Once upon a spring when I was little, about a year and a half after my father died suddenly, my mother announced we were taking a trip to California. We’d be visiting relatives including my great uncle, Father Pat Waite who lived in San Diego.
I was eight-going-on-nine, already blown way out of my depth by the cannonball of death, and so I didn’t know what to think about this. One one hand, the plan was for me to make my first communion on that trip, which was a big deal during one’s Catholic upbringing. On the other hand, we would be staying with a priest. The holy men I knew from my own church were distant, more figures than actual people. I think I worried more about how behaved I’d have to be all the time. To my child’s eye, it was a lot like visiting Santa Claus. I’d have to be on my best behavior, which usually meant no fun.
Imagine my trepidation when we deplaned in San Diego, then, and imagine my surprise when I was greeted by a smiling man who was nothing like the guys who led church services back home. He looked me in the eye and made sure I felt comfortable. I don’t know if my young mind thought Father Pat would spout 24/7 religion but from the first moment, I thought he was all right.
He let me sit in the front seat on the way back to his house near the beach. He told me I was the navigator until further notice, and it would be my job to help him spot interchanges and street signs whenever we were in the car. He even taught me a little about reading maps. It was sunny and warm, and we saw lots of palm trees and people without coats.
Over the next few days, we visited the beach – walking to it, no less! – ate at a restaurant near the ocean where I could stand outside after the meal and watch the nighttime waves crash over the sand, and we even took a trip to Disneyland! It was vacation on a grand scale, and I remember having a lot of fun even if it downpoured for two straight days smack in the middle of our visit. Looking back, I believe it was one of the first times I forgot about missing my Dad for a little while, and was able to enjoy myself. Father Pat went out of his way to engage and interest me, and I could let my grief alone.
One morning, when I awoke early thanks to the time difference between home and the west coast, I discovered Father Pat already up and active, reading his Bible. He offered me a smile and told me he was just about to hold Mass, and would I like to help him out?
To a kid like me, this was flabbergasting. Mass happened at church! And yet, here we were, headed into the dining room where the sacraments waited. We held a small but reverent service over the next twenty minutes. In typical little kid fashion, I couldn’t wait for church to be over so I could go and play, but I also remember the strangeness of it, and how that strangeness wasn’t uncomfortable but instead occupied a sub-territory of life I hadn’t before known existed. Priests could say Mass in their house! No need to get all dressed up, nor go anywhere; the service was the important part.
Men like my great uncle remind me that despite what one often hears in the news, religion isn’t all missteps or sensationalism. It’s about caring for people, reaching out not because one should but because one can. It’s a principle I hold to nearly thirty years later, and in large part, it’s thanks to those days with Father Pat in San Diego, at a time when a boy needed a solid anchor in a life gone topsy-turvy. His influence, his honesty, and his humor will matter to me long after these sad days of his passing, and if that’s not a legacy worth a life, I don’t know what is.
January 18, 2013
January 20, 2013