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An unexpected priest request in mid-flight

Fr Henry Whisenant reflects on an unexpected request on a plane journey.

Unexpected things happen to priests on planes. A few months ago I was on an overseas flight, and was taking a break from reading books and watching in-flight movies, when a hand tapped me on the shoulder and a voice spoke in my ear: "Excuse me, are you a priest?"

"Yes," I said.

We were both sitting next to the aisle. The man behind me continued, "Father, can I ask you a favour?" "Of course," I replied, though I was a little self-conscious, as the man's whispers could be heard by anyone who cared to listen in the seats around us.

"What I'm going to ask might seem a bit strange'"

Okay, I though, perhaps he wants to make his Confession'

"My own father'" he began.

I instinctively went through some possibilities in my mind: His father is sick, and he wants me to pray for him'

"My father is in the overhead compartment'"

A pause. I tried to understand what that meant. What's his father doing with the luggage? And then the penny dropped, as the son continued: he was in fact coming back from his father's cremation, and was taking his ashes to their final resting place. They were a family of secular Jews, and had not had a religious service, but now that the son saw me on the plane, it came into his mind to ask me to say some prayers for his departed father.

And that's how I ended up at the arrival gate of the airport, reciting the De Profundis, the psalm for the dead, for this particular member of Israel, and praying for his soul. From there the son and I had a memorable conversation about how we can know God exists, and how we can know by faith that there's life after death. I encouraged him to look up the story of St Edith Stein, a Jewish atheist whose love of philosophy led her to God and the Church.

Of course this incredible encounter would never have happened had I not been wearing clericals, and had I not taken that break from what I was doing so that the man could pluck up the courage to seize his chance and ask his favour. It was a moment of God's providence. And yet I am conscious that there must be many more of these moments that pass me by each day. Moments when I am not sufficiently open and attentive enough to the situation to share Christ with those who need him.

It's a question we can all ask ourselves: How is it obvious to those around me, those I work with, those I am friends with, that I am a person of faith, and that I am someone they can come to when they are looking for consolation and even answers? An icon on my desk, a rosary in my car, an admission in conversation that I go to Sunday Mass' these can be the little green lights people need to summon the courage and find out more. These are the places where Jesus' infinite love can get in edgeways, through the cracks of people's curiosity.