Out for dinner with the family, the waitress set the food on the table. I turned to my son, Jaime, and said, “Why don’t you lead us in the prayer, and give thanks for this meal.” We made the sign of the cross and said grace.
Praying before meals is something my wife and I have done since our kids were little, and it does not matter if we are at home or in public.
But when it comes to praying before meals publicly, there is a sharp divide among Catholics: those who do and those who don’t.
My family does not pray in public to pose, make a statement or to annoy others who don’t share our faith.
We pray quietly but do not try to hide it.
We teach our children to respect the gift of food, whether it is a home-cooked meal or McDonald’s.
If we went out to eat and skipped grace before meals, it would seem shallow and shirking.
If we were at a diner and my daughter asked why had we not prayed before eating, what excuse would I give? Because “it feels awkward” or “we don’t want to draw attention” seems a renunciation of faith. We are to be the salt of the earth, not the earth.
I could stake my retreat, as some do, in Scripture. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says when we pray, we should “go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place.”
The context of this admonition spoken by Christ is usually skipped.
Right before it, Jesus says that when you pray you should not “imitate the hypocrites; they love to say their prayer standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them.”
Intent is key.
Still, it’s touchy.
In my own family, a member of the clergy created a public scene when he loudly refused to pray aloud in a restaurant with his cousins who insisted. He stormed from the place, and they did not speak for a long time.
My observation? Pray at home, not in public is the rule among Catholics.
My guess is that is a habit acquired by Catholics who wanted to be mainstream Americans — that is, more earth than salt.
Two years ago at Man Up Philly, a daylong conference for Catholic men held at Archbishop Ryan High School in Philadelphia, only two of us at our table made the sign of the cross and prayed before eating lunch. As I said, old habits.
A caveat: I cannot read minds. People pray silently, so maybe that’s going on, too. I suspect we have acquired a casual ingratitude, especially among the middle class.
This was crystallized last October when I heard a homily from Father Peter Major, of the Mill Hill Missionaries, who was visiting Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I live. He said he had been stationed in Africa, where it is custom to offer a visitor a glass of water when they arrive.
An American monsignor visiting Father Major’s sweltering village parish complained bitterly that the water he was served was room temperature. The monsignor then rejected the drink because the impoverished parish had no ice, either.
The same day, Father Major was visited by an old woman from the village, a grandmother many times over.
He offered her a glass of water. She made the sign of the cross and prayed before drinking — and afterward, too.
Her gratitude was guileless.
Christ was so central to her life that she did not hesitate to give thanks even for a glass of water.
Father Major concluded: “And that is why her name is written in heaven.”
J.D. Mullane writes from Pennsylvania.