I very rarely wear a ‘dog-collar’ – that white ‘number plate’ under my chin, signalling to the world that I’m a clergyman. Not that I’m ashamed of being a priest, or trying to maintain a low profile about my priesthood. In small communities like Fochabers or Buckie, that wouldn’t make much sense anyway – I’ve been here long enough to be a familiar face even to non-Catholics. I stopped wearing that bit of plastic round my neck because of my early experiences as a young priest. Very often people I came across in public were either overly pious or aggressive in their talk. With the latter, as a clergyman I found I was a ‘lightning rod’ used by acquaintances to discharge their genuine or (more often) imaginary grudges against the Church. I considered both approaches – piety or aggression – as ‘screens and mirrors’. I wanted to know what people really thought about many things. Nowadays, without a ‘dog-collar’ flagging up my status, people I meet in the queue, on the bus or train, or anywhere else, talk to me as they would to any other acquaintance. That gives me invaluable insights into their lives, with their everyday challenges, complications and problems.
Of course, every now and again I am confronted with the accusation that that particular attitude of mine is effectively disowning Jesus, as stated in today’s gospel: ‘If anyone declares himself for me in the presence of men, I will declare myself in the presence of my Father in heaven. But the one who disowns me in the presence of men, I will disown in the presence of my Father in heaven.’ If that’s the case, then I’m condemned many times over. I might well be condemned for other things, but not for this, I think. If we remove ‘attire’ from the equation as inconsequential, what else makes you and me witnesses to Jesus ‘in the presence of men’?
Dare I say it… it’s the way we live, the choices we make and the attitudes we hold. In a world where talk is cheap and promises are broken, then the last bastion of decency and honesty is action. Action does indeed speak louder than words. Action has the power to change the course of this world, even if it does so in an almost imperceptibly tiny way. Words can accompany the action as a helpful explanation. As Christians, we are not merely messengers – we ourselves are the message. Not the main message – that’s Jesus. But each one of us is the initial message, the one that can deter or stimulate others. In everyday life, whenever we meet people for the first time, our relationships are influenced by first impressions. Only after that initial stage do we get to know people better and appreciate them for more than just their looks or first impressions they have made.
The problem is that that vital first impression can be made only once. And such perspective might be a bit scary. What if someone’s first impression of me puts them off? Will he or she give me another chance? Regarding the faith, we might be scared to declare ourselves openly as Christians because we think we must be perfect, faultless. And obviously none of us is. But such an awareness shouldn’t be a source of fear, but a source of hope. If God loves me, an imperfect, unreliable and selfish dafty (as I am), then there is hope for us all. God loves absolutely everyone, no matter how low their self-esteem may be, or how much their lives are screwed-up, or how hurt they have been. Honesty about ourselves is the key to conveying that message to everyone else. In the olden days, we were taught that we ought to set a good example for others; but that’s wrong. ‘Setting an example’ means putting on an act or pretending to be better than I really am. And people can see through any sort of pretence in a flash. You are not being called upon to set an example: your call is to be a witness – a witness to the limitless mercy and the unconditional love of God the Father shown in Jesus Christ. So, ask yourself what message you are. And, by the way, I always clearly own up to being a Catholic priest whenever I’m asked!