It always happens. The person in the seat next to me on the plane asks, “So, where’re you headed?”
Then I’ll say, “Oh, I’m headed to a conference.”
Then they’ll ask, “So, what kind of conference?”
Then I’ll say, “Oh, a Catholic such-n-such conference.”
And then I’ll receive one of three responses:
1) Their smiles disappear, their faces harden, they quickly grasp for their iPads or Kindles, and they mutter, “Oh. Interesting. Well, good luck,” and we don’t speak another word until the “Excuse me” as when one of us bumps the other while un-boarding the plane.
2)Their smiles turn plastic, their shoulders stiffen, their eyes lose their warmth and they say, “How nice. I used to be Catholic.” Or, “I knew somebody who was Catholic once.” Then they put their earbuds back in, turn the sound up a bit and fade off into their own little world.
3) Their facial expressions remain warm and animated and they proceed to ask questions and offer comments of genuine interest.
I rarely get the third response.
This last time, this last time, I got a real, live, third response.
I was sitting next to a young archaeologist – a beautiful young woman in every way. We spoke first about the Catholic women’s conference I was headed for, the topic of my presentation, the work that goes into such appearances, how I got started writing and speaking, and any number of related odds and ends. Then, we spoke about her work, the dig she was headed for, how she got started, what’s involved in orchestrating a dig, and any number of related odds and ends.
Then, the conversation paused, not for lack of (real) interest, but because we both were so exhausted after having been up late the night before and up early that morning in preparation for our respective trips.
After a few minutes, she leaned toward me, placed her hand on my arm, and said, “Can I ask you a question?” I knew it wasn’t going to be just any question, but I wasn’t sure what it would be. Frankly, I was a slightly pensive.
“Sure.” I answered.
“Can a non-Catholic get married in a Catholic church?” she asked, with a lovely, hopeful look on her face.
What unraveled behind that question was a lively, enjoyable discussion which was part Catholic teaching, part sharing of dreams, and part practical advice. I don’t want to relay any personal details, but suffice to say that she, a non-Catholic, desired to be married in the Catholic church – in particular, one she’d visited often when she had lived on the West Coast some years before. Sadly, she’d been informed that, in regard to Matrimony, the Church doors were closed to non-Catholics, no matter what. I sensed, however, that her yearning encompassed more than just the marriage ceremony itself. I wondered if our Lord was calling her to the Catholic Church.
The funny thing about air travel is that, while you’re flying you can be like the best of friends, but once you land, you slip away into anonymity, never to see each other again.
Our plane, having had a delayed take-off, landed at the same moment my connector flight was boarding. I had only minutes to race through the airport or I’d miss the flight. I gathered my stuff, and started squeezing my way into the aisle to un-board. I hurriedly offered my goodbye and well-wishes to my archaeologist friend and started to move forward.
Before I could, she grabbed my arm, “Thank you so much!” she said with a big, bright smile. “You’ve really helped me. I just know you’re going to be great at the conference!”
“You are so very welcome! I wish you well!” I said, as I slipped away into anonymity.
I probably won’t ever find out what happened to the young woman, and I don’t really need to, because I’ve placed her and her fiance into our Lord’s and our Lady’s hands. They’ll take care of the rest for me.
Those first and second responses can be oh-so hard to take. Sometimes, I’m even tempted to leave out the “Catholic” part, just so I don’t have to go through the awkwardness again. But, those rare third responses make it all worth it. They can be gratifying in and of themselves because of the lively and enjoyable conversation, but you never know where it will lead or what good you’ll end up doing simply by leaving in the “Catholic” part.
That’s as much true of writers and speakers who travel the country as it is of men and women of all walks of life who travel to the gas station or wait in line at the grocery store. Such conversations can spring up in any place, and we can never tell where they will lead. We need to dare the risk of getting a first or second response because, one day, we’ll get that third response that’ll make up for all the rest.
G’head, tell ’em you’re Catholic.