In September I attended the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors in St. Louis, Mo. One of the breakout sessions was led by Father James Mason, a priest from the Diocese of Sioux Falls.
He shared this wonderful story about being a newly ordained priest at Sacred Heart Parish in Gettysburg. He was an associate for Msgr. Marvin McPhee. After daily Mass, the two of them would head to the local hardware store where they would sit outside on lawn chairs drinking coffee and visiting with the local townspeople — Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
Father Mason thought this was a waste of time because it seemed like he wasn’t doing anything important. He wanted to see some “real action” in his priestly ministry and sitting in lawn chairs was not fitting the bill for him.
Several weeks into this routine, Msgr. McPhee pulled Father Mason aside and said to him, “Father Jim, small talk is not small.”
In the end, the younger priest came to realize that those lawn chair conversations were not only a great way for him, as a new priest, to meet the townspeople, but they often led to deeper conversations about Christ. This was an important lesson for Father Mason to learn during his first few months as a priest.
Father Mason’s talk was on being a “man of communion.” He shared this quote from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Program of Priestly Formation” which speaks powerfully about the importance of living a life of a faithful steward by a willingness to engage others in conversations, even if it’s about the weather or the local high school sport teams.
“A man of communion: a person who has real and deep relational capacities, someone who can enter into genuine dialogue and friendship, a person of true empathy who can understand and know other persons, a person open to others and available to them with a generosity of spirit. The man of communion is capable of making a gift of himself and of receiving the gift of others. This, in fact, requires the full possession of oneself. This life should be one of inner joy and inner peace — signs of self-possession and generosity (Program of Priestly Formation, paragraph 76).”
We are all called to be “persons of communion,” which often begins with a simple invitation, the acknowledgment of another person. We are all called to be “persons of communion,” which begins with a simple hello, a greeting and the welcoming of another person into our space, opening up the possibility for deeper communion.
This acknowledgment of another happened to me several weeks ago when I was eating lunch at St. Thomas More High School. I ran into Wayne Sullivan, the principal and head football coach. I greeted him and asked where Friday’s football game was being played, and he replied, “Sturgis.”
I said, “I think I will make this game.”
He responded: “Why don’t you join us on the sidelines, Fr. Mark? The boys would love to have you there.”
This was something I had not expected to hear; it caught me totally off guard. That invitation to be on the sidelines, up front and close to the action, was thrilling to me. Yet, I was somewhat nervous by the prospect as well. He sweetened the invitation by throwing in a free St. Thomas More baseball cap and sweatshirt. Who could turn down an invitation like that?
On Friday night, I found myself pacing the sidelines at the game in Sturgis. A number of players came up to me right away and said, “Thanks for coming, Fr. Mark.” As the players came off the field, I was able to give some of them a high five and say, “nice catch” or “great tackle.” It was an incredible night — one that I will remember for a long time.
After the game, the coaches, players, cheerleaders and fans gathered in the center of the field. The coach gave them a pep talk and went over the practices for the following week. Then we all bowed our heads and prayed the “Our Father” together, ending with a resounding, “Amen!” That was followed by hugs and high fives.
I am grateful for Wayne’s generous hospitality. His invitation reminded me that hospitality is always relational. Hospitality isn’t about a project; it’s about people — it’s about being a person of communion.
This month, try to have some of those “lawn chair conversations,” keeping in mind small talk is not small.