by Elizabeth Felicetti
Because I’m an introvert, Sunday morning after-service greeting lines are sometimes the most challenging parts of being a priest for me.
At my first church in Virginia Beach, where I was the assistant rector, people commented more about my husband or my hair in the greeting line than the content of my sermon. My husband Gary was in the Coast Guard, stationed in Washington, DC, and traveled extensively. He was able to be in church about two Sundays a month. Comments in the greeting line were consistently either, “How wonderful that Gary could here today” or “Where is Gary, today?”
There were two ways the hair comments would go:
- “You cut your hair!”
- “You must be letting your hair grow out.”
I suspected that comments about appearance were due to my gender, but my male boss insisted that he received them, too. In the three and a half years we worked together, I only noticed this the first time he wore the rose chasuble. Churches who use rose vestments only do so two Sundays per year, “Refreshment” Sundays, i.e., the third Sunday in Advent and the fourth Sunday in Lent.
“Pink looks good on you, Father Bob,” people said to him; or, “That pink really shows off your eyes!” He would respond, “This is not pink. It’s rose!”
From then on, he encouraged me to wear the chasuble when it was Refreshment Sunday. “Are you afraid they will tease you for wearing pink again?” I asked. He insisted it was rose. I had lots of comments when I wore the pink. Apparently, it looked great with my hair, regardless of length.
In seven years as a rector at my current church, I have only had one comment about my hair. (Rather than celebrating this as a triumph of being appreciated for my ministry without regard to gender, I worry that my hair has become less fabulous.) As rector, the greeting line is typically a litany of complaints, usually couched as questions, such as;
“Why is it so cold in there? You probably don’t notice because of all those robes, but we’re old and we’re cold.”
“Why weren’t the parking lot lights on when we came for choir practice last Tuesday?”
“It’s so hot in there. Aren’t you dying in all those robes?”
“When are we going back to the traditional fraction anthem?”
There is also the occasional opportunity for sacramental instruction, such as when a man asked me if he could bring his dog back for me to un-bless it; because ever since I’d blessed the dog, it thought it got to sleep on the bed.
Hair aside, comments about appearance persist. One woman, who has since left the church, would compliment my appearance whenever she was especially angry with me.
In both my current church and previous church, I instituted a Holy Saturday service. Most Episcopal churches celebrate Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and then skip ahead to Easter. No Eucharist is to be celebrated on Holy Saturday. The only vestment worn is a simple black cassock.
The first time I led such a service, at the church where I was an assistant, I stood in the greeting line, eyes downcast, shaking hands if they were offered to me. One elderly woman detested any acknowledgement that Jesus actually died. The day before, on Good Friday, she pointed out to me that a previous priest used to end his Good Friday sermon with, “It’s Good Friday, but Sunday’s coming!” She thought I needed to cheer up a bit during Holy Week. Given this comment from her the previous day, I was surprised to see her as one of the Holy Saturday remnant.
She was as chipper as the day before but sensed that we were being a bit quieter on this solemn occasion than she deemed normative, so she lowered her voice as she beamed at me and exclaimed, “You look so pretty in black!”
Jesus is dead, I thought; and you are commenting on my cassock?
I don’t mean to sound cranky. I know I am as bad about this as anyone else. Sometimes I notice a necklace or a pair of shoes when I am distributing communion, and I have to stop myself from handing out compliments along with the body of Christ.
Sometimes I catch myself commenting on the clothes of little girls who come through the Sunday greeting line, dressed to kill in colorful dresses and sparkling shoes. I try to stop myself, to instead comment on their contribution to the children’s sermon, or to look at the pictures they colored in their Junior Sunday Papers.
Once, coming through the greeting line, one young girl who was a long-time member was showing the ropes of our church to a new girl. They cut to the front of the greeting line, and the first girl hugged me and turned to the newcomer and said, “This is Pastor Elizabeth. She is in charge of the whole place.” The second girl, without breaking eye contact with the first, hugged my legs sideways and shot back, “I know that.
The Rev. Elizabeth Felicetti is the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, and is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Writing at Spalding University. Her work essays have appeared in The Christian Century, The Other Journal, Modern Loss, The Grief Diaries and JMWW Journal. She tweets @bizfel.
Cartoon by Jay Sidebotham