When random people encounter a priest, they are often ready to open up about their entire life. I find, that when I visit different parishes to preside at Sunday Masses, there is always a person or two who will briefly tell me their life story, or want to know mine.
As I am a “young” or “cool” priest, or perhaps a priest without grey hair or a gut, somehow they find me strangely fascinating. My actual ministry is to high school students at an all boys school, and so these sorts of encounters don’t happen at all where I work. Most adolescent boys like to hear stories from their teachers. Myself included. Yet, they never ask me for my vocation story, quite like the adults or elderly people that I encounter at parishes.
Just yesterday, I literally had 4 encounters that I think could virtually sum up what all such encounters.
Some context: The sophomore class had their retreat at a Catholic Parish. During the day, we used the Parish Hall, the Church, and one of the annexed parking lots for all the activities. We had over 100 students that I was responsible for throughout the day. These encounters were with people who were around the parish, and not any of the students (or faculty members involved with the retreat). It is also worth mentioning, that I was in the Augustinian habit, and that probably had them begin to open up to me.
- There to open the Parish Hall, there was a man who quickly asked me to pray for him. He was there the previous day, and I had a chance to interact and greet him. This day, he probably thought he could seize the opportunity and ask me to pray over him and bless him. It often amuses me, that after mass, after the priest has just given everyone in the congregation a blessing, sometimes a person will come up to me for a blessing. I have blessed people after a young adult event, and a line of very young adults come up to me for a blessing. I think sometimes they mistake youth for sanctity, but often I have to remind them that they just received a blessing. In this case the man didn’t. The man, that morning of the retreat, ready to open the Parish Hall, asked me to pray for his family to return to the faith. As an Augustinian, I thought of St Monica. So I prayed with him on the spot for a minute, and asked for the intercession of Saint Monica.
- Later in the morning, a woman shouted to me from across the parking lot. She asked if I was a monk, and what kind of monk I was. I had stepped outside of the hall of 100+ students, to move my car. It was near the entrance to unload supplies, and I wanted to keep the entrance wide open. Before I could get to the car, she was already within a foot in front of me, ready to spill out her entire life story. Interjecting her attempts to tell her life story, and how she ended up in San Diego, she wanted to know what kind of priest I was, and if there was an association with the priests that staffed a St Augustine school where she was from. She continued opening up about her life, on several random tangents. I was unsure if she was going to stop to catch her breath. As a pastoral minister, I realize that many people expect me to drop my entire life on the moment of their need. She wasn’t terribly needy, she was obviously a devout Catholic. I had to remind her that I was overseeing an event (I was not just the chaplain there to say mass, I was the man responsible for the retreat, meaning if a student got injured I had to contact parents, I had to ensure they got to the hospital, etc). She literally followed me around to the door of my car, as I was apologizing to her for not being able to set aside the retreat to hear her tell her life story. It is sort of amusing when you think about it. These sorts of encounters do happen at least once at every single parish or Catholic place that I visit, they either want to tell their life story, or want my life story.
- During Lunch time, I had just finished saying Mass for the students in the Church, and a Fire Dept inspector was checking the extinguishers. He was ready to open up not so much about his life stories, but about some of his faith experiences. He was the sort of person, who probably rarely has an opportunity to talk about those sorts of things. As he was looking over the extinguisher, and I was cleaning up the sacristy, he was telling some of his story. He was kind of excited to meet a young priest, I don’t think he ever met a priest younger than him, which probably also made him more excited to talk about faith, religion, church stuff, sacraments, etc. Often I will meet people who are somewhat unchurched, but go to Mass with some kind of regularity. They typically favor their religion, but don’t talk much about their faith. Seeing a young priest often gets them expressing their faith. Sometimes I am told (more often by women), that I am too young to be a priest. When I meet men like this Fire Fighter, I wish that there were more young guys in the priesthood that are easy for him to open up about.
- Okay, this guy probably wasn’t Catholic, he probably wasn’t there for Church. He saw me in habit on the street as we went between the Parking Lot and the Parish Hall. He wanted to know who we were, and what we were doing. He seemed disturbed by the fact that we were an group of students that were all boys (almost the complete opposite of most people that I encounter). When I explained that we were an all boys school, and that we were on retreat, he responded “Retreat from what?” I could scientifically explain to him the value of single sex education from a secular perspective, and there are enough secular retreats out there. I sort of felt bad for him.
Anyways, that about sums up the four encounters, fourth being a bonus, and not your typical Catholic encounter.