Father A. was standing on line outside the DMV today, waiting to re-title his truck. The sun was hot, the line was long, and the hour marked on the door had come and gone. The crowd was restless.
Eventually, two women came out, looking visibly shaken. One of them, dressed in manager's clothing, announced that a DMV worker had been killed in a car accident, and that the staff was too shaken to do business. The office would not be opening that day.
She spoke in a low, quiet voice and it took the message some time to penetrate the outdoor crowd. We ourselves had to repeat it several times to the deaf old man behind us. Some of the people headed back to their cars; others stood in silence, absorbing the news.
And one woman started shouting.
"This is a government office," she shouted at the manager. "You have no right to close it! Did you get permission?" You have no right!" The manager, a much smaller woman -- and one who looked absolutely frail at that moment -- answered quietly, in controlled tones. She was obviously used to irate customers; after all, she works for the DMV. Yes, she had spoken to the people upstairs; yes, she had permission. But the angry woman, hovering over the manager's head, wasn't done yelling. She was loud and aggressive.
A little reluctantly, Father A. slipped in his collar tab and came forward. To the second DMV woman, the one wearing a safety vest, he quietly said, "I'm a member of the clergy. Can I help out?" A minute or two later, he was shown into the kitchenette, where the rest of the morning crew sat -- four or five women, most of them sobbing loudly, one or two frozen with grief. The woman who had been killed was very young, very popular, and had only just achieved her full-time status with the department. Her friends were in shock.
Father A. did what you do in those circumstances. It took a while. But here's the thing: he never introduced himself to anyone except the manager (and even that was only after ten or fifteen minutes). To the rest, he was just the priest who showed up in the moment of crisis, to pray with them and help them focus their grief. They didn't know his name, and that was just fine because -- for that little while -- they didn't need a person, an I-thou relationship. They needed a symbol, a sign of God's presence and concern.
Sure, this might all have unfolded the same way without a black shirt and a strip of cheap plastic at the neck. But more explanations would have been needed, more introductions -- more time spent on Fr. A instead of the important things. And it is quite possible that, if he had been in civvies, he'd never have had the chance to help.
As Jesus said only yesterday, "Be dressed for action and keep your lamps lit."