I went to confession this past weekend. I try to go as often as I can; that is, when it doesn’t interfere with my family’s plans. I used to arrive about 10 minutes late. When I did, the line was like Walmart on a Saturday afternoon.
Sure enough, when I show up 10 minutes early, I still have to wait because, wouldn’t you know it, there is absolutely no line, and the priest is still getting ready. So this weekend I decided to arrive right on time. Like a game of roulette, I had to wait and see; I wasn’t able to let my wife know when I would be back.
It turned out there was only one person in line when I arrived. I noticed a man in his 30s who had just walked out of the confessional. He was looking around as if he wasn’t sure of the way out. He asked me if I knew which door led to the west parking lot. I told him and expected him to go on. No one usually speaks when they’re in the confessional line. It’s much too somber. Plus, I was feeling awkward as usual. Anytime that I’m outside of my home I feel awkward and self-conscious, as if everyone is staring at me, gazing at all my faults.
But the man didn’t go. Instead, he spoke to me. My heart sank; I knew what was coming. Those two dreaded words: small talk.
I was wearing my Knights of Columbus T-shirt, so I didn’t want to appear rude or odd. Like the vehicles that have the fish logo on the back: If they don’t drive like Christians, it would make them look bad.
Luckily he opened. “So, you’re a Knight?” he said, nodding toward the logo on the left breast of my shirt. Thank goodness. Something I could talk about with some degree of ease. He said he was also a Knight, but he wasn’t active. His council was located on the other side of Dallas, a very spread-out metropolis, so he was definitely far from home. His name, he told me, was Jim. Jim had just started a new job in the vicinity and was interested in joining my parish. I told him a little about my council and the parish in general. The confessional door opened, and suddenly it was my turn. We exchanged pleasantries and then parted ways.
The whole time my conscience was screaming at me inside my head. Invite him to the next council meeting! Tell him about the next pancake breakfast!
But, like so many times, I had blown my chance of helping someone. All because of my timidity.
I won’t even blame it on my illness. My awkwardness appeared worse than usual, probably because I was too focused on something that never materialized anyway: gaining the nerve to invite Jim to check out our council. I mean, the man could have been single and alone in this new phase of his life. He could also have been married or even widowed. I have no idea because I didn’t ask.
I could have stepped aside to speak with Jim some more. It’s not like the priests expect the line to always be full. Then I started thinking about other guys in my council and how they would have “made the most of every opportunity,” like those motivational posters declare.
When I was younger, I was a member of a church that many people, ex-members and others, described as cultish. We were required to “reach out,” meaning evangelize, every Monday. The other days were filled up with meetings, “discipling” groups, and two services per week.
I was forced to walk up to complete strangers in supermarkets, go door-to-door, and stop students on campuses with the pressure of getting a name and phone number. Every Friday we had to report our “numbers” to our superior, the dreaded “family group leader.” I hated this so much. Of course I never got many names and numbers because I felt so out of my element with those particular approaches.
Maybe those difficult years are still ingrained in my head. Maybe that’s why I avoid opportunities to meet new people or to suggest a church activity to interested people like Jim.
Yes, I’m expected to share my faith and evangelize because I’m a Christian. The Church recognizes this and has called for the New Evangelization. In the Bible, Jesus calls all believers to go forth and make disciples. But there’s a way to do it, and there’s a way not to do it.
I want to help people. I know what it means to suffer from mental illness and to start my life over after returning from the brink of death. We’re human; we all long for love and fellowship with one another. Atheists are starting to form their own “churches” on Sunday mornings because they realize their need to be loved, strengthened, and encouraged by others, even if they don’t believe in a Creator.
A lot of times it seems so hard to be a Christian. A lot of days I want to give up in order to ease the stress. But I have nowhere else to go. I’ve tried making my way in the world without God. I always ended up in my own hell. I am reminded of someone I heard on Catholic radio recently who said, “Atheists say we use God as a crutch. Why not use God as a crutch? People who are hurt and injured need crutches.”
Yes, I let Jim wander back outside into an unfamiliar and uncertain new life without offering anything. I pray that our paths will cross again soon. If they don’t, I pray that someone else won’t be too scared to offer a hand to him.
There are so many people in the world who are hurting. I am one of them. However, I’ve found that by taking the focus off myself, I can better help others. I mess up a lot, but I’ll keep at it. I have to. I have nowhere else to go.