Friday, August 19, 2005

Lunch-Lady Land
Before I get to the matter of this post, allow me to say how shocked I am at the number of comments on the hand holding post, most of which have nothing to do with the original point of my post. I am not sure whether to just jump in and say "enough," asking that all comments stop, or to sit and watch to see how many comments accrue. You know, I never imagined that post would garner so much attention and go off in such a direction. Such is the nature of blogging, I suppose. I will say this: Let's all calm down and try to stay on topic.

Okay, it has been a practice of mine since my second parish (I wish I had thought of this at my first parish) to have lunch with my parishioners who attend public school. If the parish has a Catholic school option, I don't visit the public school equivalent only because as a priest I must appear totally supportive of the parish school. In other words, at my last parish (Ponca City) I would go to lunch at the public high school because the parish doesn't have a Catholic high school, whereas it does have a grade school.

I have found that going to the public school is a wonderful way to see the kids on their turf and to learn about "their world". It forces, even in a secular or public setting, the reality of the sacred to at least be considered, if not evaluated and acknowledged. And, no, I don't go in beating my Bible and proselytizing the kids. I simply go to have lunch with "my kids" and any of their friends who join them. I lead them in prayer before meals (if at all possible) and we eat and just talk. The kids really respond well to it and are very excited by my visits. I never considered this before going to the schools, but I think the kids really feel important when some other adult (a parent, a priest) who is not at the school by virtue of being a teacher comes to have lunch with them and to spend some time with them. I almost fear that deep down they wish their parents would/could come, and perhaps it never happens. Teenage years are tough ones.

Anyway, I have visited the junior high here several times at the end of last year (mainly to provide some assurance to them after the drowning death of one of their classmates, also a parishioner), and I have attended lunch a couple of times at the grade school and high school at Boise City, Oklahoma, where we have a mission church; however, before today I had never managed to attend lunch at the high school here in Guymon. Another positive thing about this pastoral initiative of mine is that it helps me learn names and place kids' faces I don't yet know well. I dare say there is nothing negative about it. Every time I have done this it goes off smashingly. And the parents love hearing that the priest has gone to have lunch with their kids. I know, I AM the Messiah!

Today's lunch, however, was rather unique. At one point, I got pelted with a grape, which I choose to assume was not intended for me, but for someone nearby me. It hit my arm and I could certainly tell the direction from which it came. When I traced the trajectory back to the presumed table of origin, I saw a couple Catholic kids at that table. I don't know if they threw it or if it was thrown by their non-Catholic friends at the table, but I choose to believe it was an innocent prank intended to simply drop a grape in the center of the table at which I was sitting. Instead, it hit my arm. Oh well! I can't imagine throwing food at a priest, unless it was a mutual food fight, but anyway ... I'm a stick in the mud! But the really unique thing about today's lunch was what happened while I was waiting between the two lunch periods. There is some time between lunch periods to allow the cafeteria staff to clean up and get ready for round two. As I roamed the halls, passing the time by looking at award cases and reading bulletin boards, I noticed a young man step into the hall through a set of classroom doors, look my way, re-enter the room, and then repeat the process a few times. He, too, appeared to be passing time. He's not a Catholic, but I recognized him because we met once through a mutual acquaintance who is Catholic.

Eventually, this young man came out of the doors again and, this time, started to walk in my general direction. I decided I would say hi to him. As I started to approach him, I realized he had intended to come to me because he said, "Father, I have a question." "Okay," I said. He asked, "What would I have to do to become Catholic?" I told him about another young man in his class who has expressed interest in becoming Catholic and I explained that attending RCIA classes this fall would be a way to accomplish this, provided, of course, the new Pastor agrees and doesn't design something else for these youth. So, we chatted a bit and I asked how school was going. We talked about football and the really poor scrimmage from the night before and then we parted company after I told him I would add his name to our growing RCIA list and give his phone number to the new priest. He said he would listen for announcements of the classes.

I walked away thinking: God works in mysterious ways. How long did it take this kid to get up the gumption to approach a priest he doesn't really personally know -- and to do so smack dab in the middle of the halls of his high school -- in order to ask about becoming Catholic? And what if I had only stayed for the first lunch period, thus having no reason to roam the halls? Would he have ever approached me after Mass? Or was today that rare window of grace and opportunity that I had nothing to do with? And I thought I was just there to have a cheeseburger! Oh, the eternal value of a lunch, even at a public school.

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