Father Mark Pearson can see trouble coming as he walks the sidewalks of Boston.
He can see some faces harden after people make eye contact and then see his clerical collar. Some look away in disgust. A few men deliberately switch to a collision course. Pearson said one or two angry pedestrians have spat on him.
“If someone is upset, they may find a way to bump into you or give you a shove,” he said. “Then they say sometime like, ‘Oh excuse me, FATHER. Hey, did you molest anybody today, FATHER.’ …
“I try to just say something simple like, ‘God bless you anyway, my friend.’ “
Pearson is not a Roman Catholic priest, but other Bostonians don’t know that. He is a veteran Anglican renewal leader who is now a canon theologian in a global body called the Charismatic Episcopal Church. Nevertheless, he still wears clerical clothing as he goes about his life and work. He also encourages other clergy in his church — many of whom are former evangelical or Pentecostal pastors — to do the same.
This latest round of Catholic sex-abuse scandals have caused Pearson to reflect on what it means to be visually labeled as a priest.
The tensions in his hometown are unbelievable, he said. Ordinarily, Boston is the kind of place where police may call for priests to help break up fights. Now the mighty Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston is considering filing for bankruptcy due to its mounting legal woes. And in the pews, devout Catholics are experiencing shock and grief. Others have crossed over into fury.
Pearson tries to remember this when hit with an icy stare or a sharp elbow.
“Some people are jerks,” he said. “Right now they’re being a jerk about this. Next week they’ll be a jerk about something else. But you never know when you are dealing with someone who is truly in spiritual pain, someone who has experienced abuse or who has a loved one who was abused.”
Innocent priests are in pain, too. They feel like they have targets pinned on their black jackets. Some priests — in Boston and elsewhere — have reportedly stopped wearing their distinctive clerical garb much of the time.
Pearson is convinced this is a tragic loss, both for the priests and the communities they serve. A clerical collar is more than a symbol, he said. It is a sign that God is present in the gritty and numbing realities of daily life.
“There are still many people who need to see someone is available and ‘on duty’ for them,” wrote Pearson, in a Charismatic Episcopal Church newsletter. “While the general mood … has changed, there are still people who come up to me for a word of comfort or for prayer.
“I’ll risk the abuse of some in order to be available to people in need.”
The Protestant pastor Pearson knew as a child always blended into a crowd, with his standardized “brown suit, white shirt and brown tie with blue blobs on it.” This pastor was dressed for work, but only the members of his flock knew who he was.
Wearing a clerical collar is different, for better and for worse.
Some people are offended and some are encouraged. But everyone knows a priest is in their midst, said Pearson. It is sad that some Catholic priests are even considering leaving their clerical clothing at home. They are hiding from the needy.
A few months ago, Pearson said he visited a “very Italian Catholic parish” in Boston’s north end. In the foyer, a troubled man rushed up and asked when was the next time for confessions. Pearson looked around and did not see a priest in the empty sanctuary. So he borrowed a confession booth.
Afterwards, the parish priest approached — wearing a simple blue sports shirt — and thanked Pearson for hearing the man’s confession.
“That troubled soul didn’t know to approach this other priest, because he couldn’t see that he was a priest,” said Pearson. “But I was wearing a uniform that said, ‘I am a priest. Approach me. That is what I am here for. Approach me.’ That is what wearing that clerical collar is all about.”