My days as a seminarian are drawing to a close. These seven years have been nothing short of miraculous, and the end to which they lead will be even more so: in reflecting on my past, I am drawn into speechlessness at the thought of the grace God has showered upon me, staying with me as I have strayed, calling me into deeper and deeper communion with him. Now, in just a few days, God the Father will conform me to his Son definitively, in such a way that with just a few words, I will be able to turn bread into the Son of God; I will be able to wipe away the worst and most hardened filth of sin with an invocation of the Trinity; I will stand in persona Christi capitis — in the person of Christ the head — during liturgical action. I will be a priest of Jesus Christ.
A few days ago, I returned from Italy to Atlanta. I didn’t stay long though: two days later I was on a plane to Colorado to make a retreat. Canon law requires that seminarians make a retreat before ordination to the Diaconate, and then again before ordination to Priesthood. In Italy, I wear clerical attire all the time — it is so normal to see priests on the streets of Rome that you hardly even notice when one passes by. But, I have spent my entire period of theological study in Rome, so I have not really had the opportunity to wear clerics (priest garb) in the United States — certainly not in Atlanta, which is a somewhat Catholic town, but there is still a strong majority Protestant and Evangelical presence.
So, the everyday event of walking around a city in clerics that I experienced in Rome for these past four years is not exactly the same in Atlanta. I went with a friend into a coffee shop the first morning I was back. We were headed to a Sunday Mass at my home parish. My friend was in his cassock, since he was going to serve the Mass, and I was in my clerical suit. There were three or four folks in the shop. You would have thought that a three-headed camel riding a unicycle had walked through the door: “staring” is a polite understatement for the incredulous gawking that was going on.
And that was not the only occasion: as I went from place to place, the reactions continued. Not everyone stared, but just about everyone noticed. A man dressed as a priest in Atlanta truly makes an impression. It will be a lot to get used to. I found myself at times a bit uncomfortable. I was in a store looking for a picture frame for a gift I had brought someone from Italy, and there was a point that I had to close my eyes and ask God for the strength not to care what people thought, so intense was the attention I was garnering from passers by.
So when I flew to Colorado — wearing clerics on the plane — I prepared myself for the stares. I heard a few people make unpleasant comments one to another (obviously intended for my ears), but for the most part, when I smiled at someone — something that I am prone to do — they smiled back. At the Denver airport baggage claim, I found myself in the middle of a group of young adults who were embarking on some sort of evangelical campaign, and suddenly I was barraged with “questions” about the Catholic faith that were more like accusations. I thought to myself: this cleric-wearing thing is going to be difficult.
On the drive to the retreat center, which is magnificently located adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park, I stopped in a little diner to grab lunch. A couple sitting in the next booth noticed me, and I could tell they were talking about me. I remember thinking to myself, “Good grief, Lord, can you just give me a little break?”
Just as my food was arriving, this couple was leaving. They stopped at my table, and a kind-faced woman gently asked, “Are you a Catholic priest?”
I replied, “Not yet. I’m a deacon. I’ll be ordained in a few days. That’s why I’m here in Colorado. I’m on my way to make my retreat.”
You should have seen the look on their faces. I’ve seen the look before. It’s the look my Mom had when she saw her grandson for the first time. The joy that broke over their faces was intense, and I found myself a bit speechless in return. “That’s so wonderful!” the kind lady exclaimed.
They introduced themselves, and asked whether I was studying for Denver. I felt really bad to say that I was not: they seemed so eager to welcome me into their parish and diocese. We spoke for just a moment, and then they left. It was a wonderful encounter. When I asked for my check, I was told that this couple had already paid it.
So here’s the paradox: you’d think that I would prefer to meet people like this wonderful couple from Colorado all the time. After all, it is more rewarding and affirming. But the strange truth is that I felt worse after meeting them than I did from all of the awkward and moderately hostile stares I had received from others.
The simple fact is that most of us know how to be hated more than we know how to be loved. I think that perhaps in seminary I have so prepared myself for the possibility of persecution that I have in some sense missed being prepared to be loved without cause. That beautiful couple loved me just because I was following the will of God, in however imperfect a way. They loved me because I was preparing to be the one who could forgive their sins, who could bring them Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, who could anoint them in their sickness and prepare them for a happy death.
And I felt terrible, because when I sat down at that table, I saw their stare. And I had grown a little weary of the whole thing. I remember that I did not smile at them. At best, I gave them a scowl. But these were the ones that God sent to remind me of my mission, of the greatness to which I have been called, to which we have all been called in our own state of life: to be Christ in the world for others. That couple was manifested Christ to me. And to be Christ for others is no small thing. No small thing at all.
So to whoever you are, wonderful couple from Colorado, thank you for being so wonderful. Perhaps we will meet again one day, if not in this life, then hopefully in the next.