A Street Talk confession

Mark LaFlamme, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine
·5 min read

Feb. 23—This column will be followed by 10 Hail Marys, five Our Fathers and possibly the entire Angelus.

You know. Just to play it safe.

I'm just going to go ahead and admit it: I get uneasy when asked to write about religious matters. Before walking into a single church or making a simple phone call, I become filled with self-doubt, suddenly very vividly aware my own ignorance.

Am I going to talk to a priest? A pastor? A reverend or a rabbi? Is this a Catholic church? Protestant? Baptist?

Should I genuflect before addressing him or her? Is genuflecting even a thing in this particular house of worship?

Don't get me wrong. As a God-fearing fellow myself, I have nothing but enormous respect for the devout. In my experience, those who adhere to a strict religious practice are some of the best people on Earth. They have their moral codes built right in and they spend a good chunk of their lives examining those codes and forever vowing to do better.

These are the people I want as neighbors no matter where I go.

It's just that when I walk among them in their places of worship, it suddenly occurs to me that I haven't been exposed to any kind of church education since I was a wee lad — a lad who was much more interested in my pretty CCD classmates than I was lessons in a book.

My shame is great. And when it's time to talk to a church elder — the Big Guy, the Head Honcho — that lack of knowledge becomes more profound still.

As it is with so many things, my main course of action in these matters is typically to wildly overcompensate.

My panicked mind will reach for any religious terminology it can retrieve from those long-ago lessons and my mouth will fling every bit of it directly at the problem at hand.

"Good afternoon, Your Holiness Sir Reverend Pastor Preacherman," I will babble, genuflecting awkwardly and banging my knee on the corner of the poor man's desk.

I can never remember if and when I'm expected to make the sign of the cross, so I'll go ahead and give that a try, as well, poking myself in both eyes and knocking over a cup of tea in the process.

By this point, the priest or preacher or pastor is looking at this sweaty, babbling dork before him and wondering if he should call a doctor or an exorcist.

It's a weird little phobia I have. I become so afraid of uttering incorrect terminology or otherwise causing offense, I become a stuttering, blatting fool with a banged up knee and watering in both eyes.

Put me before a nun and forget about it. I'll submit to a knuckle rapping rather than try to utter complete and coherent sentences.

It makes no sense to me. I tell you, I could be asked to interview the president of these United States, whomever that happens to be these days, and not one bead of sweat would grace my forehead. My hands won't tremble and my knees won't knock. By and large, interviewing people is easy. You, the reporter, are in control of the dialogue and so what is there to fear?

It's just different when God is listening.

The irony is that I have yet to encounter a church leader who became visibly aghast at my lack of religious training. I've never been scolded or harangued for an incorrect utterance, and if I applied a wrong title here or there it was never brought to my attention.

Last week, I was asked to call some church leaders to get their thoughts on the governor's latest COVID restrictions. First up was Daniel Greenleaf, pastor of the Prince of Peace Parish, with five churches in the greater Lewiston area.

I did my research, oh yes. But it didn't help. On the Prince of Peace Parish website, the man is listed as the "Very Rev. Daniel P. Greenleaf, VG.

I don't know what the term "Very" means in this context and I have not an inkling what VG might stand for. I assume "Rev." is short for reverend, but Greenleaf is listed as a pastor, so what's the proper way to address him?

Clearly purgatory awaited me this very day if I didn't get this right, but then I caught a break, or possibly some kind of low-grade miracle. When the man himself returned my call, he said, "Hello, Mark, this is Father Greenleaf. How are you today?"

Father it is! And once that soul-threatening matter was safely out of the way, what followed was the most engaging and vigorous conversation I'd had in weeks. The good father was spirited and wise and very passionate and informed about the situation at hand. If he sensed my religious ignorance in any way, he never let on, and so I was able to carry on the conversation with confidence, never once poking myself in the eye or banging a knee.

It just goes to show ... I don't know, something. And while I committed no conversational sins to require penance during that particular assignment, I'll go ahead with the promised Hail Marys and Our Fathers, anyway.

I'm sure I did other stuff throughout the course of the day to warrant it.