My last job as a layman was being a science teacher in a prep seminary. I filled in when a teacher got a better job and left the school two weeks into the semester. It was a big transition for me from the very technical world of breast cancer research to explaining biology on a less sophisticated level. When it came to graduation, the auxiliary bishop, a future cardinal, started a conversation with me. Since I was never at a graduation as a faculty member before I had no idea that there was a protocol. Being the vice chairman of a political party I just stayed by his side. What I did not know was that there was a pecking order to who stands where. When I started to notice that no one was shaking my hand, I came to realize that something was wrong and so I moved to the end of the line. Needless to say, I was a bit embarrassed. Well, I should say very embarrassed. Later on in the evening, the bishop understood what happened and he said to me that he once greeted a woman whom he thought was pregnant and asked when the baby was due. Well, she wasn’t.
Courtesy is a moral virtue that is associated with justice and charity. In a secular world we may call it politeness or good manners. In the 1970s authority became suspect and movies had plots that attacked all the major professions such as medicine, law enforcement, etc.. With that special consideration to doctors, priests, judges, etc. began to wane. My seminary rector, now a cardinal, made an interesting remark about when he was a military chaplain. He said that in the service, you had to earn the title of “father.” It did not come automatically. It is an interesting point and when I worked in very anti-Catholic environments that is precisely what I had to do. In two of my assignment I had to take the subways to get to work. When the sex abuse scandals broke out, it was pretty uncomfortable having people reading the stories in the papers and then looking at me. But even in those times I was able to win the people over – even to the point of actually being greeted and regaining the title of “Father.”
Basic courtesy is due to everyone because we are made in the image and likeness of God. Courtesy is not automatic. Our fallen nature can easily turn on us and we can let out an ethnic or racial slur. Do we really mean it? That is a question that we all have to discern. Discourtesy is generally a venial sin, but it can become mortal when it becomes frequent and unpleasant, but especially when it wounds a person. It seems now that people are looking for us to slip so a big issue can be raised and maybe a few dollars to be gained.
In the Gospel Jesus tells us how to behave at a wedding. He advises us to be humble about it. One of Jesus’ calling cards is “I am meek and humble of heart.” But He makes a point to show us how our fallen nature can make us think too highly of ourselves especially in a worldly manner.
Our social behavior is also regulated by societal norms, but sometimes these norms are not Christian and cannot be adapted because they are sinful. Dress at the beach is not dress for the church. I learned a few lessons when I visited the Holy Land one summer. During the day the temperature was generally 125 degrees and at night it cooled down to 90 degrees. During the day I would wear shorts until one day I tried to enter a church and a man at the door would not let me in. Instead he gave me a sheet to cover my legs. I thought that was a bit extreme, but he was not going to let me in the church without it. When I visited the Vatican, women were not let into St. Peters if they had bear arms. Do we talk in church? Every so often someone, who generally never steps into a church, experiences a deep trauma. In desperation they come to church to gain some kind of solace. But is that prevented by talkers? One of the experiences I like most about coming to church early in the morning is the quiet. There are a number of people who came early just to experience it. But then the talkers come and disturb the whole environment. That is real discourtesy. I even see people still coming to church and taking a swig out of a plastic bottle. What does that say for all those who contributed to the new pews? Let us reflect on our own behavior in church. Are we optimizing our approach to God or are we more of a distraction to the people around us?