My family and I were out driving shortly after Mass on Sunday, when all at once we noticed that we were in danger of getting ourselves stuck in a parade route for the annual festival of one of the French Canadian villages where we spend the summer. Coming down the driveway to the community center was a pleasant, shambling man, in his mid-fifties, wearing a casual shirt and pants. He was a newcomer to the village; probably didn’t know more than a few dozen people, and there would certainly be plenty of folks lining the streets who would not recognize him. He was the newly assigned pastor.
Now I’m hardly one to talk about keeping the formalities. Years ago, when I was younger and looked younger still, I used to fool my students for the first day of class by sitting at one of their desks and waiting for them to file in, talking about the new term, whether the professor was a tough grader, and so forth. It was a way of showing off, or a dumb joke. I can’t do that anymore, but I still don’t dress as a professor exactly, and this, I see, is a fault, not a virtue, as is my calling the students by their first names, as everyone now does, and as is my growing softheartedness in grading what only with a mingling of Christian indulgence and utter irresponsibility I can call their “writing”.
Why that priest was in his civvies, I can’t tell. The first time he appeared on the island, at a parish council meeting, he was also collarless, so it seems to be a conscious decision of his to go among the people looking like one of them. Maybe that way he can surprise them into conversation. Maybe he doesn’t enjoy being stared at. Maybe he feels that it would be immodest to wear a sign of his spiritual authority over them.
There may be mitigating excuses. They’re not enough. Two stories:
A young fellow just out of college was traveling through Europe alone, on a shoestring. He spent all his money a day or two early, and camped out at the airport in Germany, lonely and hungry. A priest came by -- of course, he could tell that the man was a priest, because he was wearing his uniform. They had a friendly chat, and the priest offered him half of the ham sandwich he was carrying in a lunch bag. My friend took it.
That’s a thin lifeline for a drowning soul, you’d think. But that same fall he ended up at a picnic for the graduate students at my college. He was new, and shy, and I’d been there for several years already, and knew everyone. His way of meeting people was odd: he accused Saint Paul of being a bigot. I couldn’t let that one rest. I was a leftish Catholic in those days, but even I knew that Paul was no bigot; in fact, there’s a certain quasi-orthodox way to tweak the letters of Paul so as to soothe the heart of a liberal. That’s what I did, and we got into a long verbal tussle about it. Not long after that, I found out that he’d been snooping around in Catholic doctrine. To sum it up, a year later, on the Vigil of Easter, he became a Christian and a Catholic, baptized and confirmed on the same night. My godson -- morose no longer, but a man of deep and cheerful faith. When I asked him what first pointed him towards Saint Paul, he said it was that priest in the airport, and the sandwich, no more and no less than that.
Another story. An actor on location in France walked off the set for a long break, and went for a walk in the countryside. He was playing a priest, and was dressed still in his stage robes. Suddenly a small boy came running to him over the fields, smiling and gesturing and jabbering away at him in French. He called him “Pere” -- “Father” -- but beyond that, the actor could hardly make out a word of it. Then the boy ran off again. And the man wondered, “What is it that so inspires confidence in these people? The boy didn’t know who I was, but just because I was dressed this way, he trusted me and talked to me.” The actor hadn’t been a devout sort, but that was the beginning of his own journey into the Christian faith. He and his wife, some years later, did enter the Church. When death came to part them -- I am not certain whether he or his wife died first -- they took their leave of one another in peace, saying that they would meet again soon. That actor was Sir Alec Guinness.
Ministers who want to be jus’ folks should take heed. God has singled you out, you men of God. I accept the priesthood of all believers; but I think that God has marked you with the sign of Melchizedek in a way that he has not marked me. Then do not try to efface that sign. I suppose it is a burden to you. Does it leave splinters in your shoulder? Does it bow your back and make your legs tremble for weariness? You cannot have expected otherwise. But it does not matter whether you would prefer to be my pal, the buddy at the card table, somebody just like me. You are no longer just like me. Pals I already have, and plenty. I don’t need any more of them. I need you: the spiritual father, the minister, the man of God.