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Inviting Heretics for Dinner

(heretic: holder of an unorthodox opinion.)

by Catherine Fournier

With a title like that, I guess I don't need an interesting first sentence to catch your attention. I'm referring, of course, to the delicate arrangement: Who to invite for a Celebration Dinner.

Norman Rockwell and all the women's magazines with their "best Holiday ever!" issues don't deal with this problem. They simply show us a portrait of the perfect Holiday dinner, with the perfectly harmonious family appreciatively ogling the turkey, perfect children, a sweet white haired-grandmother, jolly aunts and uncles, and a smiling hostess. We all assume this is an achievable scene.

What is more likely is that your fourteen year old Amanda has recently become a vegetarian and is attending this disgusting cannabalistic murder scene under very vocal protest. Her older sister, Melissa, home for the holidays, makes no secret of the fact that her roomate's name is Jake. Cousin Pam is pro-choice, Uncle Mike is there with his second (civil marriage) wife and their blended family's worth of children, and Gramma is sulking because her daughter-in-law didn't follow her advice about roasting the turkey. And you, the host and hostess, are silently praying that your younger children won't ask the awkward questions that are guaranteed bring all these disagreements out into the open.

Does that sound more accurate?

When I was growing up, we had Christmas dinner with the Millers, friends of my mother. They had three sons, ten years older than my sisters and I. One year, we'd eat at our house, the next year at theirs. It was a very quiet celebration, and if there were any tensions, I was too young to notice them. Christmas dinner was a very minor part of the holiday to me anyway; like all children the presents and the vacation from school had more of my attention.

Holiday dinners, and for that matter any regular Sunday dinner, at the Fournier's are very different. I remember our first Christmas, just after we were married. All the cousins and family congregated at my in-laws home. At least fifty people arrived after Christmas Mass, laughed and talked all afternoon and stayed for dinner. The table ran the full length of the house, made by pushing three tables together. Unlike the gorgeous but unrealistic decorations in magazines, the centrepiece on each of these tables were babies in baby seats. It was a very different sort of family gathering. If there were any tensions, I didn"t notice them, I was still trying to learn everyone's name.

After nineteen years, Peter and I have graduated from the "children generation" to the "host and hostess generation". Holiday dinners are at our house. Most of the cousins have scattered, building their own extended families, and there aren"t any babies yet to put on the tables. Last year we only had twenty-five for dinner. Everyone who could come, did. There are tensions, and I do notice them.

I also have young impressionable children, and older, questioning, aware children. Will I harm them by inviting people whose behaviour and beliefs do not follow Church teachings? Will I harm them more by shunning family? Am I contradicting myself by teaching my children that such and such actions are sinful, and then associating with someone who commits these sins? Will my children think I"m contradicting myself? Is my home and my family a sanctuary and refuge against the ways of the secular world, or a meeting place and an example for all? A battle ground or a retreat?

It's a problem I wrestle with every year. I'm struggling with it now. I know I'll eventually resolve it, but right now my prideful self would just like to pretend that I don't have to invite everyone, and that it's all their fault and problem, not mine. Let me tell you a little about them, then maybe I can figure out what to do.

This family gathering is a compliation of several extended families I know, but the combination is unfortunately all too likely. The names, particulars and personalities of the following characters are fictional. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is completely accidental.

Sister Sue, the born again and rebaptised Baptist has driven up from Southern Ontario with her family to join us. Her two kids, Ashley and Damien, and husband Mark, are happy to see the rest of the family, but make no secret of the fact that they think our house is shabby. They find it weird that there is a crucifix in every room. When we say grace, they continue to talk, while Sue stares straight ahead, her nostrils flaring.

Daughter Melissa has brought her roommate Jake home for the holidays. His family is in the diplomatic service in Peru. She didn't call ahead to ask if he could come. She just showed up on the doorstep with him. There has already been a scene over where he is to sleep, and she is pointedly not speaking to her parents. Jake looks embarassed and uncomfortable, caught in the middle of something he should have seen coming. Everytime he opens his mouth, someone disagrees with him.

Cousin Elisabeth has brought baby Daniel with her. She and Daniel's father weren't married and had no intention of marrying. Whether or not two unsuitable people should get married, and whether or not unwed mothers should keep their babies or put them up for adoption, has been the topic of some very lively discussions in the last year. Daniel is a sweet baby and Elisabeth is turning out to be a much more sensible and responsible mother than anyone expected.

At least, the thought of abortion never seriously entered her mind. Despite the opinions, frequently stated, of Cousin Pam from the other side of the family. Such vehemence has the air of rationalization about it, and the family often wonders if Pam has had an abortion herself.

Granpa isn't white-haired, nor does he have a beard and twinkling eyes. He's far too young he says, for grey hair, so he dyes it back to its original black. Ever since Gramma died of cancer a few years back, he's been a volunteer on the palliative care ward and is gradually becoming more and more pro-euthanasia. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and opinions, he says, and the only time you're not is if you dare disagree with his. He will sulk if the family makes a joke he doesn't understand, or the conversation moves into areas that he doesn't know very much about.

Brother Mike divorced his first wife Susan several years ago. Susan moved back out west to be nearer her parents, and took their daughters with her. They never had the marriage annulled, so when Mike met and married Leanne a year later the wedding was at City Hall. He's come to Holiday dinner with Leanne, his son John from his first marriage, Bethy, Carol and Linda, Leanne's three girls from her first marriage, and baby Mark their "together baby" as they call him.

Scowling Melissa, the new vegetarian, seems almost easy to handle, except she keeps making loud comments about meat packing plants and their methods.

Uncle Dave and his wife Aunt Claire, are happily married, attend Mass every Sunday and oftener when they can. They volunteer at the church, he's in the Knights and she's in the Women's League, and they give regularily to the food bank. Their three children are neat, well behaved and adequately familiar with their faith. They do watch a lot of television though and Melanie, though only twelve, is already dating. Dave and Claire make no secret of the fact that three children was enough for them and shortly after Jeffrey was born ten years ago, Claire had a tubal ligation. The suggestion that there might be something missing in their lives or spirituality would confuse them and hurt their feelings.

You and your spouse had a fight last night. You were both overtired, a little stressed worrying about this dinner. You both said mean hurtful things that you regretted as soon as they left your lips. There hasn't been time to really apologise and make up, so you haven't really forgiven each other yet. Fights like this could go on for days.

Your younger children are keyed up and excited. The excitement, missed bedtimes and new people means that they are not, however much you wish they were, on their best behaviour. It's only a matter of time before one of them asks an awkward question like "Auntie Sue, how come you didn't say grace?"

And the family that sat down together, warm with the spirit of togetherness, renewed in the message and spirit of the season, dissolves and divides into argument. Fueled by anger, bitterness, past wounds, pride and a terrible need to be acknowledged as right, some give in to temptation. Confusion, cowardice, habit, a desire for peace at any price, and an unwillingness to call anyone wrong keeps the others from firmly ending the conflict.

The flaw in the notion of an perfect dinner party is that we're all sinners. If we want, like the Pharisees in Luke's gospel (5:27-32) to only invite good and worthy guests to eat with us, then we're not going to be setting any extra places. As a matter of fact,we shouldn't be eating either.

We can't try to be a little bit sensible and only invite the little and medium sinners either, the ordinary people just like us, that at least are trying to live good lives. We can't judge the state of someone's soul. We can't judge someone by their previous actions.We don't know when or how repentance comes.

However - and this is where it gets tricky - we can judge actions or statements as they occur, and respond to them. We can, actually we must, defend our faith when it is challenged. We can pray for the right words, accept that we will make some enemies, hope that somehow our example and efforts will be put to good use, and speak the Truth when it is needed. (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #1816)

We must also realise that shunning, cutting someone off from the life of the family, and by extension from the life of the larger church, is a serious sin that will do us more harm than those we shun. When we turn our back on a neighbour, we also turn our back on God.

Above all, we can be charitable. I remember as a child, hearing the expression "As cold as charity." It meant the almsgiving treated as a duty or burden, the recipient somehow less worthy than the donor, and pity without empathy. It always made me think of the ubiquitous and anonymous frozen turkey basket. This is not true charity.

Jesus makes charity the new commandment...."This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1823)

Jesus loved his disciples and loves us. He tells us to love each other, even though we are sinners, for His sake. We are to love the sinner then, while at the same time hating the sin.

But how?

Charity is patient and kind, charity is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Charity does not insist on its own way (another translation of this is - it does not seek its own interests); it is not boastful or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Charity bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13: 4-7.)

Charity means loving others (including cantankerous Aunt Mabel) as Jesus loves you and as you try to love yourself. It means preparing for the gathering with prayer and reflection, requesting special graces for yourself and your family; strength to be patient, healing to forgive, truth to teach. It means welcoming sinners into your home and breaking bread with them. It means teaching them when you can and being patient with them when you can't. It means always trying just one more time. (See Wisdom 12:10, the first line)

For example, charity means smiling while you tell Melissa and Jake that he is welcome as a guest. As her parents, you regret that they are living together, it is very wrong for both of them and that you will hope and pray that they come to that realisation too. Then asking Jake to help set the tables.

Charity means recognising that maybe Granpa misses Gramma, is getting a little hard of hearing, and angry about growing old. Mike's boy John is feeling out of place too and missing his mother, he could be asked to help out by keeping his grandfather company for the evening. Some family stories might help John understand his father better.

Of course, if Granpa starts shouting, or arguing with Sue about religion, one of you will have to step in. If they do start attacking each other or the Claire, especially in front of the children, you will need to firmly state that they are wrong and invite them to stop. In the same way, if Mike says that divorce is normal now, or Dave and Claire state that deciding whether or not to follow a particular Church teaching is a matter of personal conscience, you can't waver and say "Well..." Real charity means that out of love, you use this opportunity to speak the Truth. (A short interior prayer to the Holy Spirit asking for guidance in your words and an openness to listen will help quell that trembly feeling in your chest as you open your mouth.)

The fruits of charity are joy, peace and mercy; charity demands beneficence and fraternal correction; it is benevolence; it fosters reciprocity and remains disinterested and generous; it is friendship and communion. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1829)

I can't avoid it any longer. Even heretics are God's creation and even heretics need to eat. As long as there is any possibility to reach a person, to be a representative of God's love, or a means for them to return to God, then charity demands that we welcome them. I guess I need to make some phone calls now.

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