When playing 'Finding Father,' look for clues other than sensible shoes

(Pat Marrin)

Clerical Identity Theft and Clerical Identity Confusion are widespread, and growing, problems within the American Catholic church. In the spirit of the classic Father Smith Instructs Jackson, we are publishing here the transcript from a recent informal dialogue at an urban cathedral parish meant to help us better understand "Which one is the priest?"

Thank you for coming tonight. I know you've all heard disturbing reports of laypeople observed blessing children in church and engaging in other confusing behavior. Some of you have heard parishioners ask such logically impossible questions as, "Who's the lector at the 8 a.m. Mass?" when only laypeople are reading. I myself often hear laypeople inaccurately referred to as "ministers." It's to address these and similar abuses that I have invited you.

Let's begin with some simple terms, given to us in the interest of mental and spiritual clarity. Perhaps you have heard the increasingly frequent use of the admittedly tongue-twister term "extraordinary minister of holy Communion," rather than "communion minister" or "eucharistic minister." Perhaps you have tried to say "extraordinary minister of holy Communion" five times fast and are still in recovery. You may be excused until the next session. [Seven people rise and leave the meeting room.]

Now, why this exercise in linguistic challenge, you ask? Because Catholics all over the country are confused as to just who among us at any given Mass is the presiding priest. Is it the woman in the polyester knit fuchsia pantsuit with the double-chin-disguising floral scarf and Velcro-strapped SAS sandals? [Speaker points to a picture projected on a screen behind him.] See her? Standing over by the choir holding a chalice she was just handed by the man in an alb, a cincture, an embroidered chasuble, a stole and Orthaheel Walking Shoes?

Is it the man over by the vigil lights? [Speaker points to another part of the picture.] The one wearing gray Dockers adjustable-waist pleated pants, a navy blue sweater and Hush Puppies slip-ons and holding the paten he was just handed by the man in an alb, a cincture, an embroidered chasuble, a stole and Orthaheel Walking Shoes?

Or is it the man in an alb, a cincture, an embroidered chasuble, a stole and Orthaheel Walking Shoes?

Parishioner: Hmmm. Could I get a hint?

Okay. Two of them are wearing clothes. One of them is wearing vestments (which is from a Latin word meaning "clothes from ancient Rome"). Underneath, he is also wearing clothes.

Parishioner: One more hint?

Well, the two wearing clothes spend most of the Mass in the pews with everybody else. The one wearing vestments sits all by himself in a chair reserved just for him.

Parishioner: But all three are wearing sensible shoes. I'm confused.

Yes, I see your problem. Well, one obvious way to avoid any mix-up as to the identity of the presiding priest is to forbid extraordinary ministers of holy Communion (which is from a Latin phrase meaning "laypeople") from offering a blessing to impressionable-children-who-come-up-with-their-arms-crossed-over-their-chests-and-their-mouths-firmly-closed-because-even-though-they-are-baptized Catholics-and-so-in-communion-with-the-church-cannot-receive-Communion.

Because receiving a blessing from a layperson in such a circumstance would be confusing.

Are you with me?

Parishioner: Well, I don't know. All three of them are wearing sensible shoes. It's just so hard to say.

Okay, maybe you're confused because you are mistaking those who are instituted as lectors for everybody else ("everybody else," which is from another Latin phrase meaning "laypeople").

Therefore, the latest ruling to clear up the murk of confusion hanging over the liturgy refers to lectors — excuse me, I mean, people-who-stand-up-and-go-to-the-ambo-and-proclaim-from-the-Hebrew-Scriptures-or-the-epistles-or-the-Book-of-Acts-if-it-is-Easter-but-never-from-the-Gospels-unless-it-is-the-Passion-and-there-is-no-one-else-available-but-even-then-it-better-not-be-a-woman.

Because they cannot be lectors unless they are transitional deacons, permanent deacons or those preparing to be ordained as deacons. Then it is a ministry (which is, interestingly, from a Late Latin word meaning, "Hold them at the gates").

Laypeople who are not on their way to ordination (which is from a Latin word meaning, "License and registration, please") can be readers, but they cannot be lectors. They cannot be instituted.

Got it?

Parishioner: You mean that man over by the vigil lights wearing gray Dockers adjustable-waist pleated pants, a navy blue sweater and Hush Puppies slip-ons is an ordinary lector but also an extraordinary minister of Communion?

Yes, he is in training to become a permanent deacon. He is a lector. He has a ministry. He is instituted.

Parishioner: He is institutionalized?

Instituted. Please pay attention.

Parishioner: Sorry. Well, can he bless children who are baptized and so are in communion with the church but can't receive Communion?

Not if he is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. For a child to receive a blessing in such a circumstance would be confusing.

Parishioner: When will it stop being confusing?

For the child, or for you?

Parishioner: Both, I guess.

For the child, when he reaches the age of reason, that is, age 7.

Parishioner: Seven? But my 7-year-old still ...


Moving on. For you, it will cease to be confusing when he is ordained and begins wearing a dalmatic at Mass.

Parishioner: He's going to wear a spotted dog?

Please concentrate. I said "dalmatic," not "Dalmatian." "Dalmatic" is a liturgical vestment. Its name comes from a Latin word meaning "to wear a sash like Miss Alabama." "Dalmatian" is a breed of dog, the name of which is taken from a Latin word meaning "blockbuster animation hit." Besides, nobody wears a dog.

Parishioner: Well, Cruella de Vil.

Stop it.

Parishioner: Sorry.

So, to recap, who is the priest?

Parishioner: The one we call Father?

Very good.

Please meet me here next week when we discuss "Talking About Heaven at Funerals, or: Not So Fast, Buster." Thank you and may God (who is, of course, ordained and thus licitly able to do so) bless you.

[Melissa Musick Nussbaum lives in Colorado Springs. More of her work can be found at thecatholiccatalogue.com.]

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