On the Sundays I don’t have Mass myself, I attend in the institutional Church. There are several parishes around town that I haunt. One has a priest who is obviously unhappy with my presence, but I am not clear as to why. Maybe he is opposed to the illegality of my ordination, that is, my disobedience to doctrine and hierarchy. Or maybe he believes that women should not be ordained period. Or maybe he dislikes the masculine expression of my vocation—how I claim the Roman collar, the tradition of celibacy, and the title Father as my own. Whatever the reason, it is clear he wishes I did not exist. How do I know? It is all in the way he blesses me.
For those who are unaware, there is a custom in the Roman Catholic Church that encourages those who are not in communion with the Church for one reason or another to approach the priest (or Eucharistic minister) for a blessing. As you step up, you cross one or both arms over your chest, which signals that you would like to receive a blessing rather than communion. People who regularly avail themselves of this custom are folks who are not Catholic, children who have not yet received First Communion, and people who feel in need of the sacrament of reconciliation. I say this to explain that it is not uncommon for priests to offer blessings in place of communion.
You might not realize this, however, by observing my interaction with this priest. First off, he can barely stand to look at me. The moment he realizes it is me, his face goes dark, and he looks down. As he makes the sign of the cross, he mumbles a most insincere blessing, the air curdling with paternal disdain. It is evident that he does not want to bless me, but the tradition ironically forces him to comply. He continues to look down until I walk away. This has happened four or five times now, so I know it is not a fluke.
It is an utterly shitty experience for me. One reason is because it is not always like this. At another parish, there is a priest who tries to offer me communion, and when I refuse it out of respect for the institutional Church, he prays a beautiful blessing over me. At another parish, a deacon blesses me with a smile and says warmly, “We are happy you are here.”
But the experience with this priest? Not so warm and fuzzy. On the one hand my Italian blood wants to boil. I feel angry and sad and disgusted. This man has been a priest for nearly 40 years, and this is how he behaves toward me? What in the world is his prayer life like? How does he treat others who have sinned in his eyes? Don’t I deserve to be treated with dignity? Even if we disagree on the topic, can’t we agree that we both want what is best for the Church?
On the other hand, I feel compassion. He feels triggered. We all know that being triggered is painfully uncomfortable, and we generally are not our best selves when it happens. I recognize for myself that it takes me a minute (or longer, and sometimes much longer) to see that I have become unmoored. In those moments I need gentleness. Afterward I need time to reflect on what transpired within me, time to pray for insight into my own mystery, time to ask God for healing of the wounds that have been pricked.
Who knows what triggers him. Maybe I remind him of a harsh woman who had a negative impact on him. Maybe I arouse a deep piece of his own spirit that wants to rebel against the Catholic Church but has been silenced. Or maybe I signal too clearly the end we all know is coming, and he realizes he is not ready to confront the change.
As I pondered all of this in my prayer, the Holy Spirit asked, “Have you prayed for this man?” At once the eyes of my heart flew open: the answer was no. I apologized to God and asked for forgiveness. How is my judgment of his behavior any different than his of mine? It isn’t. We are trapped in an unspoken entanglement. When I continued to look at the situation with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I saw so clearly that I absolutely do not want him to be hurt or unhappy or suffering. Rather, I want him--and all beings--to be free and whole. I want this because this is what God wants, and above all, it is God's happiness I desire. So to be better, I must remain rooted in God's desire, and the only way to remain rooted in God's desire is prayer.
So, the next time I inevitably attend Mass at this particular parish with this particular priest, I will approach the priest differently. Rather than being wary and critical, I will take a deep breath, exhale, and ask the Holy Spirit to somehow untie the knot between us. Then, I will step forward, cross my arm over my chest, and receive with gratitude the reluctant blessing.
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