It was the first weekend of Masses for the new pastor, the Rev. Tony Zimmer. The priest had just arrived at St. Anthony on the Lake in Pewaukee, Wis., a suburb 20 miles from the heart of Milwaukee. I knew Father Zimmer from his previous parish, had always enjoyed his humor and style of presiding and attended one of the Masses that day. I suspected his first homily at St. Anthony parish would not disappoint.
At the start of the homily, Father Zimmer thanked everyone for granting him the privilege of being the new pastor. He mentioned that the parishioners of his previous parish, St. Charles Borromeo, had given him a wonderful sendoff. “They gave me a present,” he added. “Do you want to see it?” The congregation responded with a resounding yes. He stepped away from the ambo and picked up a bright red apron.
“Kind of like Christmas all over again,” Father Zimmer remarked as he put the red apron over his green vestments and walked around in front of the large gathering. His name was written at the top of the apron, and in the middle were the initials of St. Charles Borromeo parish. What was difficult for many in the congregation to see from afar was that the rest of the space was filled with parishioners’ names and parting messages.
“How many here have put on an apron recently?” asked Father Zimmer. Many, both women and men, raised their hands. “Putting on an apron is serious business,” he continued. “It means that you are about to do something important. An apron is like a uniform—a uniform denoting service, doing something special for others. That is why I value this gift so much. The people from my last parish were telling me that I had been their servant leader for the last 10 years. And that is what I want to be for you as well.”
He continued: “But I can’t do this alone. We all have to put on our aprons and roll up our sleeves to prepare the meals and liturgies and lessons and visits and what-all for others. I need you. We are all servant leaders here together—servants of our God and servants to others. This is the same God who, on the night before he died, put on a kind of apron—that’s how I read the towel around his waist—and got down on his knees to serve his friends and followers. Imagine that! That’s the kind of God we have. And we must do the same.
“There is a song that sums this up well. I’ll sing the first verse and you pick up on the second,” he instructed, referring the congregation to their missalettes. Then he began to sing Richard Gillard’s “The Servant Song”: “Will you let me be your servant,/ Let me be as Christ to you;/ Pray that I may have the grace to/ Let you be my servant, too.”
The congregation took his lead and sang all the verses. It was difficult for me to do much singing, however, because of the emotion of the moment. As I looked around, I could see others smiling, also moved by the experience.
Such a simple gesture all this “putting on the apron” was, but a profound expression of what it means to be a pastor. And the priest extended Christ’s genuine invitation to all present in that church.
At the conclusion of the homily Father Zimmer took off the bright red apron, put it back on the stand and told the congregation, “We have a baptism today.” He gestured toward the child who had been brought forward. “Hopefully young Lucas will grow up with this same attitude of service.” As the baptismal rite continued, I thought of the white garment to be placed on the child: It could well be an apron. It might take a lifetime to grow into, but this is a beginning. And this child has a strong, willing faith community to show him how.