Saturday, 29 December 2007

A Sign to the World

After welcoming Fr. Lee and his family to Boise, we happily arranged mass this afternoon at a local chapel, which was converted easily enough to accomodate an ad orientam celebration. I'll let him cover any details of the mass or his arrangements here. My real story begins later on when Lee and I went off for a nightcap. In keeping with his usual practice, he kept his clericals on as we headed out to a local bar. Now, to say that it is unusual to see a priest in public wearing clericals would be an understatement. (Before moving to the Washington DC area, I could count on one hand the number of times I had identifiably seen a priest in public.) Tonight at the bar we had two young ladies approach us, and by us, I mean Lee, and comment on the fact or ask if he was a real priest. The first woman said she hadn't seen a collared priest in public since the 1970's and was overcome to distraction by seeing him that she had to come say hello. The second was younger and more incredulous. She wanted Lee to somehow prove he was, in fact, a priest and not simply in a costume. A few details on training, parish locale, bishop's name, and bible quotes later and she seemed satisfied if not sated.

All this is simply to say that the loss of the visible image of the church's clergy and religious in public life only serves to further relegate the church to the sidelines of our culture. The collar and habits of religious are worn publicly both out of obedience to the perpetual state of the orders their owners have taken, but, in this argument, most importantly as a sign to the world. All Christian men and women are, of course, called to be signs to the world of Christ's light, love and redeeming power. However, in the ordained and religious life those signs become focused into the immediately recognizable collar and habit, among other things.

What would the streets of Rome be like if all the priests wore business suits, the monks wore work clothes, and the nuns nursing scrubs (to pick some examples)? It certainly wouldn't be the Rome we know today. Why? Because the visible activity of the church would be lost. So too, when priests hide themselves in laymen's clothes because they are off-the-clock, so to speak, that special witness of the church is lost.

This is no small thing. Doing so requires much of the person so clothed; patience foremost, perhaps. But even in the failings of the individual the presence of the church is still communicated. Priests and religious can no less take off the duties of their office than any Christian can their duties from baptism. Those called apart to serve in special offices are examples in all ways to the rest of the community of the lengths that service extends. To say it again, this is not something you can put on or take off as you choose.

In a positive sense, I think, when one encounters situations like the ones I described they can be very meaningful, in ways that aren't immediately apparent. Perhaps, seeing a priest at the pub tonight will cause a lapsed Catholic to go to mass this Sunday. We don't know. I've heard of more difficult situations, where the comments are rude or incessant and make it difficult to do things or go places. It seems that those times present, albeit unexpectedly or to our dismay, opportunities for ministry. If you can't walk down the street for fear of being engaged by every homeless person on your block, perhaps you ought to be doing more to give shelter, food, and assistance to them. We read of the frequent encounters Jesus and the apostles had with those in need, who asked of them by reputation or otherwise. Why should we expect any different or less of ourselves than to feed, clothe, and heal their counterparts today? In our humanity we will fail, but our expectations should not be changed.

What then am I calling for? That priests and all clergly and religious would take heart, store up some patience and gentleness, and head out into the dark world as bearer's of light. For by showing yourselves as what you are, you do no less than carry the cross of Christ with you and demonstrate its power to conquer all it encounters.