I know well and have known many priests during my earthly span and I hope to be around long enough to get to know even more.
And so, over the years, I have had many conversations, discussions, and even friendly arguments with priests, and most of them are normal guys. They have opinions and many of them even have short tempers, not unlike me. Talking to them about various subjects is like talking to most other men. So it always surprises me when I hear it. You know what I am talking about.
The Priest Voice.
The priest voice is that cloying sing-songy version of the Mr. Rogers voice which is often heard at the back of the Church or on the front steps as the priest greets parishioners as they are leaving. The same priest who was heatedly arguing with me just the other day over immigration reform suddenly speaks as if he is a cross between some imagined version of Mother Cabrini and my daughter’s pre-school teacher Miss Annie.
“Oh hellooooo! Oh, thank yooooooouu! Oh yeessss! Isn’t it such a beautiful day? Oh, God bless yooouu. Thank yooooooouu. Have a nice day!”
What happened? Why is he talking to everyone like they are four years old or on their last legs in an old age home? Do they teach this at seminary?
This strange phenomenon is not confined to the greeting line. I have had priests I know, even some I know well, do it to me at the start of a conversation either in person or on the phone. It takes them a few moments to realize with whom they are speaking and to transition into a normal speaking voice. What’s going on here? Why are they so frequently and suddenly possessed by the spirit of Fred Rogers?
I puzzled and puzzled over this until my puzzler was sore. Why do they do it? At first blush, it would seem a foolishly zealous effort to be seen as “nice” and “likable.” The thing is, it’s not nice and it’s not likable, at least not for me. In reality, it often seems condescending and it actually puts distance between the priest and the person with whom he is speaking. So why? Distance?
And then it struck me. This may be the reason that many priests do it. Maybe it is a protection mechanism. They need the distance.
As a priest, your life can be a tough existence. Every day and night, somebody needs something from you. They put demands on you. Look to you for guidance. Look to you for faith. Look to you for solace. Look to you for answers. For sure, it is a privilege to serve God in this unique way, but I am sure it can be very difficult as well. After all, these are the same “normal guys” I referenced earlier.
Moreover, it occurs to me that when I call my priest friend on the phone, there might be a reason why it takes him a moment to transition. I may be the sanest person he has spoken to all day, sane being a relative term of course. Priests deal with hosts of the kooky all day. In my experience, more than any other places, kooks gravitate to art galleries and churches. I don’t know why, they just do. Of course, kooks need pastoral care as much as, if not more than, any other person. But I suppose it can get to you much in the same way sickness and suffering can get to a nurse. Many nurses can seem gruff and anesthetized to suffering, while at the same time they give such excellent care.
Nurses get hard and businesslike, priests develop the priest voice. Let’s face it, if I had to deal with scores of the piously peculiar every day, I would develop a few defense mechanisms too.
I am not sure if I am on to something here or if Fred Rogers really is a serial possessor, but I have decided not let it annoy me as much. (Isn’t that big of me?) We are all entitled to our defense mechanisms.
All that said, when a priest uses the “priest voice” during a homily, I still reserve the right to read the bulletin instead of listening. I have my defense mechanisms too.