Madonna House

Dinner With a Sinner

Fr. Pat McNulty

I was watching the disheveled young woman carrying her illegitimate baby board the 7 a. m. city bus. Then just before the doors hissed shut, she got off the bus, ran to me, and kissing me on the cheek said, loud enough for everyone around to hear, “Thanks, Fr. McNulty. I may be back again tonight.”

Because I used to say the 7:15 Mass at the cathedral across the street, I knew many of the people who had just gotten off the bus on their way to that Mass!

I don’t remember what I did after the lady kissed me there in public, but years later someone who saw it all said that I just shook my head and walked away. I was probably thinking something like, “Lord, it couldn’t have turned out worse if I had planned it myself!”

And, if the look on the face of the priest going into the chancery office next to the bus stop was any indication, I feared that my new downtown ministry was going to die before it even got off the ground.

This was one of the first times in my life as a priest that I was in a public situation which people could easily have interpreted in a very scandalous way. (Some did, as I learned a few years later.)

As I climbed back up the stairs to my apartment, what was in my heart was shame at having been seen in public with that particular woman under those particular circumstances without having the chance to explain.

Living on the second story of the abandoned building across from the chancery office and the cathedral had been my own crazy idea. Though it was not met with the instant approval of my bishop, he had permitted me to try it out.

It was to be an “open door ministry.” I posted a sign which was visible from the bus stop, “Roman Catholic priest available for coffee and chatting.”

The woman getting on the bus had come to see me often. She was a troubled woman well-known for her promiscuity. This time she had come late at night to get away from an abusive situation. She had come in tears and fear and with a badly bruised face.

Because it was so late and I had no car, I slept in an empty room at the back of the building and let her and the baby sleep in my one-room apartment.

That morning she was taking the bus to her mother’s in order to leave the baby there so that she could go to work. In her own childlike fashion, her action at the bus stop had really been a nervous but heartfelt, “Thank you.”

I was too embarrassed and proud to see it then. And yet, every time I hear these words from Hosea on the lips of Jesus, for I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6), I thank God for these words and for her. For this young woman was probably the first person in my priestly life who forced me to face my arrogance about eating with sinners and tax collectors (Mt 9:11, 13, Hosea 6:6).

Until that morning, it had been easy for me to admit that I was “a sinner.” But it was a very philosophical thing much as I might have said, “I am a human being” or “I am a person.”

And even though I was secretly humble enough to know that I really was a sinner, in public I mostly gave the impression that it’s “them” and “us,”—those who really sin and the rest of us who are only sinners in that generic, rather non-culpable sense.

That morning, I discovered, much to my chagrin, which group I would have been in if I had been present when the Pharisees reproached Jesus for the company he was keeping (Mt 9:11). And I understood why I had never really understood what Jesus meant when he said, what I want is mercy not sacrifice.

Oh, as a Christian and a priest I always (kind of) knew, in that same philosophical sense, what Jesus meant when he said those words. But I wonder if I would ever have known what he really meant unless I had learned to sit down with sinners and tax collectors over and over and over for so many years until I finally got it. I am a sinner, and like all sinners, what I need is mercy not sacrifice.

If we Christians really believed that, we would be much more compassionate and risky with the message of the Gospel and not so concerned about our precious public image. We would not be so embarrassed to be seen in public with well-known sinners. And we would not need to explain this to anyone because our own sins would have taught us our own deep need for mercy.

I remember the once-famous incident between Ruth Carter Stapleton, President Jimmy Carter’s sister, and the publisher of a notorious pornographic magazine. Mrs. Stapleton invited the publisher to a private dinner at their home. The compassion she expressed eventually led to this man’s conversion.

His subsequent loss of faith and his return to the pornography industry seem to have been the result of an attempt on his life which left him permanently disabled and addicted to pain medication.

But the fact remains that Jesus’ message of mercy was planted in his heart by a Christian woman who was not afraid to be seen in the company of “sinners and tax collectors.” And I pray that one day before he dies, he will turn to Jesus again.

If we are afraid to be seen with sinners, then how will they ever know Jesus? And how will we ever believe that we are really sinners, too?

When was the last time you had dinner with a sinner? Besides yourself, that is.

—From Restoration, May-June 2002