“Speak to a priest — confidential, non-judgmental, free”
The hand lettered sign displayed by the man wearing a clerical collar on the park bench seemed intriguing. Speaking to a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant is to be expected — that is, if you are lucky enough to get an appointment. Confidential in those places, one hopes, — but good luck on the other two. Why would a priest be sitting outside on a park bench with such a sign?
There are reasons. This particular man came from a parish in a small town on Canada’s east coast to another one in its largest metropolitan city, Toronto. Before very long it was evident that that city parish along with its neighbors thought they had a bleak future on their own; several decided to amalgamate. Suddenly the priest was out of a job.
The pain of job loss is all too common these days. Losing of vocation is another thing. Priests are more like artists or entrepreneurs. They have a vocation — a calling — in their case, to be present as a visible sign of something more. Good priests know how to keep things confidential. They may not start as non-judgmental but over time and experience, many get there. Their work is not free; a shrinking body of active members keep it alive and hope that presence reaches out to more than themselves.
This priest recently was moved to take time off from a job search and try an experiment. Parishes officially still have boundaries — geographic areas accountable to those within their borders. Such boundaries survive in many countries and sometimes even mark land areas in places like Bermuda. The automobile made such divisions obsolete more than a century ago — but traditions move slowly. Some priests guard their geographic boundaries with a firm sense of entitlement. This priest no longer had one — so he tried to create one within another envelope.
A good place to find people is probably downtown because that’s where lots of them are. The first try was a bench near the provincial government house but a couple of tourists just wanted to take selfies. It might be provocative to choose a park bench within easy walking distance of the three downtown “cathedrals” of mainline denominations, but their strategic locations were at least promising. The new area was a little more gritty. It’s also near a major hospital and a haven for homeless people who camp out on heating grids to stay warm in the winter.
So what happened? Would anyone respond to a hand written sign and talk to a priest on a park bench? The surprising answer was yes. He was employed again without the pay — but doing what he was called to do in terms of vocation.
One man asked if he would still be there an hour later — and surprisingly did come back. During breaks life unfolded on another bench 20 feet away — someone shooting up — a woman changing her clothes on the street — a medic in scrubs enjoying a bag lunch. People generally didn’t want advice. They just wanted to talk to somebody who would listen.
While mainline churches wring their hands, fret over how to reach people and sometimes spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on projects that they hope will bring new bums — including wallets — into seats, maybe they have it wrong. This alternative picture looks mutually fulfilling. Who’s speaking and who’s listening is pretty obvious. There is no “For a priest, press one”. There is no “All our priests are serving other customers”. There is no “I can see you a week next Tuesday at 4:00 pm”. Sometimes experiments bring home realities. Maybe this is exactly the new job this priest is looking for. What is required is the vision to support it.