My father is a man of few words. He has always relied on his actions to speak for him. That’s why I remember so vividly the few life-defining conversations he had with me when I was growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix in the 1960s and ’70s. One of those long-ago conversations came back to me last week.
When I was in junior high, I used to go on occasional excursions with Dad and some other men from our parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. These men, under the aegis of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, regularly sponsored potluck dinners and pancake breakfasts and every once in a while, they made visits to a part of town my friends and I never entered – a part of town that was on the other side of the tracks, literally.
The people who lived in that part of town were quite foreign to me. Although most of the kids could speak English, most of the adults knew only Spanish. Their homes were small, crowded and, stunningly to me, un-air-conditioned. Their dirt yards were filled with broken-down cars and plastic furniture. I remember their skinny dogs that seemed to belong to everyone and no one.
My dad and his friends would load up their pickups and the parish truck with food, clothes and used air conditioners to deliver them to folks who needed them, families who had been designated by the nuns who worked in that part of town. I remember watching my dad do small repairs and odd jobs for the old ladies who lived alone or whose husbands were too old or sick to do them.
I was always a little nervous on those outings. I was a nervous child to begin with, and the added pressures of being in such a foreign and vaguely foreboding place only added to my unease. Still, I went because I wanted to go. Partly because I wanted to be with my dad, but also because even then I knew in some inchoate way that what was going on there was important and good.
On the way home from those long days, my father and I would stop at McDonald’s. During one of those stops I asked him why we made those trips, why it was our job to help those people. He was quiet for a long time, maybe half a Big Mac’s worth. Then he said, “Because we’re Catholics.” I knew from experience that there was more to the answer than that, but that I would have to wait for the rest, in accordance with some unwritten rationing rule that governed my dad’s use of words.
During the drive on the way home from McDonald’s, I got the next installment, without preface or comment. “And because we’re Americans.” He said it in such a way that I knew he wasn’t quite through, that there was likely to be more to his answer before we got home. I waited.
About 15 minutes later, as we turned into our driveway, he added, “And because we’re human beings.” I do not remember how I responded verbally, but I suspect it was something along the lines of, “Oh.” But I do remember how I responded viscerally. My dad’s point had been driven home powerfully.
We were somehow connected to and responsible for these people because we were Catholic and American and human. We did what we did because of who we are and what we believe. It was not at that point a very sophisticated or well-explained worldview, to be sure. It had been encapsulated, after all, in three sentence fragments totaling 12 words. And my grasp of it then was partial and immature, not yet tested and refined as it would be in the years that followed. Still, it was a moment that has proved to be a pillar of my political and religious life to this very day.
And so this week I thought of my dad, which, in turn, made me think of Georgetown and how, when I was an undergraduate, my education built on what my parents had taught me. I am grateful for the trajectory of my life and of my still-growing understanding of what it means for me to be Catholic and American and human. And I am grateful for the way Georgetown has helped me grow in that regard, as a young man and, now, as a not-so-young man.
I am grateful for what my dad and Georgetown have instilled in me: That no human endeavor takes place in splendid isolation, that no human being is beyond the realm of my concern and responsibility, that in the end what I do with my life and its gifts is never simply a matter of me and God, but always a matter of me and God in the context of us and God.
Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J. is an associate dean and director of Catholic Studies in the College. He can be reached at rjm27georgetown.edu. As This Jesuit Sees It appears every other Friday with Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternating as writers.
*To send a letter to the editor on a recent campus issue or Hoya story or a viewpoint on any topic, contact opinionthehoya.com. Letters should not exceed 300 words, and viewpoints should be between 600 to 800 words.*”
Leave a Reply