Good fences make bad neighbors

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to visit a good friend and his family. I often like to swing by on Sunday afternoons to experience the multitudinous joys of domesticity. Or something like that. But, almost always, as soon as I arrive and step out of my car, the same awkward scene is repeated.

The next-door neighbors see me. They emerge from their home and, in a drunken stupor, drag me into a rambling conversation laced with profanity. In these or similar words, they say, “Hiya Father, save any souls today? Come to visit ya’ friends? How nice. Wanna drink — or are you on duty?” And so it goes. My friends are often humiliated by this and grit their teeth, but what can they do? What can anybody do?      

Initially, I just tried to smile and scurry into the home of my friends. Other times, I pretended not to hear the neighbors even though they hurled questions my way. But after a while, it became simply impossible to avoid them. The neighbors struck upon the idea that I was a priest, which clearly intrigued them. Finally, after trying to ignore or avoid their questioning, I followed my friend’s good example and tried to engage these two middle-aged men in a conversation. And this changed everything.

As soon as I walked over, shook their hands and looked them in the eye, a conversation began. One of them said, “Father, do you know ‘Fr. Jones’ who was the priest at ‘St. Mary Parish’ in the 1970s? I loved that school. I was his altar boy. The best one that he ever had! Is that school still there? Did you hear what the latest book says about Jesus? I wonder what he would say about our country today.” 

I responded the best I could, not knowing who Fr. Jones was, and shuddering to think about the latest popular book about our Lord. But back and forth we went and, after a few weeks, the conversation became easier.

You see, the poor, whether in material or spiritual goods, are rarely convenient. This advice, which I heard in a homily many years ago, has continued to resonate with me. In other words, sometimes the poor person is not necessarily hungry or homeless, but fairly well off and addicted, angry at life or just lonely. We do not have to look very far. The poor might even be living in our own home. Or waiting for us on a sunny Sunday afternoon. And, furthermore, the poor always arrive at the most inconvenient of times. Not when we have spare time with nothing else to do, but precisely at the worst possible moment. Which, of course, is the best possible moment to catch a glimpse of Jesus in our midst.

You see, God is not particularly convenient! He stubbornly refuses to subscribe to our timetables in life or our lamentable five-year plans. He simply comes into our lives and beckons us to follow him. We often miss him in the presence of the poor, but he is almost always there. And he comes back and back and back, often in an embarrassing or annoying way. Sometimes, in the presence of our relatives, neighbors, co-workers and friends. Do we see him? Or have we missed him — yet again?  

The poet Robert Frost famously said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Perhaps. But how do we move from a standoff situation to a conversation? This, I think, is the question of our age. My hope and prayer is to continue the conversation with the next-door neighbors of my friends. I plan to keep them talking about Jesus and their long lost Catholic faith! All that our Lord needs is a tiny crack in the door of their hearts. And in my heart. He’ll do the rest! And the fences will come down.

Fr. Girotti is vicar general and moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.