Last Sunday, I entered a church for the first time in over four months to attend the baptism of a friend’s firstborn. I found out that I had missed something in my long absence. There was apparently a new way of welcoming new members of the Catholic world–by walking out before the ceremony had even begun.
The amusing innovation started with a long lecture on the sacraments by a jaunty, animated woman who looked as though she would break into an aerobic exercise routine anytime. She was good. She encouraged audience participation by asking and waiting for replies to such questions as, “How would you define the term ‘Church’?” and “What are the seven sacraments?” One of the godfathers in my friend’s group yelled the answers to the latter. This delighted the catechist, her curls bobbing as she nodded her approval.
Next, she instructed the crowd on the responses to the baptism. At first, she mildly admonished them when their answers didn’t come loudly enough. She repeated the whole repartee, and her curls sprang to life again at the resonant comeback. I wondered at this point at her insistence for a loud response.
The answer came soon enough as the parish priest took his place at the altar. Dressed in white robes and stole, he began the sacrament considered to be the door of the Church as I ran out to retrieve another friend’s toddler who rushed outside at that moment.
When I came back, the priest was telling the audience to respond properly. I caught the tail end of these words: “Nakakita na ba kayo ng pareng nagmumukhang tanga? Ako ‘yon (Have you seen a stupid-looking priest? That’s me).”
Nice! A priest with a sense of humor, I thought, amused.
But no one, least of all “Father”, was laughing. I realized the priest was seriously angry as he stalked to the pulpit to his right, took off his stole, walked out of the altar, and slammed the door of the Church ceremony shut.
As a prodigal Catholic, I found the whole thing hilarious. I must admit I even felt a small amount of admiration at the priest’s audacity.
A feeling that no one in the church shared. Indignation swept through the parents, godparents and guests. The exuberant godfather, who minutes before was gamely calling out the sacraments, charged towards the nervous catechist and looked ready to punch someone, anyone (preferably the priest of course), in the face.
“May pari palang gano’n (I didn’t know there was a priest like him),” the woman beside me said.
“I cannot believe this. This is not about him in the first place,” a godmother to my left exclaimed.
“Tumaas ang kilay ni father hanggang second floor (The priest raised his eyebrows to the second floor)!” a friend observed.
While I found it funny, I understood the reasons behind the outrage. The faithful, of course, expect the highest standard of conduct from the very people who tout about these things every Sunday. When they came face-to-face with a religious who did not walk the talk, they naturally got cross.
Some churchgoers said they sympathized with Father since he was “only human”. Wouldn’t you feel pissed, they said, if someone didn’t answer your questions properly? Well, I was not the one who regularly stood at the altar, read from the Bible and preached about sacrifice and love and the longest kind of patience. The church and the parish, after all, has St. John Vianney as their patron saint. Known as the Cure of Ars, the Patron of Priests was said to have an “imperturbable patience“. Imperturbable? I could imagine the Saint shaking his head at this minister whose eyebrows shot towards the high heavens.
It didn’t help that the church had very bad acoustics. Few could hear clearly the audio from the microphone that was blasting off in all directions. Additionally, after that long talk on the sacraments, people were just shaking off the cobwebs in their heads when the priest began to speak. The response, “Oo, sumasampalataya ako (Yes, I believe),” was just traveling through their groggy neurons and hadn’t quite shot through their vocal chords yet. Small wonder, then, that the answers came weak.Father could have turned his anger into an opportunity to drive home a point, such as churchgoers’ role when inside the house of god. But he would have had to recognize the need to jolt everyone awake first. Churchgoers are humans too, and humans get drowsy or restless when lectured lengthily right before lunch using a crappy sound system. Delivered in a joking manner, his stupid-looking-priest retort could have hit the mark, eliciting laughter instead of stunned faces and shocked sensibilities.
I am sure the Catholic Church would not want this sort of reaction given its flock’s declining attendance and membership. While the clergy in other countries are dishing out ways to entice the faithful back to worship, this priest seemed to be trying to achieve the opposite.
“Ito ang dahilan kung bakit hindi na ako nagsisimba (This is why I don’t hear mass anymore),” the friend beside me said. “Samahan mo pa ng mga sermon sa RH Bill at wala na (Include the RH Bill sermons and I really don’t show up),” she added, referring to the pastoral letter on the Reproductive Health Bill read by priests during masses. I guess the faithful also do not need to be told what to think. They just simply need guidance on their spiritual life.
Another priest came out from behind the altar, chided the crowd for their meek voices, and continued with the ceremony. The lively catechist frantically directed the responses from the sidelines. Her outstretched fingers curled into the “OK” sign at the now loud answers. Applause erupted to welcome the new little members of the Catholic world at the end of the sacrament.
Everyone set off for lunch. The appetizer? Father’s antics, of course.