Last Sunday I was walking down the terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. It was busy as usual. People hurried everywhere.
Off in the distance, I noticed a man walking towards me holding the hand of his five or six-year-old son. No sooner had he laid eyes on my roman collar, than a big smile grew across his face. As we drew closer, he nodded his head in greeting. I nodded and smiled back. His son, too, gave a big smile. We said nothing, and kept going our ways, but those smiles meant a lot to me. A lot more than many words.
It’s important to show priests your gratitude.
After I made my way to the plane and found my seat, I watched the other passengers file past, some straining to read the seat numbers, while others nodded or said hello. One man, on seeing me, said out loud, “Hey, there’s a priest on the plane. Now we won’t crash!” There wasn’t time to explain that I’m only a seminarian, so I just chuckled.
I’ve worn a roman collar the last eleven years. I must admit, that for the large part, people have shown me only respect and reverence. Especially on planes. I’ve heard “phew, am I glad to see you here, Father” more times than I can count.
I remember how proud I felt that first time I wore the collar in public. I was being a witness to what I really believed in. I felt like Ironman trying out his suit for the first time.
With the onset of the abuse scandals came the first moment when I thought twice before donning a collar. In 2003, I had to go to Texas for two weeks and then return to the seminary in New York.
As I got out of the car at the airport, I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe the police would come after me. For sure somebody would yell or scream. Mothers would grab their children and run away. Maybe I should just take off this collar thing and hide!
Well, I didn’t. And nothing happened. All the way to Texas and all my time there, people treated me with as much respect as ever. “Hi Father”, “Thank you, Father”, “Will you pray for me Father?” was all I heard.
The flight back was the Friday before Good Friday. My seat was in the last row, beside the engine, kitty-corner from the lavatory–not the nicest place in the plane. I had the whole row to myself. “At least I’ll have some peace back here,” I thought.
No sooner had I sat down than one of the stewardesses came by. “It’s so good to have you here, Father. I’m Catholic,” she said. “If there’s anything I can do for you, just let me know.”
A minute later, another stewardess came by. She too was Catholic, and she too was glad to have me aboard.
I soon found out that all seven of the stewardesses were Catholic. For the whole flight they took their breaks in turns sitting in one of the empty seats by me. They showered me with peanuts and soft-drinks. We talked about the faith, about their families, about their work, and most everything.
When it came time for lunch, they announced the two options for economy class: turkey or ham. I had forgotten it was a Friday in Lent, and I asked for ham. They started handing out the meals from the front of the cabin. When the cart arrived to the row in front of me, it stopped, and went back all the way to the front.
“Oh no!” I thought. “I guess I’ll have to survive on the peanuts.”
When I looked up again, down the aisle came a procession of seven stewardesses. They brought with them smoked salmon, French bread, and champagne from the first class cabin. They had remembered that it was a Friday in Lent.
So much for all the “uproar” and “waves of anger” against priests that had been all over the news. In those two weeks I had only been treated respectfully, indeed more respectfully than ever.
A vocation to the priesthood is founded, first and foremost, on faith. But the approval of the people of God is essential as well.
You’d be amazed at what just a cheerful “Hi, father,” can mean to a priest. From my experience it makes you forget any worries that might be on your mind at the moment, it helps you remember who you are, and, most importantly, it gives you a little push to give more in service to others.
If a priest has enough guts to wear a collar in public, chances are he’s doing his best to be a good priest. He’s not hiding anything. He’s a man who has offered up his natural desire to have a family to serve God’s family. He deserves our encouragement. The worst thing that could happen as a result of the scandals is that good priests could become discouraged.
Only once have I been shown serious disrespect for wearing a collar. Much of the time, all I get are stares or indifference. But when someone shows that they are glad to see you, it’s like Tinkerbelle has just sprinkled you with a little of her magic dust.
A priest’s life isn’t easy. He often receives little thanks. Take a moment today to show your gratitude to a priest. Just a few words or a smile, that’s all.
God will bless you both.
Kevin McKenzie, LC studies for the priesthood in Rome.
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