Cassocks and Coffee

Cassocks and Coffee

Today’s guest blogger, Joe McHugh, is a spiritual director, retreat leader, teacher, and writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the National Catholic Reporter. His book, Startled by God: Wisdom from Unexpected Places, will be published by Franciscan Media in September 2013. He can be contacted at

My head got bumped last Sunday at Starbucks when some noisy and apparently clumsy person occupied the table behind me. I proudly resisted the temptation to turn around and glare at the intruder, but after a couple of minutes, I refilled my coffee just to see who unceremoniously dared to disturb my peace.

Turns out it was a cherubic-faced twenty-something guy wearing a roman collar and black cassock. I’ve seen plenty of priests wearing roman collars there before, but the cassock—that really threw me. The only conclusion I could draw was he was doing his bit to witness to the Church’s presence in secular culture.

I’ll bet there were people there who admired his gutsy wardrobe choice, but others probably just wrote him off as an anachronism or even hated him for what he represented. I get the need for witness, but I have to admit uncertainly about how to do it without alienating those you want to influence.

Like many (woops, I was going to say “too many”) young clerics, he probably believes the Church needs to confront culture. But I can’t help wondering if a witness that challenges rather than confronts might have merit. Can the Church and culture complement each other rather than just be adversaries? In other words, does all witness today have to be confrontational and absolutist? For the sake of both Church and culture, I hope not.

But maybe this baby-faced priest has something to teach me.  Next time he comes in, maybe I’ll risk a conversation.


Featured photo: artur84/


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  • Mendigo

    It seems to me that being confrontational is appropriate when it is done as a matter of justice, e.g. when someone who is poor (broadly defined) is being hurt or shut out of the kingdom because of some unfair or wrong-headed actions or policy. But to be confrontational as a first step in witnessing, before relationship has been given a chance, is to further alienate the church from those who most need it, those whom Jesus longs to save. Also, all of us, and especially your neighbor in a cassock, if he were in confrontation mode, must remember that if Jesus were at Starbucks that day and decided to get confrontational, the record shows that the young cleric would have been the most likely one at the receiving end of Jesus’ words!

  • K. Clader

    I wouldn’t be too optimistic about that conversation. Too many people don’t want to listen. (Of course, in saying “too many” (unlike you), I open myself up to the same criticism.) Give it a shot and let us know how it turns out.

  • Davik Kay

    As a new member of St. Gregory’s Russian Orthodox Church near St. Petersburg, FL. I particularly enjoyed the Sunday after worship lunches. As a new Orthodox, (Is that an oxymoron, or what?) I had lots of questions. Much to my pleasant surprise I met a monk there. Joe, the monk, always dressed in plain black shirt and slacks. I suspected he was a mechanic. Man, did he know a lot!
    Father Stephen was replaced when he served eucharist to my Catholic mother-in-law (who only spoke Portugeese, and like my wife was sure this was just old European Catholic.)
    His replacement was a much younger guy from New York with beautiful matching hair and beard to his waist. Somehow, he acted insulted when I asked him if he was often mistaken for a hippie.

  • Davik Kay

    Reminds me of a young Orthodox priest who had beautiful long hair and beard, and was from New York. He seemed offended when I asked if he was often mistaken on the street for a hippie or a rock star.

  • Bob Pierson

    We must be careful not to judge a book by its cover, though sometimes it’s quite tempting, especially when it seems that someone goes to the trouble of selecting an ostentatious cover. Nevertheless, he might be a really nice guy and you might learn something from him if you decide to engage him in conversation. Or perhaps you might be able to teach him something, if he’s open to learning. I know you are. Peace!