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Photo of Catherine A. Caimano

Catherine A. Caimano: Signs and wonders

An Episcopal priest is utterly unprepared for her recent encounters with people who do not recognize -- much less understand -- the signs of the church, the institution of those who follow Jesus.

Flickr / Photo by James Ogley

July 31, 2012

“That’s a really pretty blouse,” the young woman at the checkout told me a few weeks ago.

“Thanks,” I said, looking down at my outfit and laughing a little. “I usually don’t get ‘pretty.’”

“Why not?” she asked, looking perplexed.

“Well, you know . . . because it’s a clerical shirt,” I said.

I had stopped by the grocery store on my way home from church to pick up a few things and was still wearing my full clerical outfit -- collar, black shirt, black jacket, and black pants. But my explanation only left her looking more confused.

“A what?”

“A clergy shirt,” I said. “With a collar that signifies that I am an Episcopal priest.”

She stared at me a second, and then finally said, “Oh.”

But she said it in a way that could only be translated as “I have no idea what you are talking about, and I’m sorry I ever said anything at all.”

She neither recognized that I was a clergy person nor cared in the least what that meant.

Believe it or not, that wasn’t the first time recently that something like this had happened to me. A few months ago, I participated in a project for my alma mater, Georgetown University, in which current students interview alumni about their work.

I spent the afternoon with a lovely, brilliant young woman who asked me all sorts of questions. I told her about my work as a priest on the bishop’s staff, and how that requires me to spend much of my time driving around the diocese, visiting various churches. Finally, she stopped me.

“I am so sorry,” she said. “I know this makes me look ignorant. But I have to ask you exactly what a priest is.”

She went on to say that she knew it had something to do with church, but that she had never been inside one and didn’t know what happens there.

This from a well-educated and experienced student who studies at a Roman Catholic university.

The first time I wore a clerical collar, I felt so conspicuous. I knew that everyone was looking at me, maybe even feeling judged by me. In fact, that has sometimes been close to the truth. After all, that is basically the point of wearing religious habits of any kind outside of church -- to identify the wearer as religious, as someone who bears the traditions of the church even in the secular world and sometimes calls into question the values of that world.

Wearing the collar, being so easily identified as a priest, clearly affects those around me. Occasionally someone pays for my coffee or offers to let me go ahead in line, which still surprises me.

In late May last year, when a California radio prophet had predicted the rapture would occur, strangers stopped me in public to ask my opinion. Most were laughing nervously, simultaneously joking about it but uncertain enough to want to consult a priest about the odds. And just days ago, a woman approached me while I was sitting outside a cafe, and simply asked if I would pray with her --- and of course I did.

But probably the funniest moment was when I was in the check-out line at a grocery store (I go to the store a lot), and the person in front of me used profanity with the cashier. The entire line went silent, and the person seemed confused.

“What?” he said. “Does no one else ever use that word?”

“Not in front of the priest,” I said with mock solemnity. As I smiled, the line broke out laughing and the man’s face reddened. It's not as if I had never heard the word before. But when I am dressed as the priest I am, others often take more notice of their own behavior.

So, over the years, I have grown used to being a symbol of the church and its presence in the world. I am no longer surprised when people react, whether positively or negatively.

But I am utterly unprepared for the encounters that I am beginning to have with people who do not even recognize -- much less understand -- the signs of the church, the institution of those who follow Jesus.

This, more than any statistic about the church's decline, gives me pause. It causes me to question seriously how well we are sharing the Gospel with the world. It isn’t news that we are past Christendom. But how far past, I did not know. Although some still insist on calling the United States “a Christian nation,” a growing number of people today know nothing about what “Christian” means or what followers of Jesus believe.

When I posted on Facebook about my encounter with the woman who did not recognize my collar, several clergy friends expressed doubt and thought maybe I had misunderstood. Because I am a woman, some suggested, maybe she didn't understand that I am a priest.

But I was there. She simply had no frame of reference for what a priest is. Nor did she care. As a Christian and a priest, I am alarmed. If we really believe that encountering Jesus changes people's lives and the life of the world, then we have to take this very seriously.

I sometimes wonder how often people in mainline Christian denominations talk about their faith outside of church. Usually, people tell me that they act like a Christian, so they don't need to talk about being a Christian. Other kinds of Christians, the kind who talk about Jesus and want to know if you’re saved, make them uncomfortable, and they do not want to appear to be this type of Christian.

If we are afraid to talk about being followers of Jesus, of being the kind of Christians we are, how will others ever know? Will we leave discussions of faith only to those who are comfortable with it? How will the things we have to say about Christianity get said if we don’t say them? Will the Jesus we know get talked about? Ultimately, will we as the church reach new members with the good news we have to share?

As a collar-wearing priest, I know that we have work to do in the world. The days when Christian symbols were all but universally recognized and understood is gone, at least for some. We can no longer assume that the basic vocabulary of faith is a language spoken and understood by everyone we encounter, believers or not.

For me, that only makes me more determined to be both the symbol and the disciple I am called to be. I promise: next time I run into someone who is perplexed by my garb, I will talk with them and tell them what it means.

Maybe that will scare them away. Or maybe they will want to know more about this Jesus I follow and this church I serve. Either way, I am ready.