Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, his bad purple plumpness himself, recently asked all Catholics to boycott Smitty's grocery chain because the supermarket will be open on Christmas Day.

I think that's a hell of an idea.
If there is one sure-fire way to embarrass the sinners tempted to purchase canned goods on the very day the baby Jesus was born, it's to throw up a picket line and organize a boycott.

As the Eminence who presides over an earthly empire in Arizona that pays no property taxes, Bishop O'Brien has a sophisticated understanding of the separation of Church and State. At his press conference, he acknowledged that not eating meat on Fridays was never part of the Constitution; nonetheless, he insisted that his particular pipeline to God gave him an insight into business that the executives at Smitty's might find useful.

"I also understand that non-Christians do not celebrate the holiday," said the alert and breathing prelate. "However, over 70 percent of the population in the Valley is Christian . . . "

Who could argue?
In fact, I wonder if the bishop has considered the natural ecumenical allies his calculation creates.

Thinking strictly in terms of percentages, if O'Brien compares the amount of foreign aid Washington sends to Rome with the amount it sends to Tel Aviv, it would appear only natural that Smitty's ought to honor our Jewish neighbors by shutting down for Hanukkah.

But this boycott need not confine itself to these groups.
The last time I shopped at Smitty's the check-out clerk was a woman who looked me right in the eye as she took my money and made change. This female made no attempt to conceal her smoldering features behind a veil. After freeing the hostages, this is the sort of cheeky insult that local Moslems are expected to endure? I don't think so.

And what of Arizona's Native Americans? I'm not sure all the tribes could agree upon just one feast day, but I'll wager there would be no argument from the Indians with the recognition that all those Smitty's outlets are built on Holy Mother Earth. You can take it to the bank that some of those supermarkets were built on sacred land.

Hindus! Let's not belabor the obvious: cows/sacred; filet mignon/$10.98 lb; sacrilege/aisle 4.

Having been raised a Catholic, I liked that the Church tolerated a rather relaxed laity. The priests understood that a lot of Catholics only went to services at Christmas or maybe at Easter if Momma got a new hat or Poppa got a brand new bag. By contrast, atheists pretty much ignore God 365 days a year. Smitty's ought to be forced to acknowledge such steadfast devotion by closing down occasionally.

If he orchestrates his protest and reaches out to other denominations, Bishop O'Brien, without any heavy lifting, can elevate that audience of potential boycotters from his original figure of 70 percent to pretty much everyone.

As I've discussed the bishop's press conference with others, sooner or later, some high-church Episcopalian-type always says, "Look here, any poor devil found in a grocery store on Christmas Day is only trying to put food on the table. What's troubling the bishop? Did Smitty's forget to send over enough deli platters on the old girl's birthday? It's not as if people buying cold cuts on Christmas is taking the family milk money to play bingo in the basement of Our Lady of the Perpetual Collection Plate."

His holiness himself provides the best answer to this heresy that nutrition comes before God.

Bishop O'Brien, like all his predecessors, has a cook who prepares his meals, washes his china, polishes his silverware and shops for his groceries. No matter how many guests the bishop entertains, no matter how elaborate the celebration, no matter how long the shopping list, the bishop, personally, has never found it necessary to purchase a loaf of bread on Christmas Day. It's simply a matter of insisting that your domestic staff be organized.

Just last Sunday, I got to witness the spirit of Bishop O'Brien's philosophy--that commerce and God don't mix--as I joined a throng of people, some of whom were obviously members of his flock, at Walgreen's.

As I stood in a long line, the druggist talked to an elderly cowboy in Levi's and a workshirt. The pharmacist, nearly as old as his customer, spoke tenderly regarding constipation. As the druggist pointed to a shelf of laxatives, the cowboy swung his gaze 180 degrees and our eyes met; the two of us quickly glanced down at our boots.

Next in line was a family of Spanish- speaking Indians. A little girl, no more than 12, translated for her relatives. The young ones in the family all had crucifixes dangling from their necks. When the prescription was totaled, druggist Leo Deitch, inquired of the nina how you would say $11.98 in Spanish.