Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
Recently I heard a priest describe something that happened to him in the early days of his priesthood.
From his age, I’m guessing this would have been the mid-1970s.
He said that, for the first twenty-five years of his priesthood, he had really long hair (down to his waist, if he stretched it out) and a full beard.
At one point, he was assigned to a parish and came to know a local gentleman by phone but not by sight.
In one phone conversation the gentleman said that he really respected the priest and wanted his help with his son, who he felt was “going over to the other side.”
By this, he meant that his son was getting rebellious and not wanting to have his hair cut.
The gentleman asked if the priest could come over to dinner and perhaps talk to his son.
“I’d love to come to dinner,” the priest replied.
At this point in the homily, several people in the congregation laughed, knowing the kind of punchline that was coming.
So the priest went to dinner.
But, as for the topic of hair length, he said, “It never came up.”
Big laugh from the congregation.
Personally, I was cringing.
First, a disclaimer: I get the humor in this situation.
It’s a standard trope: Person A is unaware of a relevant fact about Person B, assumes the opposite, and then gets surprised.
Comedy fish in a barrel.
I can think of lots of instances where this trope is used, like that episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Rob and Laura Petrie are driven frantic with worry by the thought that their newborn may have been accidentally switched with the baby of another couple with a similar last name.
They talk to the other couple by phone, and though the other couple is quite sure that the babies weren’t switched, they agree to come over.
When they do, Rob and Laura discover that the other couple is black and thus, if the children had been switched, it would have been obvious. All their worry was for nothing.
A contemporary use of a long-standing comedy trope. For some older ones, just think of all those plays where Shakespeare has women disguised as men and fooling even the men closest to them before the Big Reveal at the end of the play.
Big laughs in the 1500s. Shakespeare used the device in around a fifth of his plays.
Or go back a little further, to when the two disciples on the road to Emmaus suddenly discovered that they had been hosting Jesus himself.
So yeah, there is inherent humor in this kind of situation.
But I was still cringing.
What Was He Thinking?
Anecdotes told by priests in the course of homilies are often of dubious historicity and are frequently intended for rhetorical and entertainment value rather than factual accuracy, so the priest may have been embellishing what really happened.
I hope so.
But taking him at his word, what was he thinking?
I imagine that he was thinking he would teach his phone friend a lesson of some sort, such as that you shouldn’t look down on people with certain hairstyles.
After all, the man had come to respect the priest through their phone conversations—enough to ask for help with his son—and yet the priest had precisely the kind of hairstyle that wasn’t to the man’s taste.
Perhaps the priest thought that showing up would provide a dramatic illustration of the point and thus teach the man a lesson—maybe one that would let him get along better with his son.
Maybe these or similarly high-minded things were what were going through the priest’s head.
But if the story is as he told it, there’s something that seems not to have been going through his mind.
What He Wasn’t Thinking
What the priest wasn’t thinking about was what his sudden appearance with long hair would actually likely do to the gentleman.
It would likely humiliate him.
In his own home.
In front of his son.
At a time when generational tensions were especially high.
Think about it: The man had gone to significant lengths to set up an encounter between the priest and his son in which he hoped the priest will straighten out his son on the subject of hair length.
And the priest led the man to believe that he was amenable to that plan.
But really, the priest was planning to turn the tables on the father.
The father would have every right to feel betrayed by the priest.
Further, the man may well have told the son that the priest was coming over and would be discussing hair length with him. If so, the father would feel even more humiliated by the priest when the he showed up and reversed expectations.
Even if the father hadn’t told the son about the expected conversation, the son knew his father’s views about long hair. For the priest to show up without warning the father would not only put the father in an embarrassing position, it would enable the son ever after to say, “Well, that priest you like so much has long hair. Why can’t I?”
The priest thus undermined the father’s authority in his own home.
What the Priest Could Have Done
Instead of deciding to teach the father a lesson by shock treatment, the priest could have thought more about how he could really help the man.
Instead of simply saying, “I’d love to come to dinner,” he could have said, “I’d love to come to dinner—but there is something you should know first. I have long hair myself, and I don’t want to do anything that would undermine your authority with your son. If you’d like me to come, I’d be honored to be your guest, but I totally understand if you’d rather I not come. I know how delicate situations can be between parents and children, and I don’t want to make your situation any more difficult. I want to do whatever I can to serve you and your family.”
Taking this open, honest, and supportive approach would have done several things.
For a start, it would have avoided making the father feel humiliated, betrayed, and undermined by the priest.
It would have avoided throwing gasoline on a tense family situation (possibly even sparking a family argument after the priest left).
Most importantly, it would not have communicated to the man the message that priests may humiliate, betray, and undermine you in front of your family.
And, as an added bonus, it may have even opened the man’s eyes to the fact that not all longhairs are bad. They can even care about you and try to help and support you.
Taking this approach might have led the man to respect the priest even more.
But if the event happened as the priest related it, he chose a much riskier and less loving path.
A Warning for All of Us
Of course, the priest is not alone in taking the kind of approach he did.
We can all fall into that.
Sometimes we rationalize our actions by saying that we’re going to teach a person a lesson by “shock treatment” or “tough love” when in reality we’re just being selfish. We’re not genuinely thinking about how to help the other person.
This is a constant danger in apologetics, and I’ve fallen victim to it myself.
To my shame, I vividly recall times when I took this approach in responding to a non-Catholic or even a fellow Catholic who was being rude.
It’s a human temptation, and it doesn’t just apply in apologetics. It applies in all areas of life.
Of course, sometimes, there is just no way to avoid a blunt lesson.
But frequently, there is—and the fault is ours if we don’t look for ways to be helpful and supportive of others, even when they disagree with us or come off abrasively.
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