I’ve grown up playing Ping-Pong with priests in the backyard. My parents, two rather sociable people, are probably acquainted with more priests than they can count on two clasped hands. I don’t find it that strange, though my friends often do when I tell them that most of the priests I know have wicked competitive streaks, because men of the cloth have always surrounded me. They laugh loudly, take their tea with milk and honey, and do pretty much everything regular people do, which amazed me at first. Discussing the merits of Of Montreal’s latest album with a clergyman is comparable to reading US Weekly’s “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” section and realizing that Cameron Diaz pumps her OWN GASOLINE—the feeling is one of acute surrealism. Are they allowed to do that, one might ask? The answer is a resounding and bizarre yes. Priests are more like us than we know and perhaps the strangest part of the whole equation is that when priests come to the Lazar household, the dinner parties are infinitely more fun. I have pictures in a milk crate of a six-year-old version of myself leaning into the black pant leg of an unbothered looking Father Leo as he is encircled by guests, roaring at a “so this priest and a rabbi walk into a bar” joke. Priests, as I have learned, are very into of being the life of the party.
The most memorable instance of a dinner party made livelier by the priests in attendance was the Great Ping-Pong Show Down of 2006. Father John (whose full name will forever be abbreviated to FJC for swift and efficient game-commentating purposes) showed up with a gleam in his eye one spring evening. My mother, on an ingenious whim, pulled out the Ping-Pong table in the hopes that all of the children would busy themselves with it while the adults chattered and drank their amber drinks. She never could have predicted how powerfully the fate of the evening was affected by this action. Father John, a man in his mid-thirties, walked by the table, picking up one of the wooden paddles and bouncing a ping-pong ball on it. I remember my aunt coming over and jokingly challenging Father to a quick game, first to fourteen points wins. Without missing a beat, Father John whipped the tiny ball cleanly over the net, smugness radiating from him like waves of heat. This is when all of the fun, all of the lightheartedness evaporated immediately from the air. Every single guest gathered to watch as the two battled it out, the slamming their paddles against the ball and making sounds like furious nuclear popcorn. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such fury in a priest’s face. To be honest, it was pretty scary to see this docile man spring to life in such a way that I assumed priests were incapable of. In a deliciously dramatic turn of events, the score was 13 to 13 and before the game point was served, it was so silent among those watching that you could practically hear the bones in the players’ hands curling and unfurling in preparation of a blistering final point. My aunt served the ball as if in slow motion and as we watched the small white orb in its arc across the table, we all could see where it was headed. The ball hit Father John squarely in his velvet cheek, red and slick with perspiration, a mini-slap to his person. The stillness was unbearable, I remember covering my ears to try and keep the silence out. Father John looked up after the longest moment I’ve experienced and smirked at my aunt, saying, “So I guess I’ll be seeing you in confession, then?” The laughter was blindingly loud, like rolling storms or snapping metal springs on a trampoline, and it was good.
I tend to forget that priests are real people with real interests outside of the church. They aren’t all cut from the same cloth. One priest might be a shy, avid gardener while another may possess a biting wit that he uses to teach philosophy at a local university. It is an amazing thing to watch a priest fall down the stairs (which, I must tell you, is markedly less hilarious than watching nuns run in habits. YouTube it, I dare you) or drop a coin-sized dollop of hummus on his starched pants. To see a priest blowing bubbles in your backyard or crying quietly into a handkerchief. To see a priest shouting at another person or smacking a little celluloid ball so hard that you think the paddle might have splintered. Seeing priests as humans is something that I learned to do and though the collar has always seemed to me like less of a cleric uniform and more a trendy type of formal wear that only certain people at the party are allowed to wear, appreciating priests as people with feelings and bodies and interests and lives is something that continues to strike me every time I am offered the chance to compete in a rousing match of Ping-Pong.