Having grown up in a protestant home (and one in which we had next-to-no personal contact with clergy) it was easy to look around in my adopted world of Catholicism and see strange things. Priests (and other religious brothers and sisters) were among those “things” that I had trouble identifying with.
Yes, on one level I knew that they were people. They are men and women who have made the Church their life’s work and who were there to provide care and guidance to the faithful (and the not-so-faithful, too.) But do you remember how as children we had trouble seeing our teachers as “real people”? An adult variation of this mindset sort of captured the way in which I interacted with the priests of my world.
I have written before that one of my sons is in formation with the Dominicans. If things go according to his plan he is about three years away from ordination to the Catholic priesthood. There are lots of things about this life he has chosen for himself that have affected how I view the world, but not the least of these is the realization that Priests are people.
Doesn’t that sound completely stupid to say? “Of course they are people” would be the sane reply – “what did you think they were? Canned hams?” Well no, I did not think they were canned hams. But with my limited interaction the Priest was much like the guy behind the meat counter at the supermarket or the guy who sold you your last car: a person in a specific role in your life who has no place in any other part of your existence.
Since our lad was accepted into the Dominican order, however, we have had the chance to interact with the priests and brothers of the Order on an entirely different level. As real, live people.
These thoughts came to me after my Mrs. and I spent a long weekend as our son’s guest at the parish church where he is spending a pastoral year. The Dominicans assign each of their student brothers to one of their ministries for their third year. This gives each student brother a break from studies and an opportunity to see what “real life” will be like once they have completed their formation.
Going behind the scenes in the life of a small Catholic parish is a wonderful experience. This particular parish church has been staffed by the Dominicans since its founding in the 1920s. They have been fortunate in that the neighborhood they chose has prospered (instead of declined as so many of those old neighborhoods have) and this small parish church also has a small but bustling elementary school and an active core of families.
We were there on a very busy weekend that culminated in their first annual Oktoberfest, so we probably did not experience as much “community time” as we otherwise might have. However, the priests and brothers there (as well as staff and parishoners we met) could not have been more welcoming.
Of course we got to experience Masses celebrated by men we knew and visited with. The newly ordained associate pastor had taken on the job of planning the Oktoberfest so we could see much of the behind the scenes work that he was coordinating. As well as the excellent (and delicious) results of that work.
More interesting was meeting some of the brothers of the community and learning something about them. One is a gardner who spends much of his time at a large community plot growing many of the fresh vegettables that are served at their meals. Tomatos, cucumbers, brussels sprouts, carrots and probably twenty other things I can’t remember result in fresh produce all summer and fall as well as lots of canning for the things that are not eaten right away. A green thumb is not among my gifts so I am a little in awe of his skills.
Another is an artist. He invited us into his workshop in the basement where he makes religious plaques. He sells them locally but mainly believes that all people should have a beautiful religious picture or saying on display in their homes. He spends many hours searching for pictures in the public domain and then duplicating them, mounting them to boards, painting the edges and covering it all in a hard, glossy coating for a professional looking piece of art. One of which is now on display in our own home.
Another volunteers his Saturdays to assist in the operation of a train at a local family attraction. He has loved trains from his youth and this provides a wonderful opportunity to indulge in his boyhood dreams as well as to be a positive presence to the guests and the other workers at the park.
We had conversations about each of those things and many others, ranging from local restaurants to the Chicago Cubs. Just as we have had conversations with some of the other people in the lives of all of our kids. How normal, right?
I feel happy that our son gets to spend a year with such generous, gifted and faithful men as he learns to negotiate this new way of life with the fullness and balance that it will require of him. And I feel happy that, having gotten the opportunity to begin to know a few of these men, I am developing the ability to really see people where I once had difficulty seeing beyond a collar or a robe. And I like it.