By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
GOOSE CREEK — Carmelite Father Joseph F. Girzone believes that most people have forgotten that Jesus was ever human.
The author of the “Joshua” series, stories of Jesus, a.k.a. Joshua, living in modern society, spoke at Immaculate Conception Church April 24. Approximately 175 people listened as the retired priest, turned author and publisher, described Jesus as “a free spirit” who, in his humanity, was gentle, kind, caring, brave and courageous.
“He had a sharp mind for teaching, a vision of life, a depth of vision that he could see into the deepest soul, he was just human,” Girzone said.
His books have sold over a million copies and have been translated into various languages including Chinese. He started writing after he retired from the priesthood in Albany, N.Y., because of poor health.
“I am still a Roman Catholic priest in good standing, depending on whom you talk to,” the soft-spoken author joked. “Before I died, I wanted to do one thing, write a portrait of Jesus of the Gospels that would make sense.”
Girzone started his own publishing company after his idea to write about Jesus was turned down.
“I was penniless for the first four years, but those were the happiest days of my life,” he mused.
He told the crowd that it has been a particular pleasure for him that his books are very popular, particularly with Southern Baptists who found them because there is no denotation of his priesthood on the cover.
“Even Catholics read them,” he said. The comment was met with laughter.
Addressing critics of his books, some have said they are an irreverent treatment of the Savior, Girzone said that his work is sold in the Vatican bookstore. He also said that it is not theologically or spiritually wrong.
“People who are very conservative might get ruffled over them theologically,” he added.
Girzone’s books have been read all over the world by people of all faiths and beliefs.
“It was overwhelming,” the priest said of their popularity. “It showed me how people crave what Jesus has to give.”
Girzone told the crowd that not too many Christians really know Jesus. He has had friends in the seminary report that they were not taught anything about Jesus as a man during their training.
“That shows how much we have divorced our theology from Jesus as a person,” he said, “how far we have drifted from Jesus.”
He also related what another acquaintance said to him: “Catholics worship the church and Protestants worship the Bible, few people ever worship Jesus Christ.”
The priest talked about Jesus’ normal life in his little village for 30 years; how he never came off as anyone holy, but when he did, all the officials were shocked. In those days, Girzone said, holiness was measured by how they upheld the law.
Girzone, who said that one has to read between the lines in the Bible, believes that Jesus had a playful sense of humor. The priest referred to the marriage feast of Cana. He explained that at the birth of a daughter, it was traditional to begin making wine for her wedding, usually 16 years later. Mary and Jesus attended a wedding, and when she saw that the wine was depleted, the Blessed Mother asked her son to help.
“They had just finished off a 16-year supply of wine which only lasted three days,” Girzone said. “Why would Mary drop him a hint unless she figured he could do something. How could she have figured he could do something unless she had seen him do tricks around the house. What a beautiful scriptural example of Mary’s intercession with her son. He did this miracle at a time not appointed by God.”
Jesus was comfortable with human beings, Girzone continued: “We are embarrassed to be human beings, God forbid we let anybody see us crying.”
He related the story of Mary Magdalene interrupting a dinner given by a Pharisee, weeping on the Lord’s feet, and how she was forgiven for her sins.
“All denominations teach that if you sin, you are cut off from God,” he said. “It’s all about keeping the Lord’s affection. Jesus told Simon that as many as her sins were, they were forgiven because she loved much, but Simon, with as few as his sins were, did not love and was not.”
Girzone remarked about the patience Jesus had with people: “God is patient. He has made each one of us crippled and we will trip and fall on our way to heaven as long as we are good to others along the way.”
Part of what makes Jesus accessible was, as Girzone pointed out, that he picked “crude hulks with no education and no sensitivity, to be his best friends and to found his church.
“Jesus never pressured them to grow spiritually faster than they were ready,” he said. “No one loved Jesus more than Peter but no one ever committed a sin like Peter did in denying him. Jesus was still his friend.”
Spiritual growth takes as long as physical growth.
“We have to grow from the inside,” he said. “You can’t force the spiritual from the outside. Jesus knows that we grow very, very slowly. All we can do is show our good will and extend a generous heart.”
Another characteristic of Jesus that moved Girzone was the tenderness with which he talked to sinners.
“Our kids need to meet this Jesus,” he said. “I think that was the way Jesus preached to people. The only ones who didn’t follow Jesus were the super religious people.”
Father Girzone’s talk was followed by Dominican Sister Dorothy Ederer, author and co-director of the Joshua Foundation, founded by the priest. She is a former junior high school teacher and campus minister at St. Thomas More Student Parish in Kalamazoo, Mich. Ederer has written five books, including a companion study guide to “Joshua.”
She began by saying she was touched by the Bible verse, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”
“We are to listen to what Jesus is telling us today,” she said. “Jesus has come to set our hearts on fire.”
Sister Dorothy went on to talk about love.
“What does it mean to love one another, what does it mean to love?” she asked. “To love is to give ourselves unconditionally. To forgive is to love. They walk hand in hand. Children watch how we treat one another and mimic us.”
She used the example of the story of the woman at the well.
“Jesus touched the woman’s life, and she was changed because of it,” she said. “That’s what happens in our lives. The woman at the well had five husbands. Would we ask someone like that woman to be a eucharistic minister? Yet, she went back and told people and they believed. … Jesus loves people where they are, in their brokenness and bent-overness. If you love people where they are, their talents flourish. Whatever we tell our children, they become that.”
Continuing on her theme Sister Dorothy described the effects of a hardened heart.
“Anger and resentment creates acid and does more to the vessel that holds it than the one it is poured on,” she said. “The story of the prodigal son is God saying, ‘I’m ready when you’re ready.’ If we are going to reach out and be a reflection of Jesus we are going to have to be a forgiving people. Once we tell God we’re sorry, it’s over. We need to free ourselves so we truly walk with Jesus in our lives.
Lois Masouris, Ph.D., adult education teacher at Immaculate Conception, was delighted with the speakers. She invited Girzone to speak because her class has been using his books since last fall. She said the group began with doctrinal information on Catholicism and moved on to how they could maintain their faith.
“The Portrait of Jesus teaches us how we live it and how the next step we take is never alone,” she said. “It has been a nice change of pace, we are not just doing dogma.”
The adult education group has increased in size, she believes as a direct result of Girzone’s writing.
“Anybody struggling to meet Jesus has to encompass him totally,” she said.
Rhoda Thompson, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception, thought the talks were wonderful.
“He’s right,” she said. “Jesus preached love and life, and that’s what it’s all about. If we forget that, we’re in trouble.”