HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
November 6, 2006, Herald Journal
Pastor's Column

A passing moment

Fr. Joseph Gallatin, St. Boniface Church, St. Bonifacius

I have just returned from a trip that took me out of state. My destination was distant enough to make driving a ridiculous proposition, and so I traveled by air, which can open up vast opportunities for surprises.

I will spare you the details of my wait at the airport, and skip right to what took place once I reached my row near the back of the plane.

My seat was the middle one; I had failed to make sure I had the window seat I prefer. A woman was beside me in the aisle seat, and as I sat down she and I exchanged comments about the chaotic experience we had just had in the airport, agreeing our hometown airport is much more pleasant.

We also agreed that I would move to the window seat if no one else came to claim it. Just then a man whom I later learned was in his late 20s appeared and climbed over us to sit beside the window. No sooner did he sit down than he turned to me and said, “So then, are you a priest or something?” The woman on the other side of me leaned over and said, “No, it’s just an early Halloween costume.”

I confirmed that I was, in fact, a priest. He asked if I had to wear the clerical clothes I was wearing, and I explained that I didn’t really have to wear them, and that I had other clothes.

Actually, I make a point of traveling in clerical clothes in case someone has a question to ask – and it certainly worked in this case.

The man had said to no one in particular, “I’m exhausted.” But then he and I talked for the next hour and a half. This is not the kind of thing I typically enjoy, but this discussion still has me amazed.

He was interested in anything I could tell him about my life and my parishes. This one who was so tired when he boarded the plane was not too tired to show genuine interest in me. He wanted to know whether it was hard to figure out what I was going to say when preaching. When in my response I mentioned that the readings are the same in every Catholic church in the world on a particular day (with few exceptions), he wanted to know how I found out what the readings would be: “Do you get an e-mail from the Vatican?” (No, they are arranged in a repeating cycle).

He wanted to know whether I was invited to people’s homes for dinner, and what they would serve, and how they’d know if I was going to like it. (If they wonder, they ask ahead of time.)

The conversation shifted to the sacraments, and I mentioned that I regularly have to find a priest and go to confession myself.

The man on the plane, whose name I still did not know, wondered what kinds of sins a priest would have to confess. I laughed, saying that I was not gong to confess my sins to him (besides, I had just received the sacrament of Penance the previous day), but his sincerity moved me to explain that a priest might very easily be impatient or annoyed or slow to devote enough time to pray.

Then I had a chance to ask him about his own faith. He said that he prays each night, but that he wasn’t practicing the faith in which he was raised. He volunteered the information that when he was 15, he and some others who were in his church’s confirmation class wrote on a sidewalk with some ink that could easily be washed away with a hose.

Because of this prank, his minister removed him from the class and said he would have to repeat several years of the class if he wanted to be confirmed. He never went back. Suddenly I was filled with the thought that this is why he and I were sitting together. I encouraged him to forgive that minister in his heart, and to go back to church, even if it weren’t the same place.

As the conversation wound down and silence filled the darkened plane, I thought of how much God loves each one of us – madly, to be perfectly honest. I wanted so much to make this clear to my neighbor who had been so forthright, but my moment had already passed, it seemed.

I had said something to someone who had been a stranger, but not enough. When an opportunity presents itself to witness to our faith, it may be fleeting. Take advantage of these moments; it is God who presents them to us. Doing so may just be the most important thing we do all day.

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