"JUST WHAT do you do all week?" asked my friend Jim Rosapepe while we were at dinner one night. Jim is a member of the Maryland General Assembly. I thought to myself: Only in Washington would the work of a parish priest be mysterious while the work of a politician would seem self-evident.
"Just what do I do all week?" I repeated, my mind suddenly blank. "I don't know. I know that I am busy, but I get interrupted. That's what I do -- I find God in interruptions."
At the time I had been a parish priest at St. Francis Xavier in Southeast Washington for only a little over three months. In the 14 months since then, I don't think that my answer would be much clearer. There is no job description for a priest. After mass and morning prayer, the last routine part of the day is breakfast.
There is a general stereotype, particularly prevalent in the Christmas season, of the priest as a dreamy Bing Crosby sort who spends his time patting kids on the head and singing for the nuns as he stares across the piano into the limpid pools of Ingrid Bergman's eyes. In fact, it is hardly so enchanted an existence. The closest parallel is a housewife. For one thing, you live where you work. You have no defined hours and there is always more to do. People seldom say thank you; but if the work isn't done, they sure miss it. As with most parents, even though you are necessary, you are sometimes resented. Maybe that's why we are called "Father."
There isn't much structure to priestly life, partly because the parish isn't very structured. People are always dropping by to see if "you've got a minute, Father." Catholics don't usually make an appointment with their parish priest, as they would with their dentist or lawyer. At first this seemed odd to me after some years in the business world. But then I realized that it is because they don't think of the priest as a professional, but as their friend, and it's OK to just drop in on a friend.
Most of the interruptions are predictable. Somebody wants a mass said for a relative, a meeting set up, a door opened, a communion taken to someone in the hospital. Every now and then, though, they'll throw you a curve ball.
Not long ago, the doorbell rang about 9 on a weekday morning. Jaymie Marteno, our secretary, opened the door. The man on the porch had obviously been drinking, so she did not unlatch the screen.
"Is the priest in?" he asked. "I want to see one of the Fathers."
"Do you have an appointment?" asked Jaymie. Dumb question.
"No," he answered. "I want him to bless these." He held up two D.C. Lottery tickets.
"Father," Jaymie yelled into my office, "there is a man here who wants you to bless his lottery tickets."
"Tell him I don't bless lottery tickets," I shouted back. "It's a silly superstition."
Now we were all yelling. "The priest at the other parish did it," he called.
"Well, go back to him," I hollered, adding, "besides -- did you win?"
"No," he said.
"Well, there you go."
"Goodbye," said Jaymie and closed the door.
The man left cursing my hardheartedness. I felt a little sorry for him. Like so many people, he confused religion with magic. They are actually mirror opposites of one another. In magic you try to get control of God. In religion, you recognize that God is in control of you.
As he stomped off the porch, I thought of the old Irish saying: "Never be superstitious, it's bad luck."
There are some "interruptions," however, that are truly the work of the church -- interventions of the Spirit. They happen all year round but are more memorable if associated with Advent or Christmas.
Advent, the four-week period of spiritual preparation for Christmas, is supposed to be a time of renewal marked by prayer, fasting and alms-giving. It is a time when we come together to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation, or as we used to say, "confession."
What we do is to gather in the church for scripture readings, a brief talk on God's forgiveness and an examination of conscience. Then we go individually to various priests scattered around the church to confess our sins and receive absolution. Like most parishes, St. Francis Xavier every year brings in a few outside priests -- "ringers," we call them -- to hear confessions. It is a lot easier to bare your soul to somebody with whom you don't have to share ham and eggs at the next Mother-Daughter communion breakfast.
Last year our reconciliation service was beautiful. Mike Ott, our guitarist, played and sang beautifully; I preached a stunner of a homily, if I do say so myself. We had good confessors. But only 18 people showed up. Maybe it was because the 'Skins were playing the Broncos, or maybe because Catholics aren't as tormented by sin as they once were. Some people misconstrue confession as a mere confrontation of guilt. It is, rather, a chance to experience God's mercy. There are always tears, but more of joy than grief. That's what makes it appropriate in preparation for Christmas, the season of joy.
A couple of days later, the phone rang. A strong male voice said, "Father, I was at the reconciliation service, but I didn't go to you for confession. The priest said I should talk to you. Can I come down today?"
My shoulders slumped. It was the week before Christmas. No decorations were up yet; the school pageant with its "rap" Christmas story was that night. I winced and said, "Alright. Come this afternoon."
The man who appeared was a bit older than his voice. He sat down and told me his story: "I asked my mother what she wanted for Christmas. I told her she could have anything at all. She told me, 'I want you to go see the priest.' "
He'd been raised nearby. After a career in the military, he was retired and had not been in a church for more than 25 years. Divorced. No kids. Problems and loneliness everywhere. "I'm rootless, Father," he said.
"No, you're not," I said. "Your roots are here. Your family, your church and God." I explained that God is like a mother, as the mystic Juliana of Norwich said: "God waits patiently, forgives absolutely and forgets utterly." After more than an hour, he got up to go. I shook his hand and looked him in the eye. "Welcome home," I said.
I hadn't given him a solution, just another piece of the puzzle. The priest before me gave him another one. His mother and friends did, too. One day he would assemble them all and see the whole picture. And the church would be there to celebrate with him when he did.
As with most people in this verbal city, the work of a priest involves words. In fact, I live in a sea of words. Including those occasions where one is unexpectedly asked to "Say a few words, Father." The parish priest is in sales, not management; and like any good salesman, it helps to have a ready reserve of jokes. Clean ones.
The first week of Advent this year was typical. Sunday I had two masses and preached at both. Then I taught the junior-high Sunday-school class, followed by the adult-education class for converts and their sponsors. During the week I preached at four daily masses and taught one religion class each for the kindergarten, third, fourth and fifth grades. Wednesday I spoke to seminarians at Theological College at Catholic U. Thursday I taught Bible study on Exodus. Friday I gave an overnight retreat for a group of young adults called "Communion and Liberation." (Three sermons and two hour-long talks.) Saturday I wrote my homily for Sunday. Sunday after mass I went out to the Archdiocesan H.Q. to talk to 50 fresh-faced engaged couples in an afternoon-long marriage-preparation program. Somewhere along the way I also blessed the school Advent wreath and taught the kindergarteners how to genuflect and make the sign of the cross.
Amid all that verbiage, we prepared for Christmas. No time is lovelier or busier in the parish. But keeping the right focus is hard, and even the church can succumb to the commercial allure of the season. This year our parents sponsored a "breakfast with Santa" for 230 area kids -- not to promote Santa Claus but to keep the kids out of the malls (where they get schooled in the runaway greed known as Christmas shopping) and to keep the Advent emphasis on prayer and alms-giving.
Motivating the kids isn't easy, and I borrowed a technique from an expert on child motivation: my mother. To teach the eight of us the true spirt of Christmas she established a custom of putting a piece of straw in the manger each time we did a good deed. The idea was to prepare a soft place for the baby Jesus by doing good for others. So this year at St. Francis, we put a big box of straw in the foyer of the school. Every time the kids do a good deed, they can put a piece of straw in the basket that serves as our manger. I don't know if they have been good, but the basket has certainly filled up.
I think they get the idea, though it's hard to be sure. A few days ago, I went into the first grade to read them the Christmas narrative from St. Luke. While I was reading, the children kept moving their chairs in closer and closer so that they could see the pictures in the Bible. When we got to the end, I popped a quiz. "Who knows what a manger is?" I asked. A bunch of pudgy little hands shot up. "A basket," said one little girl, obviously thinking of the basket of straw upstairs. I explained, then asked another question: "Who knows what a shepherd is?" Again a flock of hands. "A dog," they cried out together, delighted with themselves.
"Yes," said one little girl, fiddling with her plaid jumper. "The man down the street has two shepherds tied up in his yard." The bell rang, so I left the explanation for the Christmas pageant.
The Christmas liturgies are of course the main events of the season. But the Sodality Christmas party and the Christmas choir concert are not far behind. Last year, in the social faux pas of the season, I let them get scheduled on the same day. We had five gospel choirs in the church at the same time that we had 200 Sodality ladies and Holy Name Association men in the school cafeteria for a dinner dance. I spent the evening shuttling back and forth like one of those shooting-gallery targets in an Ocean City arcade. People would be offended if Father were not there. The ministry of presence.
The choirs, from various black Catholic churches in D.C., were all good. But the highlight was our group of first- and second-graders called the "Sun Beam Choir." They sang a Gloria composed by the director, Ken Lewis, and were supposed to act it out with their hands as they sang. When they got to the line that goes, "You are seated at the right hand of the Father, receive our prayer" they were supposed to turn to their right and point forcefully off toward heaven, all with Rockette-like precision.
The problem is that many of the 6 and 7-year-old kids get their right and left hands mixed up. So when they got to "receive our prayer," and Mr. Lewis gave them the signal, they turned every which way, first left then right, pointing their hands and poking each other in the face. I stifled a laugh behind a hymn book. The kids were deadly serious.
Because of my scheduling error, we had a real parking problem. I had arranged with the bank across the street to let us use their parking lot; and to make the guests feel safe, I asked Lerome Jackson and Clinton Coates to watch the cars in the dark lot. Romie and Clinton, president and vice-president of our teen club, are the Ralph Sampson and Michael Jordan of our parish.
The idea, however, backfired. On one of my sprints between the church and the cafeteria, I saw the boys going into the rectory. "What are you doing here," I shouted. "You're supposed to be watching the cars!"
"Cool your jets, Padre," said Romie. "We were counterproductive. The ladies wouldn't get out of their cars. They see us hanging around the parking lot and they take off."
At the dinner dance, we had a lot more women than men, as is so often the case at church events. It's not that women are the pious sex. It's just that they live longer. The available men that night got worn out on the floor. I danced two fox trots with Kathelia Grimes, who at 83 has been a member of St. Francis since it was built. I guess there haven't been too many dancing priests here, since some people reacted in mock horror: "What will the Bishop say?" There was a time when dancing would have been forbidden. But they all clapped when Kathelia spun out in a turn.
When Christmas finally arrives after the month of Advent, even the adults who have been on the journey are filled with the joy of anticipation. People who only come to church at Christmas are welcome. But I wish they could feel the joy of those who have prepared all season. The "Christmas-only" bunch are like those who come at the last minute for Christmas dinner. They eat the same food, but can't savor the experience like those have who have baked the turkey and mashed the potatoes. After rehearsing the altar boys and decorating the church, I was as keyed up as the kindergarteners for my first Christmas as a priest. (Though when the bells rang out at the Gloria I couldn't help but laugh, thinking of the little ones jabbing one another in the nose in praise of God.) After my long labors, how would the sermon go?
I'm sure all priests and ministers feel woefully inadequate, having to reduce the Christmas mystery to our pedestrian phrases. How can we convey that God has rent the heavens and come down among us? All we desire to speak and hear is a simple word. A word of hope, a word that says that love is possible and that we are not alone in the world.
Midnight mass ended with the packed church booming out, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." As the processional throng moved out in a cloud of incense smoke, I saw faces I had come to love and strangers I hoped to know. Among them, I saw the retired serviceman who had been away so long. He was home for Christmas.
On Pennsylvania Avenue, for once, it really was a silent night. When the last parishioner had left, in the wee hours of the morning, I went into the hushed and darkened church and sat down in the back. The smell of candles, pine and the incense still hung on the air. The sanctuary lamp flickered, a silent sentinel of God with us, Emmanuel. I sat there watching the flame and reliving the mass in my mind.
I fell asleep in the back pew. My first Christmas as a priest.
Peter Daly is associate pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Washington.