One of the most difficult things for me to grow into as a seminarian has been the identity ‘Seminarian’. I remember in my first few months being very frustrated by what I saw as a shift from being “Colby who is a Seminarian” to “a Seminarian whose name is Colby.” That’s not just semantics. This shift is apparent in many situations. As a random 20-year old dude walking into a new parish, it’s pretty rare for me to be greeted or talked to by a stranger after Mass. But, put on a cassock and people line up to shake your hand, take you out to dinner, and ask your opinion on pressing life questions. As a regular dude talking to someone about life and faith at the doctor’s office or on an airplane, they usually ask a few questions and move on. But, tell them you’re a seminarian and get ready for a long conversation.
It doesn’t bother me that people want to talk to me, ask for advice, or have substantial conversations. I love talking to people, hearing about lives/fears/struggles/joys, and sharing life with them. These encounters are usually the highlight of my day. The difficulty is feeling that I’m being engaged not because of who I am but because of a title I have or clothes I wear. I want it to be normal for everyone at the parish to talk about prayer and faith struggles, and not just with the seminarian/priest because ‘that’s what you’re supposed to do’. I want to be asked questions because I’ve won people’s trust or given them a reason to listen to me, not because of a misperceived sense of clerical power.
Interestingly, I gained a great deal of peace and clarity on this issue while watching Hunger Games: Mockingjay (thanks sister!). Bear with me here; this could be good.
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Katniss – “Don’t film me in there. I can’t help them.”
Producer – “Just let them see your face.”
Rando 1 -“ Katniss? What are you doing here?”
Katniss – “I came to see you.”
Rando 2 – “Are you here to fight with us?”
Katniss – “I am, I will.”
*Cue inspiring music, people filled with hope, and a hand gesture that means more than its simple, physical action*
The Mockingjay is a Symbol. When the people look at her, they don’t see a simple girl from a poor district who unintentionally became the center of a power struggle. Instead, they see a girl who fought against oppressive power and brings hope that the future will be better. She is in their midst and points to a movement. She hasn’t done anything for them individually. She’s broken, messed up, and not deserving of power. She isn’t a good fighter and has no idea how to lead a government. She can’t heal wounds and is in no place to offer strategic advice. She struggles the entire movie with being granted a following she doesn’t want.
But the people don’t care – They just see the Mockingjay.
People need symbols to express deeper realities, and this isn’t a weakness; it’s part of who we are as human beings. We are physical beings animated by a soul, and praise God that He gives us physical things to express the reality of grace in our lives. True Symbols aren’t just pointers; they embody the thing they signify. In this true sense, Sacraments are symbols, the Church is a symbol, Marriage is a symbol, and the Seminarian/Priest is a symbol. The priest doesn’t just represent holy things, he is truly tasked by God to convey grace and forgive sins.
I’ve come to see this identity as a good thing and am learning to more deeply internalize the reality that Seminarian IS who I am. It’s not just something I do. Rather, the life of a priest is one of taking on a new identity – Alter Christus – another Christ. The beauty of the priesthood is that people don’t have to ask, “can I trust this person?” They see a priest and know that man will treat them as Christ would. They know that the seminarian IS someone they can talk about prayer and faith struggles with. Yes, they can do it with others as well, but the Church has given people a symbol – a guarantee that this person, regardless of their personal failings, can be a bridge to God. And this isn’t just a front or a ruse, he spends years training for the task and is given the grace to fulfill it at ordination. The personal identity, Colby, isn’t diminished, it’s integrated and subsumed.
Maybe people should be more open to talking to strangers and not feel that clergy are the only arbiters of spiritual sharing, but that’s a tragic failing of Christian community rather than an issue of the priesthood as such. So I’m learning to stop questioning why the person in front of me wants to talk, overcoming bitterness that I’m singled out because of my collar and not my name, and growing into the identity that will be sealed in a few years at ordination. Now, I’m celebrating the fact that God is giving me these opportunities to enter into people’s lives so that I can learn to give them Jesus, and not just “Colby who is a Seminarian.”