One of the interesting things (among many interesting things) about being a priest is my interactions with people whom I don't know. When I am out and about during the week, wearing my collar, people may stop me in crosswalks even in the middle of busy streets to tell me their name and ask me to pray for them. Occasionally someone calls me "Sister" or asks me if I am a nun. Women particularly will smile or even speak (some saying that they are glad to see that The Church has finally started ordaining women). Sometimes people nod at me or give me a little bow; occasionally I get an odd stare or even a hostile look but these are extremely rare. Mostly I am ignored, of course, as all of us are in a busy big city.
Outside of the crosswalk encounters, I also am privy to all kinds of small confessions and life stories. People tell me about their growing up in the church or about their faith or about their troubles. A recent death in the family or other family trouble - illness, addiction, rifts - someone in the hospital - a sick baby or mother or sister. They just naturally see me as someone in whom they can confide - store clerks, medical technicians, neighbors, cashiers - and maybe they have something on their minds and I come along with a listening ear. Sometimes they want to share good news - how God has blessed them in their lives. Sometimes they tell me the good news and it sounds authentic and sometimes it sounds like a worrysome question. God has indeed blessed them and maybe they are still feeling anxious and fearful.
It saddens me when the story is about how the church instilled fear or dread in them as children, about forced confession(s) or the constant pointing out of shortcomings and perceived failures, about living under a cloud of guilt and shame for nothing more than being a normal child, sometimes within a not so normal family. The threats of hell. One person told me of a person who lay dying of AIDS but would not let go because he had been browbeaten for so long about how he was going to hell to burn in eternal damnation -- who would allow himself to die in fear of that kind of fate? she asked. She told me how the chaplain had to get the family out of there and help the person into some kind of peace so that he could die.
I do say prayers for the people I come across like this, who tell me their secrets or their stories or just unburden themselves for a little while in hopes, I suppose, of a moment of peace. It amazes me that even for those to whom the church and religion have done great harm, they will trust me. I am sure the anonymity helps (even if they tell me a name, we all seem to know that's just an I.D. for me to use in my intercessions), and I guess I don't look too dangerous. It gives me hope that even those who have been so hurt are willing to risk trusting someone to help them stay connected to God in some way. Even if it's by proxy.