The Ministry of Presence
One of the most important forms of ministry for a priest in a truly urban environment is what is known as a ministry of presence. This is NOT what you see on TV. The media shows the hero priest who knows everyone and everyone is happy to see him. The ministry of presence is not the opposite, but it is completely different. It is simply walking in an urban area and nothing more. You do not look directly at anyone, but you are aware of your surroundings. You do not engage anyone, you just walk calmly as if you are on your way to somewhere. You are not, you are simply walking. You are being present.
You do not engage anyone, but you are there if they engage you. One person stopped to talk in front of a pawn shop downtown. There is an item there he wants and we talked about it. Did we speak of religion. No. We simply talked. I was wearing my clerics, he knew what I stand for by the white tab in my black shirt. That communicated to him that the Catholic faith is present. Many other times, the subject of the faith will come up. Other times there will be no interaction at all, but the shirt communicates what needs to be said. There have been cases of robberies and even murder that never happened because the planned perpetrator saw the clerical shirt and thought twice.
This ministry is practically impossible in suburban environments because the logistics are not the same. You cannot do ministry of presence on a comfortable cul-de-sac (what we in Massachusetts call a 'dead end') it just will not work there. However it does work in truly urban environments, downtown areas, public housing neighborhoods and more.
Besides being present, you are also quietly observing. You are not reporting to anyone, but you can be praying and you are observing. You see everything and react to nothing. You really will act like the simple, naive priest walking in the area, but you are not naive. Finally, you will pray that God will bring fruitfulness to everything you do throughout the entire ministry.
Ministry of presence is so important in urban areas. It is where the city priest belongs. What makes it more important is that the priest lives in the neighborhood. Many express surprise when they learn that this cleric who works in the neighborhood does not go home to more a more comfortable environment like other clerics do. He returns to a residence in the midst of the same people he is serving. The movers and shakers of the society never stay more than a few minutes in these environments. Journalists, who are also part of the upwardly mobile culture, often avoid them as well. They come to the urban world only to get the story and the picture or in the way I express it to get close-up shots of blood. Then they present the story to those sitting comfortably at home a distance from the city and the culture. The priest belongs being present in those areas because that is the meaning of being present in Christ and being part of where the cultural leaders only visit.
The ministry of presence is an important part of urban ministry always. It is a quiet ministry that lets people know in the urban areas that Christ is present here too.