Tired of running around to local television stations and emotionally exhausted from watching the events of this week unfold, I thought it time to get out and connect with the daily and real life of the Church yesterday. Many of our parishes have started or continue the custom of having Friday Night Fish Fries for the parishioners and one of the more successful in this area has been running at St. Timothy parish in Lutz. When a friend told me that last Friday night they served an all-time high of 464 people, like the unbelieving Thomas I had to see for myself. So last night for dinner, off I went to the Friday Night Fish Fry. Father Ken Malley met me with his ever-present smile on his face and took me into the woefully inadequate (for this event) parish hall.
I met the members of the Men’s Club, all forty of them, dicing and slicing, frying and serving, filling and refilling. To my utter amazement, they were having a great time. By opening time at 530pm the hungry masses were assembled and by closing time at 730pm, this week about 445 were served fried fish, french fries (the best I have had anywhere and I fancy myself a connoisseur of fries), huge pizza slices for the kids or a big kid like myself who really doesn’t like fish all that much, cole slaw, a shrimp cocktail appetizer and an appropriate veggie. Father Malley was proud of this Lenten event and mentioned that it was a great “feeder” (no pun intended) for the weekly Stations of the Cross at 700pm.
The Saint Timothy Men’s Club has about ninety active members and the parish Women’s Club is also quite large. What amazes me are the number of younger men who belong and gift their time and talent to events like this. I met Jason for the second time last night. He approached me and said we had met several weeks prior and while I struggled to place the face with a moment in my life, he generously said that he came up with the parish at the Rite of Election as a “candidate” coming into the Church at the Easter Vigil. After I told him he did not miss any time in joining the Men’s Club of a religion he was not yet a member of, he smiled and said simply, “I love it here.” He then shared with me his journey in faith story which has led him to Catholicism and that his wife is also a convert. He introduced me to his sponsor in the RCIA whom he had never met prior to approaching the parish and asking to join this year’s list of candidates for full communion. His sponsor said, as many do, that he felt he had gotten as much out of the catechetical formation moment as Jason and they would be lifelong friends. Both wanted to extract a promise from me that neither Father Malley nor Deacon Jerry Crall would be transferred away from St. Tim’s. At this moment I was very happy that I am in the Diocese of St. Petersburg and not in Rome. What happens here is so real and so meaningful, even a fish fry.
The purpose of the Friday night fish fry is not to make huge sums of money for the parish, though there is always a profit from each of these evenings but it seems to me that the real purpose is creating a sense of unity and pride among the workers and those who come for their parish. Now I understand why parishes have carnivals during Lent. I am sure that they wish it might fall outside of Lent but these are probably the only weeks that the owner of the ferris wheel and merry-go-round have available and although such a good time seems contra the spirit of Lent, it can be and is exactly the opposite. If we are united with Christ in his suffering (and God knows we are indeed), then we can also be united with him as a community which pauses to pray and review its life and rejoice in our common desire to form a family in faith. There is indeed a place for these things in our parish life, even during Lent. Some might complain that real penance would better be served by offering an opportunity for bread and watered down soup. If it works, fine. But the spirit I witnessed last night and often see in other parishes in so many ways when they gather for Lent in other ways indicates a reality of unity which our Church badly needs.
I guess in the end, the people who fried the fish and the potatoes serve God as well as those who will gather in coming days to elect a new Pope. Unfortunately it is the latter which garners all the attention and the former and other good things which our Church does as Church is so often overlooked. Thanks to St. Timothy’s last night. I still have one carnival in a nearby parish to attend as well as one auction at the parish within which I live to go to before Palm Sunday. Once I might have considered my presence there a Lenten penance but more and more I find grace at fish fries, fries and Ferris wheels.