Whenever I think about family, I think about food.
Maybe it goes back to my mother, who like many mothers, was the center of our family, and whenever I think of her, I think of the meals she made for us. My mother also fed so many of my friends, who were always welcome at our dinner table without a prior invitation.
Can Paul stay for dinner, mom? Of course! Go set up at place for him at the table.
And suddenly my friend was completely accepted as one of the family, receiving the same instructions to go wash your hands, and an expectation that he would participate in the conversation at the table about school or our latest boyhood adventure, or later on, when we were older, he would be asked about his views on the events of the world or about news of his current girlfriend.
Jimmy, pass Paul some more of that chicken, please. What were you saying, Paul?
Everyone was welcome at our table, everyone was accepted, and everyone was fed-with food, and with love. Even if I was not happy with a friend or a cousin, if I had a fight with him, my mother would extend a special invitation to the offender. She knew, I guess, that love and forgiveness needed to be served, and what better place than around her dinner table of delicious food?
Years later, as a baby Jesuit novice, I was reminded of my mother's technique by an elderly Jesuit priest.
The first time I met him, he asked if I could go with him that afternoon to go see his family. I said yes, of course, assuming he needed someone to drive him. But when I met him at the car, he got into the driver's seat.
He wasn't the greatest driver, to be honest, and I made sure to buckle my seatbelt. But all the way there, he asked me questions about myself. Father Walter was a very unassuming, humble guy, with a face that welcomed everyone into his life, and a kindness that radiated out from him.
Here we are, he said at one point, and I looked up, and we were approaching a very scary-looking building with a huge wall around it and lots of barbed wire. That's when I realized that we were visiting the state penitentiary in Berks County, Pennsylvania.
And for months afterward, I wound up accompanying him every week when he visited 'his family' there. Everyone knew him in the prison: the guards, the warden, almost all of the prisoners. Before he made his rounds through the place, we would go to the prison's kitchen-this huge place filled with giant metal bowls, fiery ovens, piles of potatoes and carrots and all kinds of other foods, an industrial dishwasher almost as big as a carwash. In the prison kitchen Walter almost seemed to be swallowed up in that giant room, this little man with a full head of white hair greeting all the workers, who adored him. He would pick up the cart they prepared for him every week, and I would push it behind him as he made his way through the prison. It was piled with treats he asked them to make for him-cupcakes, cookies, sometimes a special Polish cake that one of the bakers made from Fr Walter's mother's recipe.
He stopped at every cell with his kind smile to say hello, to hold someone's hand, to comfort someone who was upset, to praise someone for some success. To each one he offered something from the cart, and of course no one declined. " I have an even better meal for you later," he would say. "Won't you join us?".
That meal, of course, was the Mass he celebrated in the exercise hall, and it was amazing how many people came. There were clearly some Catholics there, but it was also clear that there were people of many faiths who attended. And Fr Walter never made a distinction about that, not about their religious heritage, nor of course about the reasons for their inclusion in this 'family'—-for theft, corruption, for domestic violence, for murder. At that table, all were welcomed, and at that table all were fed by that gentle, little, elderly man. It's hard to describe how much those visits affected me, and how much he taught me by his example.
But what really put it into perspective for me was when I learned that Fr Walter Cizek had been imprisoned himself and had been tortured and forced to do hard labor in coal mines for 23 years in the Soviet Union. 23 years. He was released in exchange for two Soviet Spies by President Kennedy a month before he was assassinated in Dallas.
So….it's only a few days after Jesus is gone, and the disciples are really lost, and they don't know what to do except do what they do: they go out and fish. And there aren't any, it's bad even out there on the water. And some random guy appears on the shore and tells them to fish over there, and they do, and suddenly there are hundreds of fish.
And Peter is the first to recognize who he is. He gets so excited, he jumps right out of the boat--hey, hey, it's the Lord, what are the chances, out here, it's the Lord, it's him!— splish-splashing as fast as his feet could take him right over to Jesus.
You hungry, he says? And then he cooks them breakfast.
Imagine that? Eggs and bacon and a stack of pancakes and cinnamon buns made by Jesus, and it's sooo good.
That's when they really know it's him. He feeds them.
These guys who in some ways don't deserve it, these guys who abandoned him, who hid away so no one could identify them as his friends. And Peter, who specifically denied three times that he ever knew him.
He feeds them, with a gentle smile, an extended hand, a loving touch. Everyone was welcome at the table.
And then he turns to Peter in particular, asks him three times if he loves him now, and if so, go and feed the shepherd's sheep.
Three years ago Pope Francis released a groundbreaking document called the "Joy of Love". It's about us, about our family. In it, he encourages us to come to the table-all of us---and to be fed.
He speaks to priests and urges them to meet people where they are: in families that are not perfect, in marriages that have lost the love, in ‘irregular families’ with single mothers or fathers. Francis wants us to open our doors and our hearts to those who feel unwanted and unloved and disrespected—the refugee, the elderly, our sisters and brothers who are gay, the homeless and the forgotten. He asks us not to sit in black and white judgement of one another, and not to apply moral laws “as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.” He asks us to receive one another with “understanding, comfort and acceptance.”
In other words, he asks us---all of us who are the Church—to be like our mothers, and like Fr Walter, and most especially like our brother Jesus: to be compassionate, to be forgiving, to be loving out of the depths of the love we have been given by the God who made us in the first place.
Imagine if we did that? Imagine if the Church really did that?
Here at this table, every week, we offer a meal that is meant to be for everyone, a meal that can feed our hearts. If it really feeds us, why then… compassion, acceptance, forgiveness and the joy of love will be evident to everyone we meet. Image if we did that, imagine if we truly allowed God’s communion to feed our hearts!
You know what would happen? We’d have all kinds of people leaping out of their boats, splish-splashing as fast as they feet could take them right to this place, right to our table, right to us.
Listen. The whole world is starving for the meal he offers us. We’re starving for it too. Let’s go for it, let’s go for the joy and the Love! Shall we?