Almost 48 years ago a young African American boy won a contest. He was an altar boy for his parish church that was part of a network of American military Catholic Churches. His father was stationed in England and brought his family with him. The contest revolved around the Pope’s visit to England in 1967. The altar boys at these churches would have their performances rated on a point system. They would be compiled by the Archdiocese and the altar boys with the most points would serve with the Pope.

The young boy was extremely excited about the opportunity to serve with his holiness. He practiced all of the tasks involved in the Catholic Mass and had soon memorized every aspect of the Mass. He would utter every word that the Priest said except for the homily either to himself or just under his breath. He knew that it was just a matter of time before he too would say Mass for he was going to be a Priest when he grew up. Well, all of his hard work, focus and near perfection paid off. He won the contest hands down. He was told by his local priest that indeed he had won the contest and the right to serve with the Pope in an upcoming Mass.

The Pope arrived in England with great fanfare. He landed at the air- base where the young man lived. As the Mass approached he was beside himself with excitement. He was actually going to participate in a Mass with God’s #1 representative here on earth!!! He ran to the church that day and was probably there an hour before he needed to be. As he prepared for the Mass, he was called into the Priest’s office. He thought, “Wow, this is great they are going to give me special instructions for serving with the Pope.” Instead, he was greeted by a Bishop for the Armed Services, “Ah, you are the young man who won the contest. You worked very hard and we appreciated your stellar effort young man. However there has been a change of plans. You see, we did not know that you were black. Now we can’t have a little black boy serving with the Pope on one of the holiest occasions. We will find another way to reward you but you have to understand that this just does not work.”

I was devastated. Awakenings are sometimes harsh. That was the beginning of the end of my devotion to Catholicism. It took about ten more years to complete the cycle, but once I became an adult, I was no longer a practicing Catholic.

Fast forward to 2015, as I watched the Pope arrive at Andrews Air Force base, I could not believe my eyes. There was an audience of about 1,000 people there to meet the Pope. There was a substantial presence of African Americans. I saw the ex-republican chair Michael Steele. I saw young children of all races in Catholic School uniforms. When the Pope was greeted by the students, I saw the rainbow that is America, an Hispanic girl, a Caucasian boy and two African American children.

Later I saw a brief film on the African American boy. There was film of him going into the office of his Parish Priest and being told that he won the contest and would serve Mass with the Pope!!! And this time….he actually did!!! The times they are a changing. America is a magnificent country. It is the shining example for the rest of the world. When we are inclusive, we show the world our breadth. The extent of our reach is infinite. It inspires generations to come. We let the world know that anything is possible regardless, of race, creed or color for those who are willing to apply themselves.

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