QUAERITUR: Can a lay man impersonate a priest for drammatic presentations?

From a reader:

Is it permissible to portray a priest as a reenactor? I have been
asked to portray a Catholic chaplain of the 69th New York in 1862. I
know a few poeple who have done so, but none are Catholic. Provided
that I do not attempt to offer Mass or hear real confessions, is it
permissible? I believe that it could offer a fascinating glimpse into
a facet of life in the Irish Brigade that is seldom seen. Thank you,
in advance.

Yes.  As a matter of fact I impersonate a priest all the time.  Of course it is easier for me, because I actually am one.  Come to think of it, because of ordination I also im-person-ate the High Priest, too, since I act in persona Christi.

For the sake of a dramatic presentation a lay man may impersonate a priest.  Never do anything which would confuse people into thinking that you are a priest and don’t go about in priestly garb.  Don’t pretend to say Mass or hear confessions outside of the specific dramatic presentation you are in.  That would be a grave involving a serious censure.

Remember: there is a qualitative difference between the priesthood of lay people which comes from baptism and the priesthood of priests which comes from sacred ordination.  Because the priesthood, with the sacraments only priests can administer or confect, are so central to the life of the Church as a Church, it is important that they never be simulated in a way that might confuse people.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Joe Magarac says:

    Imitating a priest can certainly be an eye-opening experience. Some law students once asked me to appear as a witness in a mock trial competition, which was being held in an actual courthouse before an actual judge and a jury of law students. In the script for the trial, the witness was a priest, so I asked a priest I knew if I could borrow his clerics for my appearance. He said yes, so I dressed in clerics and a black suit and made my way to the courthouse.

    Nobody in the mock trial thought I was a priest. But lots of the people I passed on the way to the courthouse did. I was waved through security, asked for prayers, looked at suspiciously – in short, I got a small taste of both the good and bad things that a priest experiences when he wears clerics in public. It felt a little strange – I had to keep explaining to people that I wasn’t actually a priest – and I removed my clerics afterward with a sense of relief: I wasn’t an impostor anymore!

    The judge who oversaw the mock trial was a Catholic with a sense of humor. When I was asked to take the stand, he said aloud “Do we even need to swear in a priest?” And when my testimony was over, he said, in a good-natured but sarcastic way, “Thank you, Father.” It was all I could do not to turn around and say – because I knew that he knew that I was just pretending – “Bless you, my son.”

    The whole thing reminds me of kids who play Mass. I never thought it was a problem, but it’s good to have it on good authority that it’s acceptable.

  2. Judging from the nature of the request, this sounds like it might be for a Civil War reenactment. If that is the case, given the “hard core” nature of some reenactors who want things “just the way they were,” the writer might well be asked to conduct services, preach a sermon, and give blessings before the “battle.” I don’t see any real problem with conducting a prayer service or leading the Rosary, and, given that people understand that it is a reenactment, perhaps even giving a “blessing.” But I agree that it would be risky at best to stage a “Mass” or hear soldiers’ “Confessions.” Given that the reenactors might understand that this is stage-play, people present to observe the “battle” might mistake it for the real thing.

    If the 69th Irish Regiment wanted the “regimental chaplain” to celebrate Mass (Extraordinary Form of course) or hear confessions, they might look around for a priest with interest in the Civil War. I suspect they can be found.

    –Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., whose great-grandfather was a private with the NY 51th Vol. Infantry Regiment and crossed the Burnside Bridge at Antietam.

  3. Mark R says:

    Alec Guinness did with a very good result :-).

  4. albinus1 says:

    Mark R. beat me to it. My wife and I watched The Detective a few weeks ago. I later read up on the movie, and read that Alec Guinness said that playing Fr. Brown was one of the things that influenced his conversion a few years later. Apparently while filming in France, a group of small French children saw him in costume, took him for a priest, and gathered around him, chatting enthusiastically. Not wanting to disappoint them, esp. since his French evidently wasn’t very good, he didn’t disabuse them; but the enthusiasm of the children towards someone whom they took for a priest evidently impressed him deeply.

    On the other hand, I remember reading that when Don Novello was filming in Rome some years ago, in character as Fr. Guido Sarducci, he was arrested under Italy’s (understandable) law against impersonating a cleric. (It was later cleared up.)

    Fr. Thompson — should a priest saying Mass (extraordinary form) for a group of Civil War re-enactors, in character as a chaplain of the time, use the Missal in force at the time (i.e. pre-1962, including all the vigils and Octaves, three collects on Sunday, 2nd Confiteor, etc.)? Just wondering. ;-)

  5. MJ says:

    I saw this happen once…but it was a woman who actually thought she was a minister…she was wearing something different (colorful robes) and she tried to “say” Mass and distribute “communion”…this was at a class in college, I guess it was her end-of-semester presentation (Fine Arts class)…thank goodness no one but her assistant received “communion”. I had to really try hard not to laugh at her pronunciation of Latin. Kyrie was “Ki-Reee-eee”. The prof looked shocked at the whole thing.

  6. AnAmericanMother says:

    I think by far the better approach would be to find a priest who is interested in re-enactments and willing to take evangelization in a new direction — there are probably some lapsed Catholics and potential converts out there to be reached. You could throw the proposal open to the membership – somebody knows a priest who would participate. I have seen one priest who does Rendezvous (another form of re-enactment) and one who does AmRev re-enactments.
    Because re-enactments are an all-day (or multi-day) affair and involve extensive interaction and role-playing with lots of people, I think a lay person attempting to take on the role could be risky. It’s not like pretending to be a witness in a mock trial or acting in a stage play — it really has no borders or limits and you are “on” 24/7 so long as you are on the battlefield.
    And the level of commitment to “do it right” is extensive. With the Cowboy Action Shooting group I belong to, my persona is that of a historically documented Crow Indian woman who went as a scout for Gen. Crook in the place of her dead brother. We don’t go as “deep” as the re-enactors, but it has required extensive research and preparation, including hand-sewing and beading a buckskin war shirt, and studying my ‘part’, including learning a few words of Crow. There is constant interaction “in character” at the match with the other participants. Having a distant Cherokee ancestor hasn’t helped a bit, but I guess it does help defuse any potential accusation of “exploitation” (I need to find out a Crow expletive expressing disbelief and hilarity.)
    Assuming for the moment that I were male, I can’t imagine keeping ‘in character’ as a priest for several days on the battlefield. It is inevitable that other participants, especially in an Irish regiment, will come up asking for their confessions to be heard before battle, and somebody is going to ask for a battlefield Mass as shown in the famous picture by Mathew Brady.

  7. AnAmericanMother says:

    Fr. Thompson,
    My great-grandfathers and numerous great-uncles and cousins were with the Army of Tennessee, so they would not have met up with your great-grandfather.
    My husband is ‘a house divided’ – his father had several ancestors in the Army of Tennessee and the Army of Northern Virginia, while his mother’s grandfather fought for the Union – not sure which regiment, but he was as Irish as they come and in the NY area.

  8. I am not an actor, though I occasionally play one on TV.

  9. RichR says:

    Here’s a well-known impersonation of a priest done on screen:


  10. Philangelus says:

    The day the rules changed about what priests could wear, and that they didn’t have to wear the clerical collar when out in public, one of my (Catholic) high school teachers dressed as a priest. He figured it was only fair. :-)

  11. irishgirl says:

    One of the new programs being shown on EWTN is called ‘Vianney Speaks’, with the actor Leonardo DeFilippis [sp?] portraying St. John Vianney. He’s certainly dressed as a priest, albeit in 19th century clerical garb.

  12. Albinus1. Well, remember that the 1860s were also pre-Pius X calendar changes: they didn’t even have “green” Sundays because they were all over-ridden by saints days. I would think the best choice would be for the priest serving the reenacters to celebrate Missa in tempore belli, which is, I suspect what was usually done. Now the real question is whether the reenactor priest has to read the Pre-Pius X Officium Divinum with its very long Matins. That would keep him out of trouble …

    Yes, you are right, the 51st never saw action in the mid-west except for some garrison duty near Peace Orchard KY. But it did run into the Army of Norther Virginia a number of times, to put it mildly. I figure I am here for two reasons, Burnside’s marvelous ability to get lost or show up late for major battles, and a well aimed rebel bullet that put my g-grandfather in the City Point Hospital for six months during the Petersburg campaign. It saved him from being present for the Crater and the 51st major disaster on the Boyton Plank Road. There were Irish in just about every down state NY regiment.

    Sorry Fr. Z, I know this is going down a rabbit hole. So this is the last post on the Late Unpleasantness.

  13. MouseTemplar says:

    Excellent. Last year my son dressed as Thomas Beckett for our All Saints party. This year, he feels ready to go dressed as the Holy Father….

  14. AnAmericanMother says:

    Father Thompson,
    That’s not even a rabbit hole — it’s a good sized badger den, with an irritable Badgey at the bottom of it!
    But I take my cue from my gg grandfather Dent, who was the commander of the local camp of United Confederate Veterans. They invited Gen. Sherman to speak and gave him a rousing welcome. . . . ‘let bygones be bygones’ appears to have been their motto.
    “Let us have peace!”

  15. Lynn Diane says:

    You forgot that famous Catholic actor of yesteryear, Bing Crosby, who played Father Chuck O’Malley in two films: “Going my Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s, and Father Conroy in another film, “Say One For Me.” He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for “Going My Way.”

  16. AnAmericanMother says:

    Here’s the Brady photo I mentioned – of the “Fighting 69th” at Mass. Note the beretta firmly in place!
    Battlefield Mass

    A safer angle might be for some ladies to portray some of the Sisters who tended to the wounded (and impressed those Southern Baptist and Methodist boys mightily) –

    “Sister, is it true that you belong to the Catholic Church?”
    “Yes, sir, it’s true. And that’s the source of the greatest happiness I have in this life.”
    “Well, I declare. I’d never have suspected it. I’ve heard so many things . . . I thought Catholics were the worst people on earth.”
    “I hope you don’t think so now.”
    “Well, Sister . . . I’ll tell you. If you say you’re a Catholic, I’ll certainly have a better opinion of Catholics from now on.”

    Catholic Sisters and the American Civil War

  17. Andy Lucy says:

    Thank you all for the replies. In point of fact, I would much prefer to have a priest be involved… but with 12-14 events per year, and all on weekends, it just is not going to happen, especially here in Kentucky where the priest shortage is fairly acute. Not to mention, reenacting is not a hobby for those who primarily work on the weekends. lol

    I have no intention of wearing clericals or vestments, as chaplains did have a specified uniform, unlike the other period I portray, the American Revolution. No Mass, no Confessions… likely the closest that I would come to that would be to portray administering Last Rites to the fallen on the field and in hospital. None of the reenactors would confuse me with a real priest, just as none of them would confuse a surgeon’s portrayal for the real thing, and I will make it clear to all tourists who approach. The guys who approached me to do this did so precisely because they know that I am a hardcore researcher and reenactor, I am Catholic, and they trust that I would do nothing to dishonor the Church or violate any of Her laws and precepts. Hence, I am asking people whose opinions I admire and respect for their input, and the author and readers of this blog number among those persons.

    First-person portrayals are incredibly difficulty to do and get right, as accent, body language, idioms, clothing, and a hundred other things must be spot on, else you come off as a buffoonish actor. I do a first-person portrayal of a Rev War surgeon, but I have been working on that one for over 20 years now. I have no intention of doing one for Civil War, as I just don’t have the time to devote to properly developing the persona.

    Again, thank you all for your input on this. And, BTW AnAmericanMother, while I portray a surgeon in a kilted Highland regiment in RevWar, I really don’t feel comfortable wearing a nun’s habit for Civil War. ROTFL

  18. JaneC says:

    This might be a rabbit hole, but you might also consider it an interesting aside. My grandmother belonged to the United Daughters of the Confederacy (not to be confused with their male counterparts who are rather militant–these are mostly elderly ladies who raise money for monuments and museums), and when I was 13 she drafted me as a page-girl for a monument dedication for a newly-discovered mass grave of a mostly-Irish regiment in Louisiana. The lady in charge of the ceremonies decided, for some reason, that the ceremonies should include a Mass for the souls of the dead, and that the Mass ought to be as close to what those 19th-century Irishmen would recognize as possible. She (an Episcopalian) ended up drafting the local SSPX chapel and priest for the Requiem. It was my first experience with the TLM!

  19. AnAmericanMother says:

    Andy Lucy,
    That’s why I added the rider about the ‘ladies’ taking that one on – not to be confused with the “Ladies from Hell”.
    Funny thing, my dad served with the old 79th Cameron Highlanders, now amalgamated out of existence. They weren’t formed until the French Revolution, so they missed the dance in the Colonies. The old Fraser Highlanders however were raised in the same district (Inverness-shire).
    We’re usually at the Highland Games and do a good deal of Scottish Country Dancing, and long long ago I was a competitive Highland dancer. Do your Highlanders dance the Eightsome Reel for recreation, as in the old prints? An all-male set of the “Reel of the 51st Division” is spectacular and great fun for the participants and observers, although my husband (who is a big fellow) accidentally broke another dancer’s ankle during the ‘2 and a half times round’ at the Gatlinburg Games. Whoops. “Surgeon forward!” and a spectator jumped in and completed the set.

  20. AnAmericanMother says:

    Jane C,
    That’s a great story — you can always count on the UDC to try to “do it right”, and it’s exactly what I would expect of the older variety of Episcopalian lady-in-charge, to have that sort of sensibility for the deceased in whose honor all this was being done.
    I have great respect for the ladies, although I have never joined I’m certainly eligible. My great-aunt and grandmother were members of UDC and also the “Children of the Confederacy”, and my husband is from Richmond VA which is UDC Central. But in metropolitan Atlanta most of those old traditions have fallen by the wayside, as probably 90% of the population is not from here or even from the South. I attended one D.A.R. meeting here once — I was in my mid 30s at the time and was half the age of the next youngest person there, and the program was a talk on the Constitution by an extremely liberal college professor who didn’t really know what he was talking about, so I never went back . . . .

  21. moon1234 says:

    It obviously must have been ok for a long time. THIS movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbK3TiU-zPw&feature=related

    Has priests, bishops, cardinals in the film AND it was filmed IN Catholic churchs. The vatican even bankrolled part of the cost of the movie.

  22. introibo says:

    I attended a Civil War reenactment a few years back (as a spectator) and when I saw that there was going to be a Mass on Sunday (I was there on Saturday) I was interested to see what Form it would be. I asked around those reenactors if they had indeed had Latin Masses in the past. All said “no” because “it’s not allowed.” I ended giving short summations of SP to them, but of course they just stared with glazed eyes. I ended up hearing from someone on an online traditional forum who had been there on Sunday, and sure enough, it was the OF of the Mass, complete with “Amazing Grace” as a hymn. Grrrr! Knowing that this reenactment would be held this year, I started contacting the folks involved several months in advance asking if they wanted me to help them find a priest to say the authentic form of the Mass for that era…they thanked me and never got back to me to finalized anything. Oh well. I tried.

  23. AnAmericanMother says:

    Ask again. Keep after them. Squeaky wheel syndrome and all that.
    I would attack from the “authenticity” angle. The OF looks as out of place in a true re-enactment situation as a modern scoped deer rifle slung on Johnny Reb’s back. So does “Amazing Grace”, of course, written by an English Anglican with Methodist tendencies . . . .
    Offer to find a priest AND print small leaflets with the responses.

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