Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Young Priests, the Double Standard, and Being Men of Obedience

(As I looked over what I have written below, it occurred to me that someone might think, "Oh, I bet he's talking about this particular situation or that particular situation." That is not the case! This isn't about any particular priest, any particular diocese, or any particular situation. It is about a common feeling that I often hear expressed by younger clergy.)

It's not an unusual occurrence for younger priests to become frustrated by what appears to them to be a double standard. It seems to them that more orthodox priests who make some sort of pastoral misstep are sometimes quickly corrected, while priests who actively undermine Catholic teaching and ecclesial communion often seem to be feared by those in authority or coddled by them.  It can give younger priests the feeling that nobody has their back. 

There is no doubt that this appearance of a double standard undermines the morale of many, especially young priests.  It creates within them a sense of fear that if they make one mistake, the hammer is going to drop on them or that they are going to be forever dismissed as crazy or as a problem. It causes them sometimes to be angry at those in authority. This anger is exacerbated when they see other priests, who undermine the Church at every turn, go merrily along their way, sowing doubt and division.

The fact that a bishop (or his representatives) can speak to some priests with ease, offer them criticism, advice, and counsel and can even change their assignment without an all out war breaking out, is a testimony to that priest. It says that he is a man of the Church. He is a man who is obedient. It says that he is a man who can listen, who can humble himself, and who can live his promise of respect and obedience to the bishop. It can appear like he is being singled out while priests who really harm the Church are rewarded for their bad behavior. The priest, however, who receives criticism, instruction, guidance, and even a change of assignment well is a far more trustworthy co-worker of the bishop than the priest who plays games and who establishes himself as "untouchable." 

The priest who "gets away with it" isn't winning anything. It's actually a very sad reality. He not only is destroying himself, but he is destroying others in the process. His disobedience and his anger towards the Church and her doctrines is destructive to himself and to the flock. Young priests should never allow this kind of bad example to discourage them or to demoralize them. 

On the other hand, take the example of some other priests who may have had difficulties along the way. Maybe one has a liturgical style that could benefit from some fatherly counsel. Maybe another needs guidance in his approach to preaching. Maybe another needs to learn more prudence. Maybe one has his assignment changed abruptly. (And, to be fair, maybe sometimes the priest's instincts are correct and those who are above him are incorrect in their judgment). No matter, if he is joyfully obedient, in the end, it is he who benefits. In the end, it is the Church who benefits because he becomes more a priest after the heart of Jesus Christ, who was obedient unto death on a Cross.

The rebellious priest who seemingly gets away with it--the priest who delights in undermining the teachings of the Church and who becomes giddy when he turns people against the bishop, the diocese, and the Magisterium-- is not to be envied, but pitied. It shouldn't discourage the young priest, but rather should serve as a warning to him. Every priest is in danger of the same thing. It happens through self-will, egoism, and envy. Everyone of us is capable of becoming like that, whether we are liberal, conservative, charismatic, Tridentine, or bureaucratic. We can all become the guy who thinks that I alone am the one who can save the Church from all that is wrong within it. We are all at risk of becoming what we disdain. 

One might look at things and think, "the young conservative guys always get punished." I think instead they should see it as a badge of honor. The very fact that those in authority feel easy about approaching a priest, correcting him, and asking for his obedience means that he is on the right path. Yes, he (like all of us) may make mistakes, say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing etc, but he is not obstinate. And, sometimes he may even be unjustly called out. That will sting. It may even tempt him to harden his heart. This, however,  is a moment of grace. In the end, if his obedience and  humility win out, it will be fruitful for the Church. He will be preserved from becoming a priest who is set against his bishop and against the Magisterium. 

By all of this, I do not mean that the priest should constantly be thinking of himself as some sort of martyr. What I mean is that whether he is wrong about a particular thing or right about a particular thing (and it could be either), the very fact that those in authority over him can come to him and ask for his obedience is a very good sign. It's the way things are supposed to be. 

There might well be a double standard, but the double standard may actually work in the favor of those who are obedient, humble, and faithful. In one instance, the bishop (or his representatives) are able to approach the priest as a father and as brothers. This is how it ought to be. Their ability to come to that priest says that they actually trust him. The alternative is to become a priest who is left on his own to do and say whatever he wants. 

The double standard might not really be as much about the people who have authority as it is about the priest with whom they are dealing. With one, they can presume good will, humility, fraternal charity, and obedience. With the other, they might not be able to presume those things. One reason that obedient priests might be "handled" more quickly than the disobedient priest is because of the obedient priest's willingness to cooperate. He may (or may not) have made some misjudgment, but he is willing to hear and to work with those in authority. While those resolutions can sometimes appear to be a punishment, that is not always--or even usually--the case. Unless something is manifestly unjust, it is better to err on the side of presuming that a decision was made in fraternal love. Priests and bishops have to be able to trust one another and to love one another. Are bad decisions sometimes made for the sake of expediency or to avoid bad public relations? Probably, and that is a big mistake. But more often than not, I think bishops and priests are acting with fraternal love for their brothers.

The double standard that is often perceived by young priests and seminarians is that disobedience is rewarded while fidelity is punished. It's good to remember that leaving someone in disobedience is not actually a reward. It's a punishment. It's a rather harsh punishment. And, while suffering because of obedience is indeed painful (especially if those in authority are making a poor decision), it can become a moment to deepen ecclesial communion and to become more conformed to Jesus Christ. 

Obedience can till the soil of our hearts, making them more receptive to grace, more able to love, more trusting in Divine Providence, and more united to the Church and to the bishop. Disobedience sets us at odds with the bishop, with our brother priests, and with the whole communion of the Church. Obedience, on the other hand, when it is lived with joyful humility deepens our love for the bishop, our brother priests, and the whole communion of the Church. The obedient priest is the true friend to his bishop and to his brothers in the presbyterate. 

So, if you are a young priest (or a not so young priest) who sometimes gets discouraged or confused by what appears to be a double standard, don't be. Instead, become a priest who becomes more joyfully and lovingly obedient to the bishop and to the Truth. Obedience can be difficult sometimes, but it ultimately makes us joyful and makes us better, and more charitable shepherds. Disobedience, on the other hand, ultimately makes us self-reliant, egotistical, angry, and isolated. If you have to pick which side of the double standard you want to be on, go with obedience!

Saturday, November 14, 2020

St. John's Seminary, A School of Charity

Today was supposed to be a spectacular day at St. John's Seminary. Because of COVID, the seminary community has been living in a bubble and has been fairly restricted in terms of interacting with the outside world. Today, however, was going to be different. A football tournament had been organized and had been the talk of the house for several weeks. Good natured bantering (ie, trash talk) had risen to epic levels. The seminarians organizing the day put in tons of work. Then, at the last minute, because of circumstances beyond our control, the day had to be called off. 

This morning, when I woke up, instead of feeling regret for what was lost, I felt a deep gratitude for what has been given. Since the end of August, this community has mostly lived in tight quarters. Instead of being a time of irritability and annoyance, it has been a time of grace and of deep fraternity. The men who live in this house--both priests and seminarians--have been models of charity. This is what a Christian community is intended to be. The work that went into putting today together was a model of fraternal love. 

During this semester, I have really been moved by and grateful for the strength of the charity that is evident in the life of those with whom I live. Sometimes we can water down charity. It can become merely an idea or a theory. Or, we can think that charity mostly consists in refraining from injuring our neighbor. During this past semester at St. John's Seminary, however, I've witnessed a charity that is bold and strong. It is like a blazing and powerful fire that continues to grow in strength and in intensity.

Every day, all of the priests and seminarians gather in the seminary chapel pictured above and receive the Eucharist together. Above us is an image of Pentecost, the Twelve Apostles gathered with the Blessed Virgin. Over each of their heads is the flame of the Holy Spirit. I like to think that what is pictured above in that chapel is also what is happening below among us. That moment of Holy Communion is not only a sign of union with God and with one another. It is also the cause of that deepening union. The Eucharist is the fuel that keeps the fire of charity blazing in this house. This blazing fire of charity consumes our vices and sins, purifies our hearts, and enlightens our minds. This ardent fire fuses us together in a bond of mutual love and affection, uniting us together to the whole Church and to God himself.

These days there is so much anger, cynicism, harshness, and division in the world, and there is a lot of coldness in people's hearts. I am grateful to sit back today, basking in the radiance and warmth of the fraternal charity of this house. "Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum" (Ps 133). ("Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers live in unity.")

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Spiritual Lesson of the McCarrick Report: Don't Play the Game

There was one part of the McCarrick report, released yesterday by the Vatican, that really summarized for me the depth of the corruption involved. The report describes a scene that seems like something out of the Sopranos or the Godfather, where a few clerics are having dinner in an empty banquet hall. Without describing all that happened there, the thing that for some reason really disturbed me is when McCarrick tells a priest who will soon be working in a highly sensitive position in the Church with access to highly confidential information regarding the candidates for bishops of various dioceses, that he expects that the priest will keep McCarrick informed of that confidential material. It is confidential material that McCarrick was not entitled to know.

For some reason, this particular scene revealed to me the depth of the rot. Why? I think because so many of the other things that McCarrick did were personal to him. His immoral and abusive behaviors and his lying were related to his own internal make-up, but, feeling comfortable telling a priest effectively to spy for him reveals an institutional defect. His ability to say that in front of several other bishops and priests basically says, "We all know this is how the game is played."

Of course priests talk "inside baseball" sometimes. "Who do you think is going to become bishop of . . . ?" But McCarrick's request to be provided confidential information is not about talking inside baseball. It is about rigging the game. That McCarrick felt free to pressure somebody in that way suggests that he viewed the Church from a very natural and political perspective. How long had he been playing that game? How long had he--and others--been rigging the game? You get the sense that, in his world, it is perfectly normal and expected that clerics would freely reveal confidential information that they had no right to share. The cold and calculating nature of that request and the ease with which it came to his lips really stung me.

I don't really know how valuable or complete this report actually is, but what I do know is that the scene described above is like a little parable of warning to the rest of us who are in the clergy. It's obvious that there are some who "play the game." They manipulate others and use information and politics to assume power, prestige, and control. In the face of that, it might become a temptation for others to try and beat them at the same game, to have the same mindset, and to use the same tactics. This temptation, however, is the work of the devil. 

In the face of ambiguous language, political intrigue, morbid curiosity, and an all too natural vision of the Church, priests need to be men who speak clearly, who are guileless, who hold confidences, who don't seek information as a source of power, and who have a supernatural vision of life. In a word, we need to be holy. We need to not be part of the game. Playing the game--even if we think we are "the good guys"--weakens the Church. 

The pursuit of power, the hunger for and the misuse of information (lack of discretion), the purposeful employment of evasive and ambiguous language, and the "crisis management" mentality of limiting conversations and controlling the message etc are all killers of ecclesial life. They are all evidence of a merely natural approach to the Church. When these become the normative means of interacting, it gives rise to the unscrupulous, the dishonest, and the manipulative. 

And to be fair, I think it is safe to say that most priests and bishops love the Church, speak the truth in love, and are not given over to this type of twisted mentality. That being said, the traps are always there and we should all be watchful not to fall into them.

What should the Church do? I have no idea. I'm sure lots of people will have plenty of good suggestions and advice. My initial reaction is more about, "What can I do?" I can read about saintly priests and try to imitate them. I can surround myself with friends who help me to grow in holiness. I can be a whole lot more humble. I can focus my attention less on all of the "big" picture stuff in the Church and focus on the little section of the vineyard that the Lord has entrusted to me. I can hold confidences more tightly. I can refrain from seeking to know things that I don't need to know. I can be a lot better about not speaking about things that don't concern me. I can--with charity--speak clearly and unambiguously about things without fear of the repercussions. I can spend a lot more time thinking about holy things and a lot less time thinking about ecclesial politics. I can remember that the greatest power in the Church is not some congregation in Rome or a diocesan committee. It's good for me to remember constantly that the greatest powers of the Church are in the Sacraments and in the Word of God. I can be more charitable, faithful, hopeful, humble, obedient, chaste, pure, temperate, gentle, repentant, and joyful. Yeah, there's plenty I could do to improve the situation in the Church by attending to my own spiritual life.

When I was kid, a movie called, "WarGames" came out. In the film, the US and the Soviet Union almost enter into a full-scale nuclear war because a defense department computer was simulating an attack. The computer thought it was merely playing a game. In the end, just before it is too late, the computer learns an important lesson. It declares, "Strange game. The only winning move is not to play." 

The antidote to what ails the Church is to be found in a renewed commitment to holiness and a deeper Faith. McCarrick seems to have played the game well, but it all came to nought. That's because the game he was playing was indeed a strange game. When we opt for holiness, virtue, and a supernatural life, we choose what is real and lasting and reject what is fake and passing. As far as the political games that can absorb church life sometimes, the only winning move is not to play.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

All Saints, All Souls, and All Sorts


Today, on the Memorial of St. Martin de Porres, I had the seminary Mass. These were the readings of the day Readings and below is the homily. 

The great convert and preacher, Msgr. Ronald Knox once said, "The Church is divided into three large bits; part of it is on earth, part of it is in heaven, part of it is in Purgatory. The Church in heaven is All Saints. The Church in Purgatory is All Souls. The Church on earth is all sorts." 

And here we are. All Sorts. We are all sorts invited to become all saints. The first step, after being invited by the Lord into the life of charity, is actually to reply to the invitation.  

The original invitees in today’s Gospel all responded negatively. I myself have never owned land or had a wife. And, I presume that most of us—at least those who live inside of RT 495—have never purchased oxen. All of us, however, have our excuses ready at hand as to why we must turn down the Lord’s daily invitations to us Worse yet, sometimes we don’t even bother sending an RSVP. We don’t feel the need to reply or to excuse ourselves. We can let these invitations pass without a second thought. (This, by the way, is one way our daily examen can be of great help to us. We are confronted in those moments by all of the invitations that have come our way during the day.) 

Another step to becoming all saints is to remember that we were not actually on the A-List. The A-List all refused to come. We are the riff-raff, the people found hanging out on the streets and alleywaysalong the highways and the hedgerows. We are here, not because we deserve it, but because the one who invited us is extravagantly generous. As St. Paul reminds us, the way all sorts become all saints is to have the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus—who humbled himself. 

Along with humility, we who dine at this Eucharistic banquet are invited daily to grow in extravagant charity toward others. We are invited to imitate the banquet giver who showers his generosity on those who have no capacity to repay. 


For the past two days, we’ve directed our gaze towards All Saints and to All Souls. Today, I want to say a brief word about our life together here among All Sorts.  

It’s worth reminding ourselves now and again how blessed we are to be here. Our life here together—our friendship with one another--is something very beautiful. There is a lot of humility and a lot of charity in this house. I hope that you also have the experience of looking around this banquet hall—seeing the example of the priests and seminarians who live here—and gratefully thinking, “How did I get on this invitation list?” At a moment in time when there is so much division, hostility, and rancor in society and even within the Church, I think our life here is an experience of the Kingdom and its newness and its joy.   

It’s worth reminding ourselves how privileged we are to have been invited inside. And it is worth our regularly expressing gratitude to our host for bringing us together into this banquet hall. God always foresaw our being together here. He foresaw us helping one another to grow in humility and in charity. He foresaw us helping one another to be and to become priests after his own heart. At this very moment, our Divine Host is gathering us together so that we can become All Saints.  

St. Martinwhose feast we celebrate today—earned the nickname, “the charitable.” That’s a pretty good nickname. He is always pictured holding a broom, a sign of his deep humility and willingness to do any act of charity. May Martin the Charitable, intercede for all of us today, that we grow in humility and in charity. That day by day in our life together, we move from all sorts to all saints. And may our fraternal life together become so radiant in charity that it draws many others to the Banquet of the Lamb so that the Master’s Home might indeed become full.