The Person Behind the Pizza (Father Al’s Lesson)

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Editor’s note: We’re grateful to Maura Roan McKeegan for her contribution today. Be sure to check out Maura’s new book The End of the Fiery Sword: Adam & Eve and Jesus & Mary. Lisa

Maura Roan McKeegan

Maura Roan McKeegan

With no time to cook dinner before First Friday evening mass, I decided to pick up pizza for our family on the way home. Alone in the car with my newborn son, I prayed he would stay asleep while we made the diversion to the carryout window. I pulled up in line behind a minivan and expected a quick wait, only to find that the car ahead was not moving. Long minutes stretched out while I stared at the minivan’s taillights, inched my car closer and closer, and willed the driver to get his pizza and go before my son woke up hungry.

My maternal frustration grew with each passing moment. Why wasn’t this car moving? Didn’t the driver realize I was waiting? That stopping for so long increased the probability that my baby would wake up and cry? Then I would have to pull over, get him out of the car seat, and nurse him before driving home, completely negating the convenience of carryout pizza.

Finally, finally, the cashier handed two pizzas to the driver and the minivan drove away. I pulled up to the window still distracted. A kind woman asked my name, and I gave it to her hastily. Be quick! I thought, afraid this transaction might take as long as the last one. With tense shoulders and rigid fingers I handed her my credit card, bracing myself for the sound of my baby’s cry, which mercifully did not come.

“Have a good night,” the cashier said as she passed our pizzas through the window, and I caught her kind smile for only a millisecond as I glanced her way to grab the boxes.

“You too,” I muttered reflexively, directing my voice and gaze toward the passenger’s seat where I was putting the pizza. I drove off without looking back.

As I pulled into traffic, the smell of warm pizza wafting through the car, baby sleeping peacefully, guilt set in. That woman had been really nice to me, and I all but ignored her. I was distracted—a state I find myself in almost perpetually now after having our fourth child—but that was no excuse. I could have, should have, done better.

Oh, why couldn’t I be more like Father Al?

Father Al was a few months shy of his ninetieth birthday when he visited our family last spring. My cousin John, whom Father Al mischievously refers to as his “chauffeur,” was graduating with a master’s in theology from our local university, and Father Al, a retired priest at John’s parish, made the six-hour drive with him to attend the ceremony.

We had this lionhearted priest all to ourselves for nearly a week. He celebrated daily mass in our dining room, delighted our children by flipping a spoon from the table into a glass of water, recited long litanies both of prayers and of jokes, regaled us with stories of his childhood and his years as a missionary, insisted on helping my husband haul wood up a steep flight of crumbling brick basement steps, and with a twinkle in his eye taught the children how to “cut their thumbs in half” by optical illusion.

When Father Al asked John to bring him to our local coffee shop late one night, I thought maybe he’d had enough of our gluten-free weird food. I was glad he’d have the chance to get a sugar fix if that’s what he craved. But after they came home and I heard what transpired, I began to think it wasn’t his sweet tooth, but the Holy Spirit, that called him to the coffee shop that night.

John told us that Father Al immediately struck up a conversation with the cashier, asking him about his tattoo. Father Al then asked if he’d been brought up with any religion, and the cashier said no.

“Have you ever considered the Catholic faith?” Father Al asked amiably.

“No,” the cashier replied. “I thought only people who were born Catholic could be Catholic.” Father Al set the record straight and heartily invited the young man to consider becoming Catholic, making sure to give him the name and number of a local contact person before he left.

Hearing the story that night, I was immediately convicted. When I go into that shop, my mind is on one question: Will I choose a muffin or a bagel? Inquiring into the spiritual state of the cashier is not on my menu.

But Father Al reminded me that the worker behind the register was a person, not an order-taking machine. A person who needed Jesus. Every Catholic customer that cashier waited on had a chance to tell him about Jesus and invite him into sacramental grace. I am willing to bet that Father Al was the only one that day, and maybe ever, who took that chance. I certainly never did.

Granted, Father Al had some distinct advantages in the situation. As an elderly priest, he commands people’s respect and wins trust quickly. He is also an extrovert and extremely good with people. His way of evangelizing does not come across as proselytizing but as caring. I, on the other hand, am an introvert who would probably not fare as well if I went around asking strangers I met three minutes ago to come join the Catholic Church.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t aspire to be like Father Al. I have a different personality but the same call to spread the love of Christ to every person I meet. The encounter at the pizza place was an ideal opportunity to emulate Father Al by honoring the personhood of the cashier who was helping me bring dinner home to my family. And I blew it.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t the perfect time to ask the cashier about her religious upbringing or recruit her for RCIA. But I could have shown Jesus to her in other ways. I could have looked her in the eye. I could have smiled. I could have spoken to her clearly and with respect. I could have thanked her sincerely. I could have prayed for her while I waited, and even offered up my anxiety about my newborn for her. Like Father Al, I could have recognized the person before me not as a cashier, but as a child of God.

The good news, though, is that grace works outside of time, and a missed opportunity does not have to last forever. After I got home that night and stopped worrying about the baby, I began to think more clearly, and I realized that all was not lost. To paraphrase a quote I once read from St. Francis de Sales, after a fall I should get up, brush myself off, and say, “Up, poor heart, and let us try again to serve our Lord better next time.”

I don’t know when we’ll order pizza again, but I can still pray for that kind woman. And I am sure I’ll be waited on again soon: at the grocery store, the library, the gas station. Each time will be a chance to make amends. To be more like Father Al. In fact, I’m meeting up with a friend at the coffee shop this afternoon. With God’s grace, I think I’ll start there.

Maura Roan McKeegan is the author of The End of the Fiery Sword: Adam & Eve and Jesus & Mary (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2014), a picture book that introduces children to biblical typology. She lives in Steubenville, Ohio, with her husband Shaun and their four children.

Copyright 2014 Maura Roan McKeegan

 

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