Pedro, Matt, myself, and Deacon John outside
the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in SF
before the Walk For Life Mass.
It’s not easy to go about unnoticed while wearing a Roman collar. Especially when walking with 50,000 other people who are fighting the travesty of legal procured abortion in our country, when counter-protestors are yelling obscenities, and people with cameras are taking pictures left and right. I’ve got to say, it was an intense experience to be a part of the Walk For Life West Coast up in San Francisco this last week. And when we Seminarians travelling up north for the event were asked by San Francisco’s Archbishop to wear clerics (you know, what a priest wears) for the event, our thoughts and feelings ran the gamut, from excitement, to apprehension, to the thought that there would be no hiding in the crowd.
Now, you might be wondering why in the world I’ve chosen to write about the clothes I had to wear rather than about the issue of abortion that we were tackling at the Walk For Life. First of all, what we were asked to wear meant a lot to those around us. Secondly, there is little I feel I can add to and say about the stance for life and flourishing and true freedom that isn’t already said by two heavy weights in the Catholic world of fighting for life. First is Mother Teresa, whose scathing, yet loving, rebuke of American culture must make us think again about what we believe about our own country, not out of anger but out of a desire to see a people who flourish:
“America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has shown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts- a child- as a competitor, an intrusion, an inconvenience. It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the independent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters. And in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands and other sexual partners. Human rights are not a privilege conferred by the government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend on, and must not be declared contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or a sovereign.”
Secondly, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York has written an empowering article about the Walk For Life that is geared toward you all, with humor, truth, and no shortage of belief that life will prevail. I’d say that if you don’t read another word of this post of mine, please see what Cardinal Dolan has to say. Look for it here: The Ultrasound Generation
So what does this all have to do with getting the chance to dress up like a priest for a day? Well, as one of my seminarian brothers put it: we were able to make a radical witness to Christ simply by the clothes we were wearing. It’s become a rather contentious issue at times here at St. John’s because we are definitely in the minority of seminaries in that we, as seminarians, do not wear clerics during our classes, during our liturgies, or while we minister at our parishes. I’ve even heard that some seminarians from other parts of the US “feel bad” for us because we don’t get to. Hey, even I used to think it was ridiculous that we weren’t wearing what everyone else like us was wearing.
But this weekend had me thinking anew. I’ve seen what it’s like to go into public, not able to just hide in a crowd, with people wanting to say hi, wondering where we’re from, even mistaking us for priests and asking us to bless their rosaries, their banners, themselves. While there were the funny moments of having to explain that we’re “just” seminarians, there were also the times when people openly cheered for us just because they saw the collars, just because they knew what the black clothes and white collars meant, just because they knew that their Church has their back. And I would be afraid that if I got to wear clerics all the time, I’d feel like a special event like the Walk For Life would be just a chance for me to go walking around in my school uniform. I think, then, that there is a wisdom in letting us remember how special it is to put on that “uniform.”
One of the heaviest moments, for me, during the two mile walk was the end. We seminarians stepped up on the sidewalk just before the end of the route so we could wait for everyone from our group. So there we were, all lined up, some guys in cassocks and some of us holding “Defend Life” posters. And the people walking by us would stop and take pictures. They would raise their voice and hands and cheer out loud. They would come over to us and exclaim, “We love our priests!” Did it matter that we’re not priests yet, or that we never got the chance to tell them otherwise? Nope, because they saw what we were wearing, they saw that we were there for them, and we knew they weren’t cheering for us as individuals. They were jubilant because they knew that we cared enough to be there, that the Church cares enough to be there, that they are not alone.
Not easy to hide in a crowd, but that’s not what we’re called to do.
And it wasn’t all fun and games for those of us representing the Church and witnessing to life in such a simple and humble way. Counter-protestors all up and down the route were yelling at us, making us their targets for derision because we were so visible. “Life begins when you stand up to Christian Fascists,” one sign read. “Go away, you Christian Taliban,” we were yelled at. Cursed at with crude sexual immaturities and epithets, all we could do was look back at these people with compassion, not letting anger seize us from truly witnessing the Gospel that day. I don’t know how possible it would have been to win an argument and gain a conversion of hearts and souls right then and there, but there were at least two things we hoped and prayed for that day: that our solemn witness to the tragedy overtaking our country over the last forty years since the Roe v. Wade decision would be most clearly seen by those we walked with, empowering them by showing them the Church stands right with them; and that the counter-protestors would not win by drawing us into confrontation that would only separate us further, that they would somehow see sadness and compassion in our faces, in our actions, in our silent marching. So what we wore that day, was not some costume to make us feel like we’re priests already, but like my brother seminarian said, it was a simple, but radical witness not only to our way of life, but to our Church’s commitment to life and to flourishing, our God’s commitment to life and to flourishing.
It was not about what we were wearing, it was about how we were wearing ourselves and how we put on Christ.