Sunday, February 26, 2017

Advice to a young seminarian - part 13

Letter to Robinson K. Russo, concluded (possibly)

Your life as a priest will be far more sacrificial than mine has been. You will suffer the consequences of the bad decisions and immorality that plagued my generation and the generation that preceded me. I have already mentioned the introduction of term limits for pastors. These have had very far reaching effects in the life of the parish priest. Benedictine monks take a vow of stability. They promise to remain in the same monastery for the rest of their live, unless their superiors send them elsewhere. It seems that the diocesan priest now takes a vow of instability.

As I have written, in times past we stayed on as pastor in the same parish until death, but the presbyteral senate in the days of Cardinal Cody abolished that privilege. We were given a term of six years with the possibility of a second term of six years at the bishop’s discretion.

One increasingly sees letters of appointment to the pastorate that don’t mention a specific term. They simply appoint a pastor, until his successor is named. This means that permanent relationships with most of the people we serve are not really possible. Young men tend to fall in love. I don’t mean this in a physical sense, necessarily. We meet wonderful people and think that they will be our “best friends forever.”

I have served in ten assignments in my forty-six years of service to the Church. I have served: in an orphanage (4 years), a parish during my internship at a hospital (1 year), and a diaconate parish (1 year), 5 parishes (2, 8, 1, 20, and 10 years respectively.) I taught Latin and Greek in the college seminary for just short of 25 years and served as the diocesan liaison for Spanish-speaking charismatic groups for 20 years. 

In all those assignments, I have met wonderful people who were very fond of me. They still call me to celebrate their weddings, baptisms, funerals and now the weddings, baptisms and funerals of their children and grandchildren. I remember one “best friend forever” whose face I could not place and whose name I could not remember calling to ask if I would baptize her grandchild. I had baptized each of her children and some other priest in the pictures would look odd on the mantelpiece with all the other pictures.

I remember a priest in my youth, just after the council when the “home Mass” was all the rage. He celebrated a Christmas Eve Mass in the basement rumpus room of my sister’s in-laws. He had already done it for several years and it just wouldn’t have been Christmas without Fr. Niceguy celebrating a Christmas Eve Mass in the in-laws’ basement. I distinctly remember the look of exhaustion on his face. I could almost read his mind, as he thought he would have to do this until his death. He left the priesthood, and the in-laws’ family was shattered by distance, death and divorce. Problem solved.

There is not time or energy enough to be pastor to ten institutions. The whole point is “don’t kid yourself”. Serve the people unselfishly, but remember that this is not your permanent community. In years past, it might have been, but no longer. Make friends sparingly. This may sound selfish. It is not. It is Bible. “A righteous man is cautious in friendship, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.” (Proverbs 12:26) and “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24) There are a lot of people out there who want to be your best friend and more. Because you are a “man of God,” they think they can trust you to be selfless and “there” for them always. They idealize you and think that you will be the answer to their emotional needs, and sometimes other needs which best go unmentioned. If you jump into a relationship because of your need, two needy people are just asking for trouble. I don’t mean to say you should be aloof and distant, just prudent.

I have made many real friendships in the institutions in which I have served, but they have developed gradually and organically. When someone says, “How good to see you!”  this is healthy. When someone is huffy because you had Sunday dinner at someone else’s home, this is a danger sign. Drop that relationship like a bad habit.  Say something like, “I have to be the pastor (or priest) for the whole parish.” You may have made an enemy, but better an honest enemy than a false friend. When someone enjoys your visits, good. When someone thinks you are they own you, bad. Above all, avoid commitments that are compulsory annual events, except with family. You will be moving in a few years and what seems reasonable now will require a two-hour drive on a Sunday when they send you to the opposite end of the diocese in a couple of years.

Real human intimacy is essential for life. The first psychological insight about humanity in the scripture is that, “It is not good for man to be alone,” but inappropriate intimacies have done more harm in the Church than you can possibly imagine. Therefore, one of the most important things you will have to do as young priest is to establish appropriate relationships. The first set of appropriate relationships is your genetic and legal family.

People regularly ask me what I am doing for Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter. When I say, “I am spending the holiday with my family,” a look of shock comes over their faces and they ask “You have a family?” I always want to say, “No. I was hatched in a nest of alligators.” If you have siblings, get close to them. Invite them over to dinner. Be part of the lives of siblings, nephews, nieces, cousins, and the rest. Be the organizer of family events.  Try not to plan Sunday afternoon or Saturday night ministry commitments.  Go to Sunday dinner with your family.  Invite yourself over to the cousins’ house. 

“But!” I can hear you saying, “That’s when important things happen in the parish, on the weekends.” Yes, that’s true, but everything you establish that depends on your presence will wither and die when you leave the parish in a couple years. In the parish of tomorrow   which is here today events must be established and driven by the laity. Your job will be to establish the theological and spiritual climate of the parish. Someone else should run the coffee hour and the bingo.

Stop by and say hello. Stand in the vestibule after Mass. Meet and greet, but remember, you will be leaving soon. You are there to represent Christ. Someone else will represent Christ for these people in a couple years. Don’t make yourself indispensable, and don’t make the parish the place where your needs are met. If there is a conflict between a family event and a parish event, if possible, choose the family event. It’s better for you and in the long run it’s better for the parish. 

A psychologically healthy pastor with appropriate relationships is essential for the health of the parish. You are not Santa Claus. You cannot visit all the children in the world on Christmas Eve and you certainly can’t eat all the cookies and drink all the milk without having a coronary. I thought I could end this, but it’s going to go on for quite a while.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Advice to a young seminarian - part 12

Continued from last week…

Last week I ended by noting that two out of three young people in this country still identify themselves as members of a religious group. If one makes the criterion for membership actually participating in religious activities and living in a certain way, then I suspect that religion in general and Christianity in particular is a rare phenomenon among anyone under 25 years of age. When I was young, 60 years ago, people were Catholic or Protestant, and a very few were Jewish. That’s what you were. There were no options. The very few who didn’t participate in a religious community in some way were pitied. They were odd. Those who professed atheism or some exotic eastern religion were feared and ostracized. 

Then came the council in 1962. I was 12 years old. They were glorious heady days. We were returning to the days of the early Church. Liturgist simplified the liturgy because, of course, that’s the way the early Christians prayed. They turned the altars around because, of course, that’s the way the early Christians prayed. Everything was about a return to the first glorious days of Christianity. I have since come to think that much of the vaunted return to early Christianity was historical and scholarly nonsense. In one sense, however we have returned to the first days of the Church. We are a small and much persecuted minority. According to the sociologist, Dr. Rodney Stark, by the end of the first century there were perhaps only 10,000 Christians in a population of 60 -70 million inhabitants of the Roman Empire.

No one was a Christian because of social pressure. One was Christian because it was true. My priesthood was fashioned out of a Christian culture. Yours will be fashioned out an anti-Christian culture, just as was the priesthood of the apostles. This is the whole difference. I think that we the clergy and especially the bishops live in a fool’s paradise. We somehow think that there are people who by nature and birth are Catholics. It’s just not true. No one is born a Catholic. No one ever was. When I was young and the Church started hemorrhaging members, older clergy and my seminary teachers were fond of saying, “They’ll be back. When they have kids of their own, they’ll be back.” That was fifty years ago, we are now into our third generation of former Catholics. They aren’t coming back. There is a certain nostalgia that many have about sacraments of initiation. Parents still want their children to be baptized and receive the three C’s (confession, communion and confirmation), but they are less and less interested in getting married or buried in Catholic ceremony and they aren’t at all interested in Sunday Mass especially if it interferes with a sports program. 

Perhaps I’ve already said this, but it is rare for a bishop to see an empty church. They usually visit a parish for an event, and the church is full. The whole extended family comes for confirmation and the party afterward. They probably won’t be in church next Sunday, or the Sunday after that. In an immigrant parish, there is still a lot of life and a few young people, but after a generation in the government schools where they are taught that religion is at best ridiculous and at worst evil, the newly arrived will be just as jaded as their new country.

We must face the facts. The 2nd Vatican council did restore us to the days of the early Church, and perhaps that is what the Holy Spirit intended. We are a small persecuted minority in the modern world. Sure, the press still notices when something interesting comes out the Vatican, but in general no one is paying attention to us. The average Target-shopping, pizza-eating, sports-watching, twice-divorced, shacking-up, normal human being pays no attention to what we, the clergy, say or do -- unless it’s on a police blotter or the evening news. They love a good scandal that validates their complete disinterest in us. The Roman mobs noticed the Christians only when they were being thrown to the lions. The modern mob notices us only when we are being thrown under the bus, sometimes for perfectly good reason. 

Don’t get me wrong. The church is flourishing. Asia and Africa are filled with vital convinced Christians. So is South America, but there the vital convinced Christians tend to be ex-Catholic evangelicals. The Church is dying only in the developed world. So, what does this cheery assessment have to do with the diocesan priesthood?

The diocesan priest in the future must be as much apostle and evangelist as pastor. Until we stop assuming that people are born Catholic and until we become adept at bringing people to conversion to Christ, the Church will continue to die in this country and other “developed” countries. Right now, we are wasting our time quibbling about moral and liturgical questions about which no one on the real planet is concerned. I am not saying these things don’t matter. I have an increasing tendency to traditionalism as I age. What I am saying is they don’t matter to those who aren’t Christians, and fewer and fewer are Christians. 

We are asking the world the wrong questions. Until we get comfortable with a much more basic question, nothing will change. That basic question is “Are you saved?”  To which question the world will answer, “From what?” The whole question should be, “Are you saved from death?”  We have learned to postpone death, to hide death, to forget death, but no one, so far, can avoid death. We hold there is one exception: Jesus of Nazareth. 

You will have to be an apologist for the hope of eternal life. Your priesthood will demand so much more than mine has demanded of me. You must be steeped in Scripture and in history, but above all you must be steeped in Christ. You must be holy, not just to appear pious, but to be genuinely holy. It was said of the first Christians, “These men have been with Jesus.” When I was lad, a good priest was perhaps a good administrator, or very pastoral, or a good preacher.  None of these things will be enough. 

Your task will be to offer the world a way to escape death, and this you can do only if you yourself have escaped death, and the only way I know to do that is to radiate the presence of Christ. To do this you must dedicate yourself to prayer, study and charity. As the end of my life draws near, and I see yours just beginning, I think I would have lived my life very differently, had I the chance. I would try much less to impress people, and I would try much harder to immerse myself in Christ. I would try to be less the church man and more the saint.

When your life draws closer to its end, may it be said of you, “He has been with Jesus.”

P.S.  Study history. Start with three books: Dr. Rodney Stark’s “To Bear False Witness,” Mike Aquilina/Jim Papandrea’s “Seven Revolutions” and Crocker’s “Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church”. These three books will help you dispel much of the anti-Catholic mythology you will be taught in Catholic schools and in state school.  As for bible study, start with Jeff Cavin’s Great Adventure. Self-appointed scholars hate it, but his premise is before you tear it to pieces with avant-garde scholarship, you must know the story and the timeline.  It’s what in the olden days we called Bible history. Also, learn some Ancient Greek and Hebrew. It’s easier than you think and it is wonderful to be able to see what the text is actually saying.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Advice to a young seminarian - part 11

Letter to Robinson K. Russo, a young seminarian, continued:

Last week I said that the Church I knew had been slowly eroding for perhaps half a century. Perhaps I misspoke. The erosion has progressed at breakneck speed. It's just that we were slow to notice it. The whole thing can be blamed on people like Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford and that crowd of reckless progressives. I would push the great unravelling back even farther to that notorious speed demon, Richard Trevithick (1771- 1833), an inventor from Cornwall, England who pioneered steam-powered rail transport. It was he who built the first locomotive railway powered by steam.

At this point you may well ask what does this have to do with the diocesan priesthood?  Let us think rather of the “parish” priesthood. With the birth of the steam railway, commenced the beginning of the end of the parish, hence the end of the diocesan priesthood as I have known it.  The parish developed in a world where it was expected that very few would travel more than a few miles from the place they were born, at least until Trevithick started mucking about with steam engines. He was a mining engineer and knew he could devise something to make it all go faster. Then he realized that the steam railway could do more than just haul coal. 

To prove that rail travel was faster than the horse, he started something he called the “steam circus.” For one measly shilling, you could ride this marvelous vehicle that Trevithick claimed was faster than a horse. It might have been, but the tracks were prone to breaking down and the thing ran on a circular track, going nowhere. The London public was unimpressed. The horse still seemed like a better bet. Horses occasionally bit, but the steam engine tended to explode.
Scientific types are rarely prone to acting sensibly and leaving well enough alone. In 1830, the Stockton and Stokes stagecoach company challenged Peter Cooper and Tom Thumb, his little steam engine, to a race. The steam locomotive did splendidly until a belt on the locomotive slipped off its pulley. The horse race was lost, but the point had been made. Just a few years after its invention, the locomotive was actually faster than the horse.  We haven’t slowed down since.

So, what’s my point? Years ago, when I was aspiring to be a hippy, I had a patronizing conversation with my mother, intending to console her for how difficult I must have made her life with my odd clothing, political views and habit of coming and going without warning. I said, “Our generation must be very hard on you.” She countered, “Oh no! We were much harder on our parents.”  My thunder had been stolen.

My grandmother was born in 1882 and, in her youth, wore stiff corsets, towering hats, and floor length dresses made of enough cloth to trick out a sailboat. Her daughter, my mother, was born in 1908 and grew up in the era of the flappers, the roaring twenties you know, speakeasies, bathtub gin and miniskirts.  All that was bad enough but it was that darn Model T Ford that Henry had made available to everyone that made life miserable. Henry was one of those scientific types who couldn’t leave well enough alone. His father used to come into our grandpa’s dry goods store in Detroit and complain that Henry would never amount to anything. All he did all day was hide in the barn tinkering with motors. Wouldn’t do a lick of farm work! (True story!)

Old man Ford was right. Henry should have done his chores and minded his own business. By making the horseless carriage available to the common man, Henry single-handedly created the traffic jam, oil shortages and war in the Middle East. Worse than that, he made a way for children to get farther away from their parents than a horse could carry them. My mother said they would pile into a “Tin Lizzie” (Henry Ford’s cheap motor car) and drive down to Toledo where they could get booze despite prohibition. Since that day until our own, no one has stayed in one place for very long. The neighborhood died, and with it died the parish, and the parish priesthood. It’s just that nobody noticed for about 50 years.

Another thing that Henry killed with his car was the idea of compulsory religious belief. People tend to believe what their families and neighbors believe. Since Henry’s horseless carriage and another bad idea, the heavier than air flying machine that Wilbur and Orville claim to have invented, you can get as far away from your parents and their values as you choose. Chicago used to be a collection of neighborhoods. People asked where you were from and a Chicagoan would say St. Rita’s or St. Ita’s, or some other church. Even the non-Catholics identified themselves by the Catholic parish they lived near. People knew one another so well that they would sleep out in the parks on hot summer night, as safe as could be. They were in their neighborhoods. They were home. But Henry ended that with the help of the Daley dynasty.

Old man Daley for some reason hacked the City of Chicago into little pieces by creating the infernal system of expressways that plague the modern city. You know, an expressway, where you sit for hours in your overheating car wishing you were home. Everybody decided to move out of the city and commute into work. The neighborhoods decayed, housing got cheap and then an odd thing happened, starting with the Old Town neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. The beatnik era of the 50’s happened and young people started moving back into the city where the rents were cheap. The point of moving back to the city after growing up in the suburbs was to get away from one’s parents. There are now whole neighborhoods in Chicago inhabited by young people who don’t want their parents to know what they are actually doing. Eventually young people get tired of it and move back to the suburbs, but they have lost their faith and their communities. Thank you, Mayor Daley.

Once again you are asking what has this to do with the faith. Simple: there is almost no social pressure for modern people to be part of a religious community because family and community itself are optional. This is true for Christians, Jews and Muslims. The minute one turns his back on the tradition that he brought to this country, he pretty much ceases to be religious.

I was shocked to read that one in three young people under thirty has abandoned religion. The shock is that so many, 2 out of 3 still identified themselves as believers in some sense. The freedom given by the transportation revolution has made it possible to leave the parish (remember that parish is a Greek word that really means neighborhood?)  So, if a diocesan priest can no longer be the same thing as parish priest, what will he be?

Sorry. Have to stop now. I’ll write some more next week.