what you meant in saying that you are a catholic priest. But you are not a member of the true Church which Jesus Christ founded on Saint Peter.”

This led to a long though friendly discussion as to the nature of the true Church, and also as to Peter’s relation to it, and from this we went on to talk of new birth, the sacraments—particularly the real nature of the Lord’s Supper and the purpose for which it was given—and such themes as purgatory, prayers to saints, the relative place of faith and good works, and other subjects. In a friendly way we discussed the many other topics concerning which Romanists and Protestants differ. The Franciscan confessed frankly that he was at a loss in keeping up his side in such a discussion because of the fact that he was, he regretted to say, not familiar with the Bible. He told me that his studies had largely occupied him with the writings of the Fathers and the decrees of the Church, and that he realized that he had not read the Holy Scriptures as carefully as he should have done. I thought I could detect a yearning for something deeper than he had ever known, as he opened up his heart along certain lines which I do not feel free to commit to paper.

He shared our lunch with us, and was most gracious and friendly throughout the whole day. As evening drew on, our train pulled into the station of the city where I was to preach that night. A relative of mine, at whose home we were to be entertained, was waiting for us, and was a bit surprised when we two “priests” descended the steps of the car together. My cousin took charge of my wife and little boy, while the “priests” walked on ahead conversing all the way about the great truths that have to do with our salvation.

Finally we reached the corner where our ways must part—he to go to the right to the monastery, and I to the left to my cousin’s home. He became more and more interested, and as we were about to separate, he said, “I wish you could come up to the monastery and spend the evening with me! I cannot ask the lady to come, as it is contrary to our rules, but if you could possibly spare the evening I would be so glad to talk with you further, and I would have an opportunity there of showing you just what the Fathers have said. We could consult many books in the library, which I think might help to make some of my points clear to you.”

I assured him that I would enjoy spending such an evening, but a dinner appointment at my cousin’s home and a preaching engagement later would make that impossible. I suggested that he come with us, as I knew my relatives would gladly welcome him, and then he could go to the service with us.

To this he demurred, saying that it would not do for him to attend a Protestant conventicle in his ecclesiastical garb, as it might give rise to misunderstandings.

Somewhat mischievously I said, “Well, you and I are of about the same build, and in my bag here I have another suit. If you will come down to dinner with us I will give you an opportunity to dress up like a man, in my clothes, and no one will know the difference!”

He laughed at this, and said, “Ah, but I have taken a solemn vow always to wear this attire.”

“In that case,” I replied, “I would not for a moment seek to have you break your vow.”

He took my hand very earnestly, and said, “I suppose we will have to part. I cannot tell you how I have enjoyed this day with you! It is the first time I have ever talked these things over with a Protestant clergyman who did not get angry with me.”

“But I will be angry with you,” I told him, “if you do not accept the statement which I have made concerning myself. I am not a clergyman, but a priest of the catholic church.”

“Ah, yes,” he said; “I had forgotten! But let me say again how greatly I have enjoyed the day. I shall often think of you, and I hope you will pray for me—as I for you! I do not suppose we shall ever meet again, but I shall not forget the things that we have talked about.”

“We shall indeed meet again, and that on one of two occasions,” I told him.

“Ah, you mean either in Heaven or in hell!”

“No, I do not mean that at all. If you go to hell, which I trust will never be the case, I certainly will not meet you there, for I have been washed from my sins in the precious blood of Christ and I know that I shall be with Him in Heaven through all eternity.”

“What, then, do you mean by ‘one of two occasions’?”

“Well, perhaps very soon now, First Thessalonians 4:15-17 will be fulfilled. I hope I shall meet you then.”

“First Thessalonians 4:15-17,” he repeated slowly, as though trying to charge his mind with the passage. “I regret to say that I am not familiar enough with the Epistles to know what passage you refer to.”

I quoted the words: “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not precede them which are asleep. For the Lord Himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

Then I added, “We are not told when this tremendous event will take place. If I understand the Scriptures aright it might come at any moment. When this scripture is fulfilled and the Lord descends from Heaven, all who are trusting in Him, and in Him alone as their Saviour, will be caught up to meet Him. The dead will be raised and the living changed. I shall be among that number, although an unworthy sinner in myself, for the precious blood of Christ has cleansed me and made me meet to be a partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light.”

“You must feel that you are a very good man,” he broke in, “to be so sure that you will there!”

“No, it is not that at all. I found out, as I have told you, years ago, that I am anything but good. I learned from the Word of God that my heart was deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. I saw that I was a lost sinner, and I fled to Christ for refuge. And all who trust in Him are justified from all things. When this great event to which this scripture refers takes place and all believers are caught up to meet the Lord, I shall look for you, and if your faith and confidence have been—not in the Church, not in the sacraments, not in your merits, your prayers, or your good works—but in the Lord Jesus Christ alone who died to settle the sin question on Calvary, I shall meet you there, and we shall have a wonderful time together rejoicing in the fulness of God’s salvation!”

He looked at me inquiringly for a moment, and then in a subdued voice he said, “You spoke of two occasions. What was the other that you had in mind?”

“Well,” I replied, “if I do not see you in the air when the Lord Jesus comes, I won’t look for you for a thousand years.”

“A thousand years! Why do you say a thousand years?”

“Because another scripture says, ‘Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.’ The preceding verse says, ‘But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished.’ And after the expiration of that thousand years, John says, ‘And I saw a great white throne, and Him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.’

“When that stupendous event, the last great assize, takes place, I shall be there with the Lord. But I shall not stand in front of that great white throne to be judged, for all my judgment passed when those two arms were outstretched on Calvary, when, as a poet has said,

‘The wrath of God which was our due
Upon the Lamb “Was laid,
And by the shedding of His blood
Our debt was fully paid.’

“He has said, as you have it in your Roman Catholic version of the Scriptures in John 5:24, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, he who hears My Word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life, and comes not into judgment but is passed out of death into life.’ But though I shall not come into judgment for my sins, I shall be with Christ in that day, for we are told that the saints shall judge the world, and shall even judge angels! And if I have not found you among the redeemed at the Lord’s return, I shall look over that vast sea of faces which will come from all the graveyards of earth and from the depths of the sea; and if you have lived and died trusting for your salvation in the Church, in its sacraments, in your prayers, your charity, or your good deeds, I will see you there—a poor lost soul, and I will see the awful look that will come over your face as the blessed Lord shall say to you, ‘Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels’!”

“God forbid! God forbid!” he fairly cried aloud. He was trembling in his excitement.

I put my hand upon his shoulder tenderly, “Yes, God forbid, for in order that it might not be, Jesus died! He died for you—He, the sinless One, was made sin for you that you might become the righteousness of God in Him. Tell me, is it Christ or the Church? Is it His blood, or is it your own merits? In which do you trust?”

He was silent a moment or two. Then looking up with tear-dimmed eyes, he exclaimed, “Oh, Christ! He is the Rock! Christ… He is the Rock!! I dare not trust in anyone but in Him. I trust my soul to Him alone!”

“Give me your hand, my brother,” I exclaimed, “for now you, too, speak like Augustine, for it was he who said, ‘Not Peter, but Christ, is the Rock.’ And if you are resting in Him, trusting Him alone, however we may differ as to things ecclesiastical we shall meet together in the air when the Lord Jesus comes!”

He stood there a moment, and then impulsively he threw both his arms around me and gave me a good squeeze—the only time I have ever been hugged by a Roman Catholic priest in my life! We bade one another farewell. He went on to the monastery, and I to my appointment. I have never seen him since, though I sent him the next day a copy of Mackay’s book, “Grace and Truth”—a book that has brought light and blessing to thousands of souls.

But I dare to believe that I shall see my fellow-traveler of that warm harvest-day in the glory at the coming of our Lord Jesus and our gathering together unto Him.

In closing, may I earnestly ask the reader, who has followed my narrative thus far: In what are you trusting? Is it Christ, and Christ alone? If so, remember the Word—“He that believeth on Him is not condemned!”