Several months after ordination in 2011, I started my first permanent assignment just in time for the school year. My first official duty was to celebrate the Opening School Mass. Next day, the grade ones were invited to write a story about their weekend. One of the students wrote this:
“On Sunday, I went to church. I was running late. My dad and [my brother] came with me. I was very excited … We sang a song, then I listened to the boy who was talking”.
In the course of correcting her work, a teacher made some inquiries about this boy. Was he one of her classmates chatting during Mass? “No, I mean the boy up the front.”
You mean one of the altar servers?
“No. The boy was dressed in Fr Paddy’s clothes.”
News travels fast in the country. By the end of that first week in the parish, the nickname had stuck. I was now ‘The Boy’.
I had also learned one of the most valuable lessons in life: “Fools and children speak the unvarnished truth.”
More recently, I had occasion to visit this student’s class – they’re grade threes by now – and speak to them about the Holy Spirit and the Church’s mission. The lesson was formatted as an open Q&A, with me in the hot seat.
I fielded many of the questions one expects in this situation: “Why did you want to be a priest?” “How long does it take to become a priest?” “Which footy team do you support?”
But there’s always a few curveballs lobbed in such circumstances, and one question especially struck me with its poignancy.
“Why are priests so kind?”
This question was asked by a nine-year-old who has encountered four priests in his life. There’s Fr Paddy, the parish priest; ‘old Fr John,’ who is a retired priest in residence; ‘young Fr John’ (otherwise known as ‘The Boy’); and Fr Mark, who is chaplain at the MSC secondary school next door. We three diocesan priests make every effort to be in the parish school every week, and the students frequent weekday masses.
So this child’s question – “why are priests so kind?” – was born from the experience of priests who had only shown kindness to him, to the credit of those four priests I enumerated. My own childhood view of priests was more complex. I esteemed the priests in my parish because I observed my parents listen attentively to them at Sunday Mass. But I admit I was dark on one priest: Fr George Pell.
Fr Pell was school chaplain when I was in grade prep, and I vividly remember a school Mass at which he preached, and preached, and preached some more. Or so I thought at the time – a view I shared with my cousin, who was sitting next to me.
Unfortunately, our teacher caught me in the act, and not content with simply moving me some place else, she humiliated me some more back in the classroom, where I was singled out for bad behaviour.
Being something of a goody-two-shoes (just ask my long-suffering brother), I was not accustomed to such treatment. As hotly as my cheeks burned red, that incident burned into my memory. In my childish malevolence, I absolved myself and blamed Fr Pell’s loquacity for my humiliation.
Not long afterwards, Fr Pell was appointed rector of the seminary in Melbourne, so he ceased to be our school chaplain, and it was many years before I met him again. In the meantime, though, he was denied any opportunity to demonstrate priestly kindness, so as a grade one at least, my view of priests was not as universally positive as this grade three’s.
Twenty-eight years later, none of this crossed my mind as I contemplated the question before me. “Why are priests so kind?” What did occur to me – and perhaps it occurred to every other adult in the room, too – was the question’s correlative: “Why aren’t all priests kind?”
“A priest’s job,” I replied, “is to be just like Jesus Christ.
“Actually, that’s everyone’s job. We’re all called to be holy. God wants us all to be saints, and we do that by loving as Jesus loved.
“So if a priest is kind, he’s doing his job well. He’s acting just like Jesus, who was always kind.”
The grade threes and fours faithfully transcribed my answer, and apparently took it to heart. A few weeks later, I returned from my holidays sporting a beard. The grade threes and fours whole-heartedly approved: “Jesus had a beard, and your job is to be just like Jesus, so you should keep the beard.”
The grade fives and sixes, however, who hadn’t had the benefit of my theological reflection, were more divided in their opinion of the beard. “Fools and children,” you will remember, “speak the unvarnished truth”. One grade five girl – who’s no fool (in all seriousness, she sometime startles me with her spiritual depth) – ventured her opinion.
“No offence, Fr John,” she said. No offence? I steeled myself.
“No offence, Fr John, but if you want to get a girlfriend, you have to shave the beard.”
Fools and children.