I have spoken many times about my decision to wear clericals when I'm
traveling--I know, I know; you've heard this all before. Lest you think I'm being defensive about this decision, I should specify that I revisit this
topic more by way of witness or storytelling than justification.
It's an ongoing testimonial about the need for the
Church to be visible and present, despite the popular assumption that
everyone wants religion to disappear, or at least to go underground. I
don't do it because I'm hyper-clericalist, want preferential treatment
at the gate (not that it works), or want to shove my religious identity down the throats of
other travelers. I do it, because I hope to advertise that I'm available
to people in the same way as a uniformed police officer or a doctor in
her white coat. And it works. People talk to me about their faith, their lapse in churchgoing, and the substance of their lives. They also ask me lots of questions. It's an opportunity for evangelism, and I'll take any opportunity I can get.
Passing time at the gate.
You see, the clerical collar is more about
other people than it is about me. I'm reminded of that fundamental fact
every time I lumber down the concourse in persona Christi, my
obnoxiously orange duffel slung heavily over my shoulder. The collar gives other people permission to be curious, to unload their consciences or their hearts, and to explore religious and metaphysical issues. As I boarded
the plane to Chicago last Wednesday, Gerry, the older man in the seat next to mine,
pointed to my collar, and said something like, "Are you really a priest?
You don't look old enough." "Boy, you're my new best friend!" I replied cheerfully, "You're check is in the mail. I'm actually 41." I stuffed the bloated duffel under my seat, sat down, and introduced myself. And then we got to talking about his work as a corporate trainer for Oracle, his life as a practicing Roman Catholic, the joys of being a grandfather, and then delved into the more imaginative and intriguing parts of his spiritual life. I mentioned to him that if he was interested, I dealt with a lot these sorts of issues on my blog, YouTube channel, and Facebook page. Gerry asked for the address of my Website and added me on Facebook. We talked energetically for the entire flight, and then resumed our conversation during the long ride on the Blue Line from O'Hare to the Loop. It was a marvelous spiritual conversation.
The New Evangelization,
On the return trip to Philly, it was very similar. I found a free seat at the gate about 20 minutes before my flight, right next to a blond woman, Monica, who I later discovered was also 41. (We agreed jocularly that we don't look our age!) She saw my collar and asked, "Does that mean you're a real Father? Are you a priest or is this a prank? It's not a costume, is it?" "Nope, it's not a prank. I assure you it's real," I said pointing to my collar. "I'm a priest in the Episcopal Church." "I don't really know what that is. I'm Catholic," Monica said apologetically. "Well, some people say that the Episcopal Church is Catholic-lite," I explained, "but I'd rather say that it's all the same sacraments, but we're much more progressive on social issues." So, I pointed out that we ordain women, gays, and lesbians; we permit communion after divorce; and there's no celibacy rule for the clergy. She listened attentively and asked me if I had a business card. Of course, like an idiot, I left all of them back in Philly. But we improvised. Monica handed me her smart phone, and I pulled up the website for the Episcopal Church on the browser and bookmarked it for her, and then launched Facebook and sent myself a friend request, which I immediately accepted on my own iPhone. We then talked a lot about her family, especially her daughter whom she was flying out to see, the challenges of quitting smoking, her discomfort with the Roman Catholic Church, and the Episcopal parishes near her home. Monica was delightful.
Yup, that about says it.
I share these two stories, first of all, to demonstrate that sometimes evangelism is merely about making the Church visible and available. Evangelism isn't always about proselytizing or getting more people in the pews on Sunday, but rather about showing people that we are sincerely interested in their lives and inviting them into some kind of meaningful relationship, even if it's only a brief twenty-minute conversation. The fact is, the initiative doesn't always come from the clergy. I've noticed that it often originates with other people who are receptive to conversations about spirituality, or religion, or the Church, or morality. Wearing clericals signals that those kinds of discussions are welcome and encouraged. It is a sign of hospitality that gives people permission to initiate a conversation with us on some very intimate topics--life, death, addictions, family, the meaning of human existence, the nature of God, and the order of the cosmos. The second reason for this blog post is to thank Gerry and Monica for sharing their stories with me. If either of you is reading this, please know that our conversations were meaningful to me, so much so that I want to encourage the rest of the Church to imitate the risk you took in starting a conversation with me, of sharing who you are with a stranger. The collar simply says, "I'm here. Wanna talk?" Thanks, Gerry and Monica, for accepting the invitation.