Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Parish Priesthood: Living Where the Wolves Hunt

The Healing of the Man Born Blind

When I was in seminary, I was able to spend some time in the Navy Reserve.  Having spent assignments in Florida, San Diego, Newport, and the Coast Guard Academy, I definitely could have been convinced to stay on board as a chaplain but, as often happens, life kept getting in the way and I never had the opportunity to serve on the front lines of any great military campaign.  I do often boast, however, that while I was on duty, neither San Diego nor Newport were ever overtaken by the enemy.

Parish priests, however, do stand on a front line.  We stand right where the Gospel and the culture meet and where they often clash.  We stand where the Gospel and the complicated lives of people often slam right into one another.  In the fog of war, it is necessary to execute the theoretical plan in the real time situation.  It all sounds good on paper, but when the boots are on the ground, it doesn't always go according to plan.  If you are really going to win, a leader has to know the plan and the ground he's on, and be able to adapt to the particular situation.

In parish priesthood, this means that we have to arrive with a clear understanding of the Gospel and of the Tradition of the Church.  I always cringe a bit when I hear a parish priest basically dismiss some authentic teaching of the Church as being "too academic" or as "fine for a classroom but not going to work in the real world."  We are sent by Christ (and the bishop) to serve in the parish as one who carries the Gospel and preaches it. We are sent with the Book of the Gospels, not with a white flag of surrender. 

At the same time, we are sent with the Book of the Gospels, not with a tank.  We are sent to preach the Gospel and win souls to Christ.  We are not sent to search and destroy.  Parish priests are required daily to engage in situations that are complicated, ambiguous, and just plain messy.  It is the parish priest who regularly encounters the divorced and remarried, the man who thinks he has found true love in a woman other than his wife, the parents of a same-sex attracted person, the family of a dying patient that wants to know what the moral obligations for treatment are, and the couple who want to know why the Church says that artificial birth control is immoral.  The question isn't whether we should pretend that Church Doctrine doesn't exist or that it isn't important.  The question is how do we effectively present the Gospel in all of its beauty and radiance in the midst of very difficult situations and in the midst of constantly changing battlefields?  How do we effectively communicate the Gospel so that we win this person over to the Truth?
Today, President Obama apparently issued some statement concerning his support for same-sex marriage.  It is rather easy to understand how and why this position contradicts scripture and the constant tradition of the Church.  It is also easy to see how it contradicts natural law.  And, all of those things should be articulated by theologians, bishops, and parish priests in their preaching.  But, parish priests are on the front lines of these discussions.  We are the ones who stand face to face with parishioners.  We are the ones who deal with families.  We are the ones who sit at a counter in a coffee shop and are asked direct and pointed questions by the person sitting next to us.  "You a Catholic priest?  Why does the Catholic Church hate gay people?"  And, I should say honestly that at least in my experience, these questions are not usually asked explosively or with disdain.  But, they are asked.

There is no single way to address any of these issues.  We can certainly talk about the societal concerns and those are real.  But, those ways of discussing things always seem to move them back into the universal.  And, for the theologian and the philosopher, that's where they ought to be.  But, for the parish priest, we deal with particulars.  It is a real person suffering in that bed.  It is a stressed out mother in front of us.  It is a man who somehow really thinks that taking off with the gal from work will make him happier than he is with the wife and kids he presently has.

I'm not dismissing the universal discussions and the societal discussions.  I think that they are really important.  But, I've found that I'm more persuasive when I don't argue about the universals.  I prefer to talk about how God has a plan for us and that He loves us.  I find that when I love the person in front of me and present the Gospel to him in a way that says, "The Church says this because she loves the human person and wants all of us to be truly happy," then there is an opportunity for grace and conversion.  I've had some success stories and I've had some failures.  In the end, everybody is left in their freedom, but I hope that they walk away from the experience with the conviction that the Church loves them.  For some, that conviction will lead them to accept the truth of the Gospel.  For others, it will be maddening because it will nag at them.  They can no longer dismiss the Church's teaching as being mean or hateful.  They can dismiss the teaching, but it would be dishonest if they tried to call it uncharitable. 

There are people who do not believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.  I disagree with them.  I love them.  And, I would love to share with them the Gospel; not to be argumentative, but to let them know that God loves them and has a plan for their life that will make them truly happy.  Similarly, there are people who choose to do immoral things in their life.  I disagree with them.  I love them.  And I would like to share with them the Gospel; not to be argumentative, but to let them know that God loves them and has a plan for their life that will make them truly happy.

The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
Every Christian can say with the man born blind, "Look, all I know is that I got up one morning and I was blind.  Then, I met Jesus and now I see."  We can bear witness to something new and beautiful that has happened in our life.  In some ways, without the introduction of Christ into these discussions, the only thing somebody has is "their situation."  But, when Christ is introduced into this situation, they are set free from the confines of their isolation and are able to see with new eyes.  Living contrary to the Gospel will never make anyone happy.  And all of us--in some way or another--are tempted to live contrary to the Gospel.  Encouraging people to live contrary to the Gospel is to inflict serious damage to the person.
The two great weapons with which we are armed are Truth and Love.  We do great harm if we mistake Truth to be a tank.  And we do great harm if we mistake Love to be the white flag of surrender.  Parish priests--and all Christians--are in an epoch battle.  The enemy is not the sinner.  The enemy is the one who seeks to destroy the sinner.  The enemy often lures people away from God and from their happiness by disguising lies in the clothing of truth and disguising lust in the clothing of love.  These are the wolves in sheep's clothing.  In the midst of this battle, is a sheep who needs to be rescued from the jaws of the wolf and led to the true green pastures.  Exposing the wolf and attempting to lead an individual to the pastures of truth can be rather treacherous. Learning how to communicate the Truth and doing so in a way that convinces others that this is a complete act of love is a never-ending task.  Thankfully, priests are given the best of models; the Good Shepherd who is Incarnate Truth and Love.

No comments:

Post a Comment