I was in Portland, Maine the other weekend with my girlfriend and as we walked past a Catholic church we looked over and saw a side door open to reveal a priest dressed in his clerics. “There he is,” my girlfriend joked. “There’s father.” But what father had in his grasp was a bag of trash he was taking out.
What a great image, we thought. Not as some strange metaphor, but just that: the parish priest taking out the trash. It was a great image because in an age when we figuratively place priests into a box or on a pedestal—they have to be this way or that—it is important to see that they, like us, have to do chores and domestic work and pay bills. Priests are human. But for some reason we fashion an image of them, like Bing Crosby’s character, Father O’Malley, in The Bells of Saint Mary’s.
When I was in religious life I had a taste of that. Others I served saw me as someone picture perfect. They watched their language in front of me (God forbid they offend a priest-to-be!). They always asked me to say grace. Somehow my prayers were more effective than the next person’s. They assumed I was probably sinless, that I had my life together and all figured out, that I had the answers, that I always practised what I preached. What they didn’t see was the side of me that cooked meals for my brothers in community and scrubbed toilets and showers each week. They didn’t know about my friendships and the challenges that came along with them. They didn’t know about my doubts in my vocation—I didn’t have it all figured out. They didn’t know my weaknesses or my exhaustion from work and study. …Just like them, I had to take out the trash.
Are priests and religious meant to represent a Christ-like ideal? Sure. But Jesus also probably had to take out the trash. His human life had its own hardships, chores, relationship challenges, and weaknesses. When we see a priest can we see that Jesus? Because when I saw the priest at that church in Portland taking out the trash it reminded me that those everyday mundane labours were part of living an authentic Christ-like life.
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