Four priests walk into a bar. Then the bartender says, “What’ll it be?”
Got your attention? Sure got mine — and I have no blessed clue what comes next.
And here it comes: When I was a teenager in northern New Jersey, my family went to church every Sunday. In that part of New Jersey at that time, this Roman Catholic church was bland, bleached brick, a contemporary version of cathedral with soaring ceiling and tall stained glass windows.
Our congregation was a large one. On Sunday mornings, station wagons would screech to a halt in acres of parking lot in orderly rows for a quick getaway. Families tumbled out of them like they were clown cars, countless children in stair step birth order with scrubbed faces, starched dresses and too-short dress pants.
Four priests celebrated mass, counseled and oversaw a diverse flock. They rotated responsibilities for Sunday mornings so that in the course of a year, you were likely to attend mass led by each one of them. Over the years, you learned what to expect.
Father John was the pastor. Stern, old, judgmental and wise, he frightened children and adults alike. He harangued us if collections were not robust enough. His clear, ringing tones echoed rules and expectations. Come in late to his mass and expect stinging reproach from the lectern in an aside about those who fail to put God in the center of their lives.
Father Richard was the second priest, presumed to be cool since his hair was long, curling over his collar — and he was young — only in his thirties and decades younger than most. He led religious education and the casual guitar mass and retreats intended to keep young people engaged with the church. His masses were relaxed with a hip message and earnest entreaties to go out and do good.
Father Paul was the third one. He was a mild placeholder, not taking the lead in any particular area, beaming and imploring and saying the monotone mass.
Father Truro was the fourth priest. Dark, intense, smart, and deep, he was the favorite priest of most. Many appreciated the brevity of his pithy, well-crafted sermons. Others, like myself, admired the way his simple, everyday story broke open wonder and deep thinking. At times, his short pieces felt like impressive koans while other Sundays they pierced your heart and forever changed the way that you thought and felt.
When my fiance and I arranged to be married at that church, Father Richard told us that Father Truro had left the parish for a monastic role. I wasn’t surprised at his evolution as a devout man, but I was disappointed. How wonderful it would have been to be married by a priest so close to spirit, to love, to the heart of life!
Doing my best to keep my face under control, we set our plans with Father Richard and were married seven months later, developing our own koans, stories and imponderables. When I write, I struggle for the simplicity, direct, humor-filled wisdom of Father Truro, knowing that coming anywhere close is a genuine accomplishment.
Four priests walk into a bar. The bartender asks them what they’ll have. The dark, intense, sometimes troubled one tells him a story.