Sunday, June 1, 2014

Priests--Growing Together in Our Humanity

The first time I visited the rectory where I now live, I arrived to find the pastor siting out on the back porch having his lunch.  It is an open-air porch that is covered.  I thought, "I think I will like this."  Now that the long, miserable, cold, dreary winter is over (I don't really like winter), the porch furniture has returned and the porch is once again occupied by those of us who live here.  In the evening time especially, I am regaled with stories of Ireland, South America, the old days in Boston, seminary life in the 1950's and 1960's, the characters that made up the Boston presbyterate, and commentary on all things present.  I'm the youngest in our house, except for the occasional seminarian, but I've never been at a loss for telling my own share of stories or offering an opinion.  Amid the smell of pipe tobacco (not mine) and the sound of laughter, I am reminded of how beautiful it is "for brothers to live in unity."

When I was a pastor, one of the things I most enjoyed was living in a large rectory with a large yard.  It was not because I needed all of that space.  I enjoyed it because it meant that there was lots of room in that house for others.  There were times--especially when the seminary was on vacation--that we would struggle to find room for everyone.  When parishioners would stop by the rectory, it would provide them great joy to find seven or eight priests and seminarians sitting in the kitchen laughing away.  It is good for brothers to live in unity.

Last night, I was invited to a dinner of priests at a friend's rectory.  The evening--from beginning to end--was very beautiful.  It is good for brothers to live in unity.

Since the time of the apostles, there has always been a temptation towards envy, careerism, and factions among priests.  That's because priests possess this thing called, "human nature," and that human nature is wounded by original sin.  There are things within the clerical culture that nurture disunity.  One such thing is a communication style marked by obfuscation.  Instead of having direct and clear conversations about important matters, clerics sometimes speak in euphemisms and with an indirectness that would impress the most seasoned diplomat.  While this type of language might be what is needed in the diplomatic world in order to avoid wars and misunderstandings, among brothers, there ought to be a greater directness and freedom.

I think that one of the things that is most unsettling about Pope Francis is that one never knows what he's going to say next.  I grant that sometimes some of his marks have needed numerous clarifications and sometimes have had unintended consequences.  But all the same, I like his directness.  Pope Francis doesn't talk about transparency.  He is transparent.  Ask Francis a tough question, he mightn't answer it exactly the way he wished he had, but you don't leave the conversation scratching your head and wondering, "What was the answer?"  It's refreshing.

While many people have made a big deal about Pope Francis not living in the Apostolic Palace, that really doesn't mean all that much to me.  Some say that he didn't live there because it was too opulent.  From what I hear, his predecessors who lived there lived quite simply. The reason the Pope has given for not living in the Apostolic Palace is simply that he wants to be around other people.  That makes sense to me. He doesn't want to live so far away from others that he becomes protected from reality.  I suspect that Pope Francis wanted to make certain that he wasn't insulated from reality by a culture that sometimes thrives on intrigue and obfuscation.  

Directness doesn't equal rude!  We all know rude people.  Sometimes they justify their rudeness by saying, "I'm direct."  No, they're rude.  One can be direct without rudeness and one can be rude through silence and obfuscation.

One important way of building up the local Church is through strengthening the fraternity of priests.  Sometimes, we presume that theological differences are the root cause of disunity among priests.  But, I think it is something more fundamental than that.  A lot of times, what is lacking is simply a humanity.  This is why Pope Francis is living among people. He doesn't want his humanity mummified through a lack of human contact.  The more priests and bishops live together and eat together, the more we will grow in our humanity.  The more priests and bishops live closely with their people, the more we encounter directness.  This is good for us.  Without it, we tend to become ideologues or functionaries.

When we speak about the New Evangelization, it is tempting to think that the answers are all found in grand sweeping projects and programs. But, one of the critical parts of the first evangelization was the formation of the clergy.  Jesus spent a lot of time with his apostles, eating and drinking with them, walking with them, talking with them, fishing with them, praying with them, and sharing a common life together.  The first evangelization began with what was human.  I think the New Evangelization also needs this human touch.  

Today, I am struck by two ways that Pope Francis is putting his mark on the New Evangelization: Closeness to people and directness in language.  There is something profoundly human about those things.  And a New Evangelization requires a profound humanity.  The reform of the clergy certainly requires us priests to spend more time in front of the Blessed Sacrament and more time (as penitents) in the confessional.  But, it probably also needs us to spend more time on the porch and in the dining room speaking brother to brother.

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