Sunday, February 26, 2012
Priests: We Just Love Our People
Priests often know an awful lot about a lot of people. Besides the obvious matter of being told people's sins in confession, we are trusted with a host of other things as well. We know about a person's illness, marital problems, embarrassing family situations, addictions, and conflicts. It is a great privilege to have the confidence of so many people and to be one who carries their secrets.
This privilege has some interesting side-effects. Firstly, I think it makes priests much more inclined to mind their own business. We know that there is a lot of pain, embarrassment, sorrow, and weakness in the lives of everybody. We have no interest in knowing more than we have to know. While we love the fact that people entrust us with their secrets, we are not so interested when people want to tell us the secrets of other people. Confide in us about your own life, we are all ears. But--and I imagine I speak for most priests--we are not particularly interested in the latest gossip about the Smith Family. We love holding the secrets of others only so that we can help them in their life. But, we don't love knowing these things simply for the sake of knowing them. The last thing in the world I'd ever want to watch are these reality TV programs where people reveal all sorts of sordid things in order to entertain spectators. What a sad reality that is.
Secondly, I think knowing these things makes priests far more understanding of the human condition. Now some would think that "understanding the human condition" ought to mean that the priest lightens up on Catholic teaching. But the opposite is the case. If you've seen what unchastity does to families or what abortion does to a woman, you know more than ever that the Church is completely right. You want to preach the truth on these matters in the hope that someone will be saved from such situations. Preaching the full truth about worshipping God, loving our neighbor, the virtues, the destructive nature of sin, the life that grace offers etc, all of these things are ways of loving our people. People are far more inclined to trust a priest if they know that he is not seeking to cultivate favor with them by misleading them. I've often found that the most hardened of souls are the ones who are most appreciative of knowing that the priest they are talking to is going to give them the straight story.
At the same time, it also makes us more apt to cut people a lot more slack than others might grant them. In my preaching, for instance, I am going to say that we are bound to attend Mass every Sunday. That's the truth. Not to preach that would be to do an injustice to those whome we are called to serve. At the same time, I'm eating dinner, having a beer, and sharing a laugh with the person who comes only monthly or never to Mass. Knowing the depths of the burdens that people carry (even if it is the burden of their own sins), makes me love them more, not less. (I should happily add that these people are also abundantly patient with all of my flaws too!) Or, sometimes people in a parish might be really annoyed at that mother whose kid has acted up all through Mass. But, the priest might know that the child has a serious condition and the mother was abandoned by her husband. So, the priest is inclined to cut her some slack. He's even inclined to cut the next one the same slack--just in case she's in the same boat.
Why write about all of this today? It's Sunday. I spent the whole day encountering people who come from real families with real problems, real pain, real sin, and real sorrow. I know them. I know a lot about them. And, knowing them is to love them. Priests know their people and priests love their people.