Busted Halo

Paulist seminarian Tom Gibbons reflects on his formation experience and his life as a seminarian right now. Along the way, some questions will be will be answered, and a lot more will come up.

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February 23rd, 2010

Up In The Air: Avoiding Collars In Enclosed Spaces


You know how “Fight Club” has these rules?  Well, as I’ve come to learn, priests also have similar rules among themselves.  Rule Number One: Do not wear clerics on an airplane.  Rule Number Two: DO NOT WEAR CLERICS ON AN AIRPLANE.

Why is this you may ask?  Well, the best explanation I can give is a story I heard about a fellow Paulist.  This particular Paulist very much sees his priesthood as a responsibility to be as complete a representative of a loving God as he can possibly be.  He takes this sense of identity very, very seriously and strives with all of his might to fulfill this divine mission.  But—because he is a human being, just like everyone else—he acknowledges that he sometimes falls short of this awesome responsibility.  So, as an act of penance to the God he feels that he has occasionally let down… he wears clerics on an airplane.

AirlineBecause as most of us know, it’s always a roll of the dice sitting down next to someone on an airplane.  The particular person you might sit next to might be chatty.  And if you’re not in a chatty mood, it’s bound to be a very long few hours.  You may think that just leaving on your headphones will save you, but there is always that moment in the flight when all electronic devices must be turned off so even feigning total musical involvement might not save you from a talkative passenger.  But even if you happen to be open to conversation, there is still no guarantee that the person sitting next to you will be the “engaging” kind of chatty or the “hide all sharp objects for the next three hours of my life” kind of chatty.

You may ask how that is different from any other person?  Well, that’s a fair point.  But as someone who has simply confessed to being a seminarian while traveling across country, let me tell you that the topic of religion is rarely a neutral topic… especially when one happens to be a public representative of the topic thereof.  Last year I was attending a neighborhood party while visiting my sister; after ninety minutes of being permitted to be “just a regular guy,” an older woman who happened to be of a different denomination asked me what I did.  When I told her that I was a Catholic seminarian, she eventually slipped in the comment “Well in MY denomination we put OUR focus on the Bible.”  The amount of energy it took to NOT respond, “Well in MY denomination, we just focus on finishing our beer” was pretty tremendous.

I would just like to highlight that this encounter described did NOT take place 30,000 feet in the air in an enclosed environment.

If the flight is in its last thirty minutes, I sometimes consider…. CONSIDER… fully answering the question of what I do for a living.  And I know what some of you are thinking: “What if the person you’re sitting next to NEEDS a priest at that particular moment?”  Again, that’s a fair point… but it has been my experience that overall the response to such a personal share has involved more commentary than revelation of personal need.

That being said, I have been pleasantly surprised at times; both in and out of the air, I have had times when sharing my current occupation has led to interesting conversation that was more of a mutual exchange.  And it has been having those experiences, both inside of an airplane as well as out, that have allowed me to more easily move into the deeper side of this pool known as religious life.  And while my feet can still touch the bottom, it’s not as intimidating as it once was to make it to the other side of the pool.  Yet I still take comfort in the fact that most priests I know still occasionally need inner tubes as well to stay in the deep end, in the form of not wearing clerics on a plane.

A few weeks after attending that neighborhood party, my sister e-mailed me saying that she had recently gone to another neighborhood party.  At that party, she met someone and they started talking.  When the conversation eventually came around to occupational pursuits, my sister freely shared about her career in advertising.  The gentleman, on the other hand, was being a bit cagey in his responses.  Because my sister can have a dogged nature when the situation calls for it, she was eventually able to get out of him that he was the CEO of a major cosmetic company.  So my sister told me that the encounter reminded her of my shyness in sharing my current occupation, that those with other job titles sometimes experience the same hesitations.  Fair point.

The Author : Fr. Tom Gibbons
Since 2009, Tom Gibbons, CSP, has shared insights on faith, pop culture, and seminary life in the Kicking and Screaming blog here at Busted Halo. On May 19, 2012, Tom was ordained a Paulist priest at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City. He will begin serving St. Peter's Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada beginning in July 2012.
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  • Matt

    Some friends in the relevant professions have shared their experiences with me, which come down to “unless someone is obviously dying, don’t admit to being a doctor or nurse, and never ever admit to being a lawyer in any context except a courtroom, law office, or group composed entirely of other lawyers”. :)

    It’d be hard to really know for sure who _needs_ a priest. Often, we have an effect on other people that we cannot fully understand this side of Heaven.

    But that doesn’t mitigate the problem of people who have never figured out the difference between talking about work in a social setting and never having the opportunity to enjoy a social setting without being asked to work.

  • Chris

    I do the same thing about my brother, a seminarian. he has been one for 7 years, and I have good friends who just found out he’s to be ordained very soon. I have casual aquaintances who will probably never know. I don’t like being pidgeon holed as “the seminarian’s sister” because noone thinks of him as just the seminarian. My parish has him being the first Irish american pope, in the line of JFK of course. They are crazy, but they are our home parish and we love them.

  • Fr. Jason Trull

    Tom, I appreciate your post. I am the former Vocations Director of our diocese and whenever I would travel for “business” I would wear my clerics. I must say that I do not recall one negative experience so far. Perhaps the reason the woman felt comfortable in her comment to you was that you were not yet ordained. I have had everything from, “boy, am I glad to see you on this plane.” to “Hey, I am Catholic too! See, here is my Rosary!” There were two instances that I thought were the best experiences though.
    I was ordained in 2002, shortly after the scandal broke out in the Church. Not long after my ordination (about a week, the chrism on my hand was still fresh) I went on a pilgrimage. I had the aforementioned statement about the Rosary and then I had a gentleman simply turn and look at me and say, “Thanks for wearing the uniform.” As a week old priest, knowing what was happening in the Church, this meant the world to me.
    Second was a funny encounter. I was already in my seat by the window. The is one of those planes that have only 2 seats on the one side. I look up and see an nun in full habit walking down the aisle. I just knew that she was going to be sitting next to me. Sure enough, she sat down in the other seat by me. I leaned over to her and said, “you know sister, this has the makings of a good joke!” We actually had a delightful conversation. I know that this comment was a bit long and there are many such encounters, but I wanted to offer a bit of encouragement. For me, I have always had a positive experience wearing my clerics on a plane.

  • http://www.thejewspot.org Monica Rozenfeld

    Tom, this is SUCH an interesting post. I have to say that it’s crazy, but I think about that in regards to telling people I’m Jewish or not. I think about what kind of conversation that might spark, and to avoid things I don’t want to talk about, I don’t tell.

    It’s especially interesting because of the laws of dress in orthodox Judaism. When you see an orthodox male or female you know based on their modest dress. I feel bittersweet about religious Jews who show with so much pride who they are. What if they do something embarrassing? All of a sudden they become representations of all Jews. What if they can help someone out?

    This makes me think more about how I carry myself as a Jew and if I should or should not wear that on my sleeve. Thanks for writing this.

  • Shannon

    Wonderful. Just wonderful.

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