I have a way of closing down little restaurants. I tend to like out-of-the-way, inexpensive, non-chain places with character. And that’s the type of place that never seems to last.
My most recent victim was a little Italian place near where I worked. I went there for lunch on occasion, and did it ever have character. It was housed in what had been a notorious Pittsburgh bordello years and years ago.
I hadn’t been there for a few weeks when I dropped by only to see a “Temporarily Closed” message scratched on a piece of paper and taped to the front window. A week later, an article in the local paper noted that “temporarily” had become permanent when the shadowy, unknown and unnamed owner decided to call it quits.
The article quoted “Frank,” the waiter that everybody knew. Like most non-chain restaurants, he was the place. He knew everybody who came in by name, occupation and menu favorite.
He found out fast that I did a little work for the Church, and when he raised it with me he got that far away look that I’ve seen too often. I knew a confession was coming with the pasta.
“I used to be Catholic,” he said. “I went through the ranks in Catholic grammar school and high school. First Communion, confirmation — the whole nine yards.”
“Sounds like you’re Catholic to me. What do you mean by ‘used to be Catholic’?”
“After high school,” he said, “I just kind of vanished. You know, life can distract you. By the time I thought about coming back, it was just too late.”
He didn’t expand on the “too late,” and I never pushed him on it. I just said that there’s no such thing as “too late,” and every time I went in I asked him if he’d visited the local pastor like I had suggested.
“I’ll get there!” he replied with a laugh, though I could never really tell whether he was serious or just angling for a better tip. And now he’s gone, and I’ll never know.
The buzz phrase everywhere is “New Evangelization.” Dioceses have programs. Parishes have committees and volunteers. But let’s be straight. The New Evangelization is the old evangelization at heart. It means people talking to people where they live and where they work. One guy talking to one guy.
Today, a lot of the emphasis is on the “nones” — kids who have been effectively raised pagan that have now reached pagan adulthood. I mix with an older crowd — the baby boomers who came from staunch Catholic homes and who slipped away as young adults, disappointing their families and their heritage, but mostly themselves.
There are no atheists in fox holes and not too many at little Italian restaurants. Like Frank, the guys I encounter are rarely determined atheists who have flat-out rejected God. No, they’d just rather live as if God didn’t exist because they don’t want to bother with the conversion that faith demands. But after a while, ducking gets harder and harder. Life always ends up landing some blows.
Most of my baby boomer generation stopped believing when they stopped behaving as if they believed and no longer practiced the faith. They lost their moral compass because they no longer practiced the faith that pointed them in the right direction and gave them the grace to carry on through the sacraments. Then they found they couldn’t pray because they didn’t live a life open to prayer. And without prayer, they had no faith to practice.
All the parts create the whole, and that’s what we need to get them to see. They can come home after all. And we can show them the way.
Though I hope everybody does a better job than I did with Frank.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.