Driving my kids home from school on one of our faster moving country roads, I was stopped short by a dog wandering stupidly around the yellow lines. I couldn’t get out of the car to help because my son has a life-threatening allergy, so my frustration mounted as I realized that, until someone else came along, I was now responsible for this creature’s safety simply because I happened upon him at this moment in time.
‘I rolled down my window and attempted conversation, to no avail. “Go away, boy! Get off the road!” I honked my horn. I couldn’t even inch my own vehicle up to try to demonstrate that this is what cars DO around here, because a good part of the time he was in my blind spot or right near my tires.
“Dopey dog! I’m trying to save your life!” I felt tears threatening. Finally a truck came in the opposite direction. I beseeched the other driver to help and explained why my son’s allergy precluded me from doing so. The driver looked indifferent, and almost annoyed by the burden I was attempting to foist on to him.
My voice and probably my face became more pleading. I hoped my emotion would show through. “I have to get somewhere . . . ” he started rolling ahead a bit. “Please! Just get the dog off the road; bring him up to the man walking a ways back . . . anything. I can’t. He’ll get hit!”
The driver knew it was true. The road isn’t very trafficked, nor policed, so it’s a fast way to get where you need to go.
I don’t know what happened after I drove away. My kids reassured Mom, as they are wont to do, that I had done everything possible under the circumstances. Still, I felt the familiar pangs of conscience. “What I have done, and what I have failed to do.”
Out loud, to them, I merely said, “It’s the owner’s fault. A dog belongs on a leash. A beautiful animal like that.” I trailed off. I wasn’t making sense anymore, even to myself. This wasn’t Queens. This is rural Ohio, and farm people let their dogs and cats run amok.
All my life I’ve encountered creatures run amok, it seems, and all hungry for something or someone. I collect stray animals — and stray people. I listen to strangers in the store. I keep a vault of secrets. I lend an ear, I lend money, I lend my heart.
I’m so often left with the question: “Did I do enough?” And the burning hot frustration that I had while evangelizing the dog on that country road is an all too familiar sensation as well. “Why won’t you listen to me? I’m trying to help you! I’m trying to save your life, dummy! Stop what you’re doing and do what I tell you to do!”
Does that reaction make helping others all about me? Is my heart so selfish? Maybe. I have to learn to trust God to do the heavy lifting. I have to learn to trust others in the same way I trusted the other driver that afternoon. “He’ll help the dog; he seemed like a nice man.”
It’s what I told my kids, but I only half believed the words as they came out of my mouth. They were half whistling in the dark.
The thing that’s tempting as a Catholic is getting ahead of yourself. We want to get everyone to Heaven, and we know that The Church is the way, so we want to get them in there pronto, and by any means necessary. Time may be short.
There is an urgency, especially in these secular times, in a country so materially wealthy and educated, but in such loathsome and egregious spiritual poverty. We tend to raise our voices a little frantically, don’t we? “Hey, dopey! I’m trying to save your soul! Get out of the mess you’re in and do what I’m doing!”
But the immediate hunger that the person we encounter may be one for food, or cash, or a punching bag. Do we take care of the physical needs, those lowest on Maslow’s hierarchy, before we address what we know to be the “only thing that is needed?”
“Society”, for want of a less hackneyed term, may be answering that question for us. It’s telling us to shut up and hand over the material aid, just be quiet about it. In 2015 America, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic. They want our money, our hospitals, our foster homes, even our Pope. What they don’t want is our doctrine.
Hey, even a broad swath of self-identifying Catholics don’t want the doctrine — they want the baptism, the First Holy Communion, and the big wedding. Every other day is a secular day, and you better keep your sappy, judgmental, archaic religious ya-ya out of it. Sound familiar?
If you’ve been evangelizing anywhere in “real life” or online or even in your own neighborhood, it should. But listen, this secularized society is just people. They all need hope and they all need healing and they all need Heaven.
Knowing that truth puts us ahead of the game. The dog might think that a romp on the double yellow line looks good right now, or he may just be confused and thirsty. His immediate need was to get off the road, and I had to work with someone else, and have a little faith, and suffer a little, to help get him there.
At the end of the day, I had to be satisfied with an unknown outcome. Sometimes in evangelization we have to settle for the unknown outcome. It’s a lot like being a classroom teacher, or a parent. We in the business of the human services may not see results for literally decades, if ever.
What we can’t afford is to let an opportunity for encounter go by without speaking the Truth, even if it seems to fall on willfully deaf ears. No one will cross my path without knowing what I am and why. Sure, I’ll help you out, but you’re going to remember that it was a Catholic who did the helping, not to give me credit or for me to look holy, or for me to feel holy, and not even for me to fulfill the Great Commission!
You’re going to remember I’m Catholic so someday when you are hungry for hope and healing and you’re ready to get out of the road and come to safety, you will remember where the source of all real help is: the Church, Who the source of all real help and hope is: Jesus, and why your hunger still isn’t satiated, because you still haven’t filled it with surrender, obedience, and the Eucharist.
“There’s a difference between being a nice person and being a doormat,” someone once cautioned me. Now I repeat that maxim to my kids, as they collect strays and give away what is dear to them, and pray for others, and shake their heads at the badness they see in the world around them.
I want them to tread carefully, to not get taken advantage of, but I have to teach them to help the hungry, no matter how obstinate or nasty or in denial the hungry are.
I’m a bad Catholic because I’m too comfortable. Jesus told me to be perfect, and I’m not. Jesus told me to be a fisher of men, but my bait doesn’t always work. Still, I’m driving down that untrafficked road, fast, so fast, yelling at the deaf, trying to set aside my pride to trust my fellow drivers, trying to keep my kids and my husband safe, and always asking, “Did I do enough, Lord?”
Why does the question haunt so? Because I know the only good Catholic is a saint.