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Funny sort of priest

Will foregoing humor and adopting a more pious style make him a better channel of God's grace?

A few months back, after ten years of study, I was ordained a priest. (You can be at the same time a Dominican friar and a priest.) Now I can say Mass and hear confessions, as well as baptize, marry and bury, and other things.

A priestly ordination ceremony is a big deal. I was ordained in our big medieval church in Krakow with seven other men, and the place was packed. Somewhere in the crowd on an old wooden pew were my parents from Milwaukee my niece Amelia, age 14, representing all of my 20 nieces and nephews.

A short bishop came in a tall hat. There was incense. A choir sang. Ladies cried. I fell on my face before the altar. It was solemn but not at all glum.

One of the friars not being ordained that day ran around and took pictures during the liturgy – very discreetly, of course. I sent these pictures to a friend in Jerusalem.

“It all looks so different than your blogs sound,” she typed, chatting over Facebook.

Why do you say so?

“Your persona as a blogger has an aspect of the holy,” she said, “but there’s an irreverent streak.”

Don’t tell my superior.

“The photos give more of a sense of the holy. When you see them, you tell yourself, ‘well, yes, but of course. That’s who he is.’ But they are still a bit surprising.”

I do worry about those comments a bit.

Here’s a story: An old priest stopped in at a rural church. He saw a man bumbling around the sanctuary, roaming to and fro in the holiest part of the space, tending to business with nary a trace of reverence.

“That man must be an atheist,” he said, “Or maybe it’s the sacristan.”

There is something called “sacristan syndrome.” I’m sure you haven’t heard of it. In a Jewish idiom, it might be “shammes syndrome.” Or maybe it doesn’t translate.

The sacristan is the caretaker – the person who tends to the backstage at church. He is so accustomed to moving around the place that he becomes callous. Every child knows you’re supposed to genuflect (go down on one knee) when you walk in front of the gold box called the tabernacle. That’s where the Divine is most present. But sacristans forget. They’ve gone past too many times.

I don’t want to be a monk with sacristan syndrome. I don’t want to become so inured to the holy that I forget it’s there.

And yet.

I spent this morning hearing confessions next to a wooden church under tall pine trees at a mountain outpost in the Tatras, near the Slovak border.

Our wooden church in the mountains. Photo mine.

The wooden confessional, which looks like a sentry box with a seat, was balanced on a storm drain. (At this outpost, that was the only flat surface around.) The faithful knelt next to my ear, one by one, and whispered. As I sat there precariously perched, hearing colorful transgressions breathed out in Polish and offering, in exchange, God’s total absolution of sin, I thought: how silly this must look.

The confessional on the storm grate, with the purple stole I wear while hearing the sins of the faithful. Photo mine.

How silly, and how holy, too. Because God works like that: on busses and in tents and on crowded Jerusalem alleys and on post-Communist storm drains in the woods.

Who am I to tell Him He can’t?

Now, perhaps I should be more pious, at least in appearance, than I actually am. There are priests, after all, whom no one dares to refer to by their names alone, without the title ‘father’. Some are never seen out of priestly uniform. There’s a certain tone of voice, too — a singsong — that to Catholics irresistibly evokes thuribles and chasubles and the smell of old books. Perhaps I should sound flutier.

Jokes aside, I would never wish to shock or sadden someone by how I act or what I write or say.

At the same time, to what degree do these conventional postures say “God”?

I’ve met a few – just a few – saints in my time, and none of them looked or acted like the lead-ribbed figures in stained glass windows. They were people: real men and real women. And they acted like people. They all – all of them – knew how to laugh.

That’s the way it is, I think, with God.

The brilliance of the window comes from the sun streaming though it. To make us holy, God acts on us, not we on Him.

We become holy when He suffuses and transforms us. There is no ritual or garment or spell we can work to make Him appear. Because He is utterly free.

I’d like to be a channel of His grace. That’s the kind of priest I’d like to be. And if I don’t fit the purpose, I guess He’ll let me know.

He’ll show up when He shows up, if He does.

And the music and the brilliance and the joy – and the priest-ish-ness – will have to come from Him.

Up and away: this is what they do to newly-ordained priests in Poland. Photo by my fellow Dominican, Dawid Grześkowiak.


About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.
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