For years I have enjoyed sitting down to a home-cooked meal with my parents usually on Sunday evening after mass. I started making the effort in college as I lived on campus and attended university a few miles away. My parents raised my brothers and I with what I affectionately call a "gangster Catholic" upbringing...
"A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man."
― Mario Puzo, The Godfather
My parents would sometimes ask which priest said mass or what the theme of the gospel was about to see if we had paid attention (or even attended at all). My uncle Johnny, a Catholic Priest and my dad's older brother, was often included in our Sunday dinner and discussions. I couldn't appreciate the uniqueness of this weekly dinner gathering until I grew older, moved away, and had enough life experience to realize how special these evenings truly were.
Since moving to a different city, about 3hrs away, I often miss my mother's delicious cooking and the playful questioning of whether I learned anything at mass. My brothers are very different creatures and never really got into the habit of these Sunday family dinners, but sometimes we still sit together on random occasions to eat. I've loved the fact that growing up we always had dinner together as a family unit. I can remember my little brother sitting in his high-chair making a mess by putting solid food into his milk bottle, drinking the horrendous mixture, and delivering the most satisfying "ahh" that he probably picked up from a Sprite commercial. I used to come home from school and reluctantly do my homework on the dinner table while the smell of cooking onions, oil, meat, potatoes, and rice filled the kitchen. "Not Indian food again!", I'd lament completely unaware of how much I'd miss this cooking in my 30's. We could hear the garage door open when my dad got home from work, and my brother and I would quickly use the distraction to abandon our homework and race to see him. We'd carry his briefcase from the car or run and hide depending on news from my mom as to how we behaved that day. I can still vividly remember his facial expression morph from happy grin into gritted teeth if we misbehaved.
Today I am grown and eat most of my meals alone. I have learned to appreciate solitude, as living with roommates for years has tempered me. I still attend mass on Sundays and discovered that they sometimes host a small dinner gathering afterwards in one of their feast halls. I have come to know a few parishioners and really enjoy the fellowship of having dinner together as a spiritual family. Interesting conversations and discussions remind me of my own family.
I find myself looking forward to attending mass in Austin as it is run by the Paulist order of Priests, who are known for their writing skills and excellent gospel interpretations. As a man of faith and fellow writer, I quickly developed a fondness for this parish. The church rests on the border of the University of Texas campus, often referred to as "the drag". The drag is host to thousands of college students and dozens of homeless individuals.
Last evening after service, the priest invited everyone to join for a lasagna dinner in the banquet hall. As I exited the church and walked through the courtyard I noticed the smell of urine. I saw that vandals had broken a Mother Mary statue and shattered the glass door to the banquet room. People seemed not to notice and formed a huddled mass in front of the door waiting to enjoy dinner together. After taking my place in line I was followed by a man who appeared to be homeless. Everyone seemed to know one another and I could tell that he felt out of place. I introduced myself to him as we shook hands. His name was Patrick and he asked me why everyone was gathering. I smiled and shared the news that we're here for the lasagna. He mentioned that he knew of a late mass offered at 8pm, to which I laughingly referred to as the "slacker" service. This told me that he was attempting to relate and perhaps that he was or might have been Catholic at some point. We laughed together and made our way through the line while dressing our plates with salad, dinner rolls, and of course the home-made lasagna. I invited Patrick to sit with us, but he politely declined. He mentioned something about social awkwardness, wished me by name, and disappeared. I went about my business meeting new and old friends, enjoying dinner, and good conversation.
Later on in the night, I reflected on the evening's events. I thought about how all beings hunger for food, companionship, and fulfillment. Patrick must have been in his 50's. He struck me as homeless due to his slightly shabby clothes, unshorn hair, and a quality that hinted that he had been sleeping outdoors. He stood out in stark contrast to the well dressed, fresh looking, and clean smelling parishioners surrounding the court yard. He was clearly hungry and his motivation to feed this hunger was greater than his fear of appearing foolish or of being judged. I loved that there was enough to eat, but especially at the metaphor of one's faith being rewarded for having the courage to put oneself out there and risk humiliation. Regardless of how Patrick came to be in the line waiting next to me, he might have once had Sunday dinner with his parents, brothers, sisters, a spouse, or children. He might have had similar memories of taking food for granted. In another time or place, he could have been me, "there but for the grace of God go I."
To some this was just an instance of a random opportunistic occurrence; however, I believe I was in the presence of something Holy, larger than myself, and able to answer the prayers of the hungry (at a church no less). Someday when I'm metaphorically waiting my turn in line to pass from this world into the next, where vandals, critics, and those with granite hearts dare not tread, I hope my friends like Patrick will be there with me to have our faith rewarded and our hunger satisfied as we dine together in Our Father's Kingdom.