The Priest as Chameleon
How we adapt to the situation at hand
Each Christian is anointed as priest, prophet and king. Each priest is anointed and ordained with this same munera. These are the three basic duties and obligations of each Christian, and even more so for each priest as he serves his community.
While these three tasks are more than enough, one quality necessary to pull it off is the “chameleon” quality. This skill demands we adapt to the situation at hand. It goes beyond the multiple hats that are worn daily in ministry (firefighter helmet to extinguish the parishioner drama that ignites, crossing-guard hat as staff is encouraged to “move along” or “stop” with a project, etc.). The chameleon quality beckons us to shift our persona in relation to the present environment.
Priests often become the personality that is in contrast to the environment. The chameleon, and many of God’s creatures, take on the color, the persona, of the environment in order to blend in. A deer’s skin matches the color of the woods to camouflage itself so as not to be seen. Priests are chameleonlike, not to blend in or camouflage, but to take on the opposite.
After numerous assignments and parishes through the decades of ministry, it appears I often need to take on the persona opposite of the parish. When a priest arrives in a parish that might be considered not “under the bell curve,” he typically is seen as opposite the parish — that is, on the other side of the curve. While I do not see myself as highly devotional, that devotional side of ministry (novenas, adorations, the Rosary hour, etc.) all seems to “come out” of me. I have arrived at parishes where there is a dearth of these sacramentals.
Parishes choosing not to have any of these sacramentals for their parishioners often see these practices as “old school, conservative, too priestly, high church, etc.” I then become these adjectives if only to pull the parish closer to the center, balancing out the extreme. The hope is to moderate the other side of the ecclesiastical curve. To be fair to these parishes, they typically are highly focused on social justice, very generous with their resources of time and their money to the poor, advocating for the vulnerable ones in society.
Then there is the other side of the curve. I have arrived at parishes finding myself spending most of my time in an alb and cope (if it is not too long) as every interest group wants its Rosary hour, its novena to its patron, its Holy Hour time. These parishes are those that if I celebrate three Masses per day every day, there would be a group asking for a fourth Mass just for their interest group.
Upon arrival, I change colors as the parishioners perceive me as an extreme liberal. If I initiate an endeavor to have a novena with Laudato Si’ as its intention, praying for “our common home,” I am a “tree-hugging liberal.” If it is election time and I am doing my due diligence to keep people informed about ALL the issues, instead of the social themes the parish prefers, I am not “Catholic” enough.
We all have been there. While our basic being is intact and unchangeable at this point, the color we need to wear is often the opposite of the people.
Another analogy is if the parish is so focused on the horizontal beam of the cross (caring for the poor, social justice, liturgically casual) the vertical is de-emphasized. If the vertical beam of the cross is primary and minimal focus is on the horizontal beam — that is, no outstretched arms to those around you — it is time to get off our knees and out of the church and reach out to the neighbors.
Sometimes, each of us forgets the obvious. The crucifix hanging in the church is the absolute sign of balance in which to center ourselves on that bell curve of the church. If too vertical, look outside, see the beggar on the street, and feed and clothe God’s people. If too horizontal and constantly feeding and housing the beggar, go inside and pray to God whose image is within all his people, rich or poor, male or female, slave or free.
FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is the pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Ijamsville, Maryland, and the director of Cemetery Management for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.