During our dinnertime discussions, things occasionally got out of hand when I was growing up. Being Italian, we were inclined to speak in loud voices, which my friends from more reserved families considered “yelling.”
One time, my mother was furious, angry, unhappy pick one because I didn’t want to go to Sunday Mass. I was a rebellious teenager like most young people during the ’60s who sat in judgment of the adult world.
“I’m not going to church! They’re all hypocrites,”
I sneered. That word was one of my favorites, and it fell from my lips like the condemnation of an Old Testament prophet.
Then my mother, known for the world’s best veal parmigiana, went on the attack. “That’s why they go to Mass,” she bellowed. “Because they’re not perfect ... like you!”
The playoffs ended quickly. Mom 1, Me 0. But the veal parmigiana was terrific. None of my friends had a mother who was a world-class cook, a theologian and a Catholic apologist. I was blessed, but didn’t realize it until years later. Today, I proudly count myself as one of the hypocrites.
A lot of instruction is done, or should be done, around the dinner table. It gives parents an occasion to communicate, to teach, to advise, to correct and to show compassion, not to mention “debate” the hare-brained ideas that kids are exposed to in secular society. Those opportunities, however, can be thwarted by TV, cell phones and competing interests.
Pope Francis has been pretty insistent when he talks about the importance of dinnertime and the negative influence of technology. In his apostolic teaching The Joy of Love, he encouraged families to spend time chatting rather than staring at screens: “We know that sometimes they can keep people apart rather than together, as when at dinnertime everyone is surfing on a mobile phone, or when one spouse falls asleep waiting for the other who spends hours playing with an electronic device. ... A family that almost never eats together or never speaks at the table but looks at the television or the smartphone is hardly a family.”
I still remember the Christmas Eve our family went to a restaurant in Littleton, N.H. Outside snow was falling; inside, Nat King Cole was singing “O Holy Night.” The holiday spirit was everywhere except at our table. As I looked around, I realized all four daughters were texting, while my wife was checking her email.
In the tradition of my mother, I proceeded to give the “this has to stop” lecture, at which point everyone reluctantly put away their mobile phones and tried to get in the mood of the season by talking to one another without insult or sarcasm.
The University of Michigan conducted a study about the use of mobile devices at meals and concluded we can control the problem by developing a phone that shows the owner is eating, so the caller can desist. More technology to solve a problem caused by technology? The solution is much simpler turn it off.
A survey by Pew Research Center found that 88 percent of respondents believe it’s “generally” not right to use a cell phone at dinner. A larger percentage, 96 percent, say they shouldn’t be used at religious services, which is a practice Pope Francis has vigorously criticized.
As much as I complain about cell phone use and how it disrupts interpersonal communication, the situation was just as bad when I was growing up. We had five TVs, one in every room.
Along with millions of other families, we had raucous debates about the war and politics, much like today. Nevertheless, I believe those exchanges were a vital family interaction, although sometimes angry and emotional. That’s how families communicate. We just have to remember to do it with love and patience, because we all don’t think alike.
Pope Francis recently told students in Rome, “When there’s no dialogue at home, when we’re at the table and instead of talking, everyone is on their phone, it’s the start of war because there’s no dialogue. ... Families should speak at the table. They should listen. But everyone does their own thing. One watches television, someone is on the computer and no one talks. We have to restore family interaction.”
Joe Pisani of Orange is a writer whose work has appeared in Catholic publications nationwide. He and his wife Sandy have four daughters.