Letter to Robinson K. Russo, continued…
I suppose we old fellows are always urging the young not to waste their youth. It didn’t work for me, but times are different. The world seems to have grown old. When I was a boy, all the stay-at-home mothers as if on signal would open the doors up and down the block and the houses would empty of their seven or eight children under the age of 12 like bats out of a cave at sundown and the mothers would shout after them, “…and don’t eat anything you find growing in the woods and be back in time for dinner.” (The fussbudgets would want them home for lunch.) Now there are one or two children in a hover-parent household and things are said like, “Now put on your shin guards and your safety helmet and kiss your stepfather goodnight.” Things have changed. Parents hover. The government hovers. Quite literally. Drones.
I suggest that you see the movie “Snowden.” See it twice. I don’t want to make you paranoid, but just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Everything you do and say and especially everything you put in writing is public. Everything. Every human being alive is on public display in this frightening age. Most people are fairly dull. Not you. You are interesting because you are committing your life to something that most people think is crazy. You are going to have people in your life who are extremely interested in you because you are preparing to be old when you are young. You will be an elder, a priest, God’s personal representative and the clergy incarnate as far as some people are concerned.
I remember a young woman who had been praying two rosaries a day for one of my friends. When he left the seminary, she had a nervous breakdown. It wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t even ordained yet. Heaven forbid that he should have done something to cause such hurt. He hadn’t, as far as I know. Most of the interest in us is positive, but not all of it. I am amazed at the people in my life who have been out to get me. I remember one person who accused me of the misuse of funds in a whispering campaign. I built a parish hall adjoining the church with a large sum that I had inherited. The money had been clearly designated for the parish, not for me, but I was free to use those funds as I saw fit. We needed an accessible hall for the sacred sacrament of coffee and doughnuts after Mass. The hall was a huge success. The person who wanted me gone started telling people I had used money designated for the elevator. That would have been a criminal use of designated funds. After I cleared it up, that person started some other whispering campaign. (Notice how cleverly I am not giving away the gender of that person? I wouldn’t want to rat her out.) That person dramatically left the parish three or four times.
A few years back when I was the bishop’s liaison for Icelandic-speaking charismatic groups here in the diocese of Frostbite Falls, I caught a group spending charitable funds for personal use. They reasoned that this money was given to help the poor and they were poor. Ironclad reasoning, no? One of the major beneficiaries of this charity asked some of my parishioners to go through my garbage and personal papers in the hopes of finding something incriminating. When I was informed of the plot, I assured my informant that my garbage and my personal papers were one and the same thing.
Another helpful anecdote. Years ago, a colleague went on vacation back in the South American country whence he came. There he made the acquaintance of some interesting new friends. He assumed he had a certain anonymity in such a distant place. Well, his new friends decided to keep in contact with him. His new friends were not involved in anything illegal, nor was he, but as a priest, an elder, he probably should have thought twice, or maybe three times about his vacation conduct. He went away for a while to a place where they send priests who need to think about things for a bit. It is amazing how some people love to see a priest laid low by scandal or gossip. Not most people but certainly some people. Among our Protestant brethren there are people called clergy killers. Not literally but figuratively. There are people who will dislike you simply because you are not your predecessor. If you have five or ten of these, they can get rid of you or any pastor by simply making his ministry impossible.
Formerly, this wasn’t a problem for Catholics. We had a fairly unbreakable tenure. You were usually pastor until they carried you out feet first. You may have been a doddering old fool, but you were the doddering fool people knew and had put up with for years. Catholicism wasn’t all about the priest back in my youth. It was all about the Lord. You put up with the priest, and besides, with the priest facing the altar, you didn’t even have to look at his ugly mug. You were there to pray. Things have changed. The usual maximum tenure for a pastor is 12 years these days. You are evaluated at six years and then you get another six if it’s going well. This system gives a huge opening to clergy killers. If you like the parish there will be things up with which you must put. You would think this is a bad thing. In some ways, it is. In other ways, it can be a great blessing.
We live in transient world, everybody is moving somewhere. So are you. Your job is to help strengthen a community of which you are not really part. Your absolute focus must be on the Lord and the spirituality of the parish. So, you make enemies. Get used to it. A person who has no enemies in a business like ours is not doing his job. As Dorothy Day put it, our job is “...to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Just make sure that the discomfiture you cause is for the sake of the Lord, and not just because of your personal agendas, or worse, irritating personality.
Some may think that this is all too discouraging. On the contrary! This is part of the heroism of the priest’s life. Christ hung naked on the cross. The public nature of the priesthood is part of being crucified with Christ. It is part of the sacrifice you will make in order to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. You, like the first disciples, are invited to give up something that most people take for granted: privacy. You, even now are asked to take up the transparency of holiness. He and His Bride are worth the sacrifice.
Next week: Alcohol