In my defense it was hard to see into the back seat of the car; what my eyes thought I saw was a big dog with long floppy ears. Since I was passing by the vehicle anyway I commented to the man getting out what a good looking dog he had in the back seat. He looked funny, shrugged and walked on without comment; on closer examination it was actually a woman in the back of the car. She did have long hair that resembled floppy dog ears. Fortunately she didn’t hear the ersatz compliment and the gentleman certainly did not take exception to the statement. Some years ago in a different parish my priestly peepers had also betrayed me; in my defense she was a good size parishioner in the birthing room of the hospital. Asking about when the baby was due, in hindsight, was not the best approach. The lady pointed to the crib near the bed and the baby sleeping there and said acidly, “I had him last night.”
It’s called “Foot in Mouth Disease,” and it follows all of us relentlessly, specifically priests. We do a lot of baptisms, weddings and funerals and minister with and for people hundreds of times during the year. Age and experience has taught me to be careful when responding to various comments of parishioners and the general public. “Father, thank you for what you did for my husband.” Brain starts to work: “Who is this person? Who is/was her husband? Did I visit him in the hospital? Did I have his funeral? Did he see me for a specific problem?” As a new priest I would have hazarded a guess and answered, “Happy to have done it, how’s he doing?” “Father, you had his funeral!” Aging and experienced me: “I was honored to help.” Nice and vague and doesn’t reveal my ignorance. On the upside it’s not a problem with current parishioners and family; those can be remembered, but the parent who shows me her ten year old son and asks “Don’t you remember him? You baptized him ten years ago,” is a challenge.
“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness…” (2 Cor 11:30) This same chapter of St. Paul talks about being thought a fool for the sake of Christ; as priests we are not perfect. Actually to say we’re not perfect is a kind statement, being foolish and weak is more to the mark. Being foolish and weak are not bad things as long as our shortcomings fall back on the mercy and wisdom of Jesus. In the meantime, I’m going to get an eye exam; she still looked like a canine to me.