Two Peas In a Pod

So, what do you do all day? How many times have each of us heard that question and been the object of jokes from non-priest friends and the object of ridicule from non-priest enemies. After seeing us for one hour on Sunday, our friends who work 40-hour weeks only to come home and be parent and chauffeur and little league coach to their kids, typically do know what we do the other 39 hours of the week. But others do wonder what we do. It is one of those things where we never know what the “others” do until we walk in their shoes or at least shadow them for a while.

We see sports figures who are grossly overpaid and wonder what football players do the other 350 days of the year when they only play a couple of weeks’ worth of Sunday games (maybe a few on Monday nights).

I don’t know many sports figures, but growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., I knew government employees who worked for the State Department in diplomatic services. Even though I have had the privilege of being friends with Foreign Service employees, I am guilty of not ever knowing what they do all day. We only hear and see the U.S. Secretaries of State greeting other international dignitaries, waving as they come and go from Air Force 3 or whatever number they give their plane! We imagine planes at their beck and call, the best wines and foods, bowing in the East, hand shaking in the West, and we think, “Where do I sign up for these foreign service jobs.”

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Like the Church the State Department lives out the corporal work of mercy. Shutterstock photo

It is always interesting to drive through the Washington, D.C., DuPont Circle neighborhood known as Embassy Row and see the countless flags from around the world hanging outside grand buildings. One cannot help but wonder what goes on in these buildings.

The same way our secular friends do not have a clue about what we do, most of the U.S. population have no clue about what happens behind those walls. Once you get a glimpse of a day in the life of embassy workers, it is quite interesting to see the parallels between the two worlds — the sacred world of the Church and the secular world of the state.

Our Constitution may say that the sacred and the secular are separate, and so they are. They are as separate as two identical twins who share so much in common at times you cannot tell them apart — especially when you see their workings and hear their stories.

Maybe the quickest and most obvious similarity is the hierarchical and political (not in a good way) structure of the two. It is fascinating as a priest to go to a social event full of foreign service people and just sit back and take in the stories. Any priest could change the titles and names of members of the foreign service world and just plug in the titles and names of church personnel. The cast of characters is different, but the play is the same. Their ambassador is our ordinary. Their deputy ambassador is our vicar general. Their foreign service officer is the priest on the front lines. The ambassadors and ordinaries, the deputies and V.G.s, and the officers and priests all come and go every so often.

The support staff in the embassy and the support staff at the chancery or local parish stay through it all. They are the ones who have seen it all, and when the ambassador or ordinary or the officers or priests are not easy to work for, “this too shall pass, give it time” is the mantra said by both. When there is an ambassador opening at an embassy, it is like having a vacant see. Rumors fly, and speculation and behind-the-scenes conversations flow easily. There are hopes and dreams that this new recommendation by the State Department (a.k.a. bishop’s committee) to the President (a.k.a. pope) will be the right one. When the appointment is made, the conversations change from speculation to “do you know anybody from his (or her — in the secular world) former post (diocese) and what is he (or she) like? The new ambassador or the new ordinary is branded even before moving in.

Then there is the process of moving in. What does the ambassador do to the house? What does the ordinary do to the cathedral rectory or any priest to any rectory? Is the decor acceptable? What is going to get renovated this time? How much money is the state going to spend this time? How much money is the diocese or parish going to spend this time? The entitlement and clerical stories are the same. Different names, different titles — same story played out. The stories (albeit embellished and exaggerated in both secular and sacred realms) are legion.

It is often this “darker side” the populace sees and that receives the most press, but both state and Church have a brighter side. Just as they share the same secular stories, they share the same sacred stories. Their benevolent side is similar to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. This is the side that does not make the press enough: the sides where the Church is there for people and the state is there for people.

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Just as the Church and state (diplomatic corps) share the same secular stories, they share the same sacred stories. Their benevolent side is similar to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. This is the side that does not make the press enough. CNS photo

The corporal works of mercy call for us to comfort the sick, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead. As priests, these are typical occurrences. We visit parishioners who are sick in the hospital. The inmates at the local detention center may be visited by a group of church volunteers who offer a communion service, and we celebrate a funeral Mass fairly regularly. Do we ever think of the diplomat being dispatched to do such a thing? Either we took a page from their book or them from ours, but this is exactly what they do in very real, concrete and humanitarian ways.

I have heard stories of Americans imprisoned in another country. It does not matter whether the person is guilty or not guilty; an American diplomat is charged multiple times a year to visit the prisoner to assure that basic human rights are being met. If you have ever been in a U.S. prison, just imagine a Third-World prison. Those diplomatic visits might be the only contact with something familiar. The prisoner’s family may not be in a financial situation to visit, but at least a familiar face of a fellow American citizen arrives. The embassy in turn contacts the prisoner’s family to give reports on their loved one.

People don’t always die as planned. What happens when a lone U.S. traveler dies and there is no one to claim the body? Who identifies the body, when the family is not able to fly halfway around the world to identify, let alone claim, the body?

One of the most touching stories I have heard was of a young American who died in a foreign country. Dying alone is bad enough, but dying alone many time zones away is even worse. It was an embassy employee who sat vigil with the dying young man. The State Department lives out the corporal work of mercy to bury the dead. After calling the family to announce the death, the embassy pastorally cared for the grieving family who had no means to fly the body home. The family requested cremation, asking the diplomat, who happened to be a Roman Catholic (many are — it is a service industry job), to find a Catholic priest in a country where Catholics are 2 percent of the population to pray over the ashes before they were scattered. The diplomat did just that, relaying to the family all that happened and sending pictures of the place where the ashes were scattered. About a year later, when the family could travel to the country, the diplomat took them to the site so they could put closure on the death. Here is the secular world doing the most sacred of acts.

The stories are legion because the world, no matter what nation, what time zone, is full of humanity in need of care. It are stories like these that remind us that, while the Church and state are separate, they are doing the same basic good deeds for the good of humanity. What are we doing all day, we may ask each other. Probably the same thing — since being there is really 90 percent of the job in both worlds anyway.

FATHER CARRION is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese. pcarrion@archbalt.org