You don’t say

15 October 2017 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Laity Sunday (Methodist observance)

Ever wonder, dear readers, what’s actually said to priests as they stand at the door shaking hands after Mass? Most people wouldn’t give it a second thought. Even so, you may be surprised.

Of course, there’s the usual exchange of pleasantries. “Have a nice day.” “Enjoy your week.” “Glad to see you.” “How are you doing?” “Good bye, now.”

Every once in a while, though, someone will say something that catches you completely off guard. You have no idea how to respond, especially when there’s a queue of people waiting to shake your hand. Here are some classic words of indiscretion heard at church doors around the diocese.

“Father, you have a great tan! Been on another vacation?”

This is a compliment with a barb in it. Everyone deserves some free time. A vacation benefits more than the priest. It also benefits the congregation and parish staff, if you know what I mean.

“Father, we sure had a crowd at Mass today. The collection basket is overflowing. What are you going to do with all your money?”

Maybe pay some of the parish’s overdue bills? None of the money in the collection basket belongs to the priest. I know priests who refuse to even touch the collection basket under any circumstances.

“Father, you’ve gained (or lost) a lot of weight.”

Although this may very well be a true expression of concern, it’s usually not the subject of a public conversation one would have with an acquaintance. 

“Father, the church was way too hot today.”

Never respond, “You think you’re warm, lady, try wearing this many layers of vestments under those bright spotlights.” No, no. Anyway, you can bet the next person will likely ask, “Why is the church so cold?” To the former question, “Wear a sweater” is not a good answer.

“Oh, Father, I see the parish bought you some expensive new vestments. How nice.” It does little good to point out that they happen to be your own vestments and that they’re more than 40 years old. Just smile and say “I’m glad you like them.” 

“Got to go back to work tomorrow, Father. Ugh. I wish I worked one day a week like you. Ha. Ha. Ha.”

Fake a chuckle and reach out to shake the hand of the next person. 

“Father, do you realize that at the 6 a.m. Mass, you omitted washing your hands during the lavabo?” 

I did? Well, guess I needed more coffee.

“Father, you say Mass differently from other priests.”

Is that good or bad? The rubrics to be followed by a priest are standardized in the Missal. An individual priest celebrant is not allowed to add or detract anything from the Mass ritual. Still, each priest does have his own style of celebrating and there are lots of Mass options from which to choose. In this case, however, presume a compliment. A good response would be a simple thank you.

“I’m glad you didn’t give your usual long sermon today, Father. Now I can get home to watch the beginning of the Patriots game.”

Not many priests I know purposely time their homilies based on the start of televised sports events. Just respond, “I’m glad that worked out for you. Enjoy the game. Go Pats!”

“Say a prayer that the Yankees lose to the Red Sox this afternoon.”

Nice try, but I suspect it would be unethical — maybe even bordering on a maleficent voodoo hex. Say nothing. Just give the old thumbs up.

“I need to talk to someone right this very minute. Can you meet with me?”

The answer is probably “No, I’m obviously not free at the moment,” but don’t say it. Instead, make arrangements to meet at a mutually convenient time and place. 

“Father, you got a haircut. It’s too short. You looked much younger before.”

OK then. When a barber asks how I’d like my hair cut, I say, “Let it be a challenge for you.” Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.

“Father, you look so young I mistook you for the altar server.”

This comment was once frequently heard in church narthexes, but, now, not so much. It’s no wonder why.

“People say you’re planning to retire soon.”

Ah, yes, the old gossip network. Here’s the scoop. There are currently seven pastors already eligible to retire (I’m one). There are 19 more pastors eligible to retire within the next five years and an additional 15 pastors eligible to retire in the next 10 years. That’s half of our diocesan priesthood. Expect even more retirement talk in the decade ahead. It would be impolite to respond, “My personal business, sir, is no business of yours.” 

When you’re standing at the door of the church after Mass, you really have to let some comments slide. Just grin and bear it. 

These days, the slogan, “If you see something, say something” is a helpful reminder to be alert to your surroundings, but it’s not always appropriate at the church door. Sometimes it’s better if you don’t say.

Know what I’m saying?

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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