One of the things that I've enjoyed as a parish priest is being a priest not only in the parish church but also out among the people. Sometimes on a Sunday night--if I don't go to youth group--I might stop into a restaurant down the street that serves a tremendous variety of small brews. I know all of the waitstaff and some of the customers. We might talk about sports, church, beer, or about what somebody does for a living. There's something easy and natural about the whole conversation. If I were a betting man, I'd say that in the place that I go for lunch or in the place that I go for an occasional beer and burger, some of the folks there have considerable differences of opinion with the Catholic Church. I can't be certain of that, but the odds would be pretty good.
But, there is something really neat about being a parish priest in these places. They know who I am. And, they are always really kind and respectful towards me. I am really treated well and receptively by all of them. And in those places, they get to meet a priest in a different circumstance than they might otherwise meet him. Actually, for some, they might never meet a priest. And, I also benefit. I encounter people in their everyday lives. Regular, normal, everyday people, doing an everyday, normal, regular thing. One of the other things that I appreciate about it is that I encounter a considerable amount of natural goodness. Sometimes that natural goodness is a kind word, the offer of a lending hand, or sometimes even a discount!
This week, not only in restaurants but in several other encounters, I met some really nice people who rarely--and sometimes never--come to Mass. Some are not Catholics. Some are fallen away Catholics. They were all nice people. In some way, because I am the priest here, I might be their only real identifiable contact with the Church. That's kind of a big privilege. I sense that our encounters are for them a true encounter with the Church. For me, those encounters are really beautiful because they put me in contact with the world that is somewhat beyond my everyday experience. I think something interesting happens in these exchanges. It's like two worlds meet and discover that they are not quite so far away from one another. It's as though the priest represents the supernatural order and by having a micro brew, shows that the supernatural order embraces the natural goods of this world. And, the folks who sit around and happily converse with the priest begin to see that all of the natural goodness that they love and enjoy is not crushed by the supernatural life but is rather directed toward it and fulfilled by it. And I learn from them. I learn a lot from them and I appreciate the various ways that goodness is present in their lives. I learn from them something about how better to preach the Word and how to understand better the culture to which I am called to preach.
This week, I met a contractor who was working nearby. He mentioned he'd love to climb into the tower of our church. I changed into some jeans and we went up to the tower--which is a bit of a complicated adventure. He took pictures so that he could show his wife went he went home. In that moment, in a very simple way, I felt as though God was doing something there. We didn't talk about his spiritual life or about his relationship with the Church. But, almost instantaneously, we struck up a friendship. The Church is built through such friendships. What a great privilege I have.
As I said, I met several people this week--in a host of circumstances--who probably are not frequently found in the pews of Church. I hope that our encounters will lead them in that direction. But in the meantime, I am grateful that Jesus allows me the awesome privilege of being a priest not only to the people who come to Mass, but also to the many people who normally wouldn't think about the Church, who might despise what they think the Church is, or who are intrigued by the Church. I love the people I see on Sundays at Mass. I really love them. But, the longer I'm a priest, I find myself also loving with a more fervent intensity all of the other people that the Lord puts in my path. They might be the person I run into at the barber shop, the restaurant, walking my dog, or at the supermarket. Some of them, I meet only once. Some of them I see repeatedly. All of them, I love with the heart of a shepherd.
Priesthood is a beautiful gift.