Priests and police officers have a lot in common, and it isn’t just the spiffy uniform.
Think about this: You’re cruising down I-35 or MoPac, when traffic isn’t bumper to bumper if that’s possible, and in your mirror you notice a police car behind you. The officer isn’t after you — no lights and siren — but what do you do? Slow down and drive carefully, of course.
Even if you’re already a law-abiding citizen behind the wheel, chances are you are still going to be a little on edge and be on your best behavior when you are in view of an authority figure who can pull you over and slap you with a citation.
And then what happens when the police car passes you and disappears into the traffic ahead? You relax a little bit, go back to normal, hit the gas pedal and pick up the pace again.
Now let’s change the scenario from cop to clergy. After a long and hectic day at work, you decide to join your coworkers at happy hour to unwind. Your favorite Austin restaurant is crowded, and the tables are close together. Maybe you and your friends are complaining about the job or even the boss. The people at the next table leave, and a priest sits down. I think many people would be little more careful with their actions and words knowing that they’re sitting right near a priest.
I love asking priests this question: When you are out and about in the community, is it noticeable how differently you are treated when in priestly garb compared to regular clothes? The answer is almost always a resounding yes. One priest even joked that he always wears his collar to the barber because he gets a free haircut that way. If he were just another customer, he’d be paying full price.
When a priest is in regular clothes and running a quick errand, to those around him he’s just a stranger. But when he’s dressed as a priest, many people shape up and act differently.
I asked a similar question to a law enforcement officer: When you are in a police car on the highway, how obvious is it that everyone around you slows down? He said it happens all the time and even causes traffic tie ups because some drivers slow down abruptly or drive below the speed limit when they see a cop.
The different treatment that authority figures receive when in uniform makes be sad. I always try to be on my best behavior in front a priest. But shouldn’t I be on my best behavior in front of everyone? Just the same, I try to drive extra carefully and safely in front of a police officer. But shouldn’t I drive safely and carefully in front of everyone?
Maybe we should assume everyone we encounter is a priest. Or better yet, we know that priests act in persona Christi. So we would all be better human beings, Christians, Catholics, and yes, drivers, if we remember to see the face of Jesus in everyone.