Profanity and Priestly Formation

As many of you know, I am from the great state of New Jersey.  And when I share that with people I have met at my current assignment in Austin, Texas, one of the things I have been frequently been told is that I don’t SOUND like I am from New Jersey.  Which I understand… in the many years I have spent living away from the land of my birth, I have come to appreciate that the window most people view my home state either has involves Tony_FrankTony Soprano or someone named Snooki (whom I have since learned is actually from Marlboro, New York).

Having grown up in a country-suburban environment, I was largely insulated from incorporating into my speech the verbal-stylings that Frank Sinatra helped make famous.  Still, there are times when my cultural origin sometimes slips out.  It happens when I’m in a Starbucks and I order a cup of CAW-fee.  It also happens when I get mad; one of the many wonderful traits that people from my home state are known for is the frequent use of… ummm… colloquialisms.  Colorful colloquialisms.  Colloquialisms that would sound inappropriate coming from someone who dresses like I do on Sundays.  Yes, Johnny Cash also dressed in black and frequently used those kinds of words, but he didn’t wear a white tab below his neck.  Consequentially, a lot of my time in priestly formation has been spent cleaning up the truck-driver mouth.

So a few months ago, I gave a reflection during daily Mass.  During the reflection, I mentioned that because of our limited human nature, we all have a propensity to screw up.  And because none of us are perfect, we all need the help of God for not only the guidance to do better in our lives, but also to have the will and the strength.  After the Mass was over, I was feeling relatively good about my commentary on the sinful condition… but the pastor who was presiding wanted to talk to me afterwards about what I said.

“You know, if you’re going to be up there you are really going to have to watch what you say.”


“You have to watch your language when you are preaching.”

“WTF are you talking about?”  (Okay, I didn’t really say THAT… but I did inquire further as to what he meant.)

“Well, you said that people ‘screw up.’”


“Some people might take offense to that.  I actually know one of the people who was sitting in the pews and she would take offense to that.”

“Wait, ‘SCREW UP’ is considered offensive language?”

“For many people, yeah…”



“I thought that ‘screw up’ was the safe phrase to use when you didn’t want to drop the F-bomb!”

“Well, there are some people… not many but some… who know that and equivocate it as the same idea.”

I was stunned.  Just when I thought I had cleared a major hurdle to my ordination, it comes back to bite me in the… man, I don’t know what I am going to do.  I mean, I had already moved on to substituting OTHER curse words in my vocabulary, so confident was I that I had discovered an appropriate substitute for the F-bomb.  Now I have to re-work the whole plan.

My life had become a living example of the message of my reflection, because I now had no idea who I would be able to fix this on my own; it really would have to be an act of the Almighty for me to evolve in a colloquially appropriate manner.

Thank God for the word “fudge.”

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.