Friday, June 27, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part one

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I will never go to a Catholic bingo game again. My Aunt Morticia was snatched away from us at the tender age of 101 and 8 months. We were overwhelmed by her premature and untimely death.  Aunt Morticia had not attended Mass since the Korean War, but was deeply spiritual and a devout Catholic. She never failed to attend Monday night Bingo at Our Lady of Spain Parish. She felt it her duty to support the church in this way.
In our grief, we called the nearest Catholic Church to arrange a funeral and spoke with Monsignor Fensterslammer.  He was horrible. We informed him that we had planned a wonderful slide show on the life and loves of our Aunt Morticia and wanted to show it in church after communion. (She once dated Xavier Cougat and was rumored to have had a fling with Calvin Coolidge.)  This was to be followed by a bag pipe rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to which melody her great, great, great niece was going to tap dance in the sanctuary. (It’s the cutest little routine. Morticia loved it. We just knew that the marble floor in the sanctuary would be perfect for tap dancing.)
Despite our grief at the unexpected death of our beloved Aunt Morticia, Monsignor Fensterslammer just said, “Are you out of your minds???”  
I didn’t think this was very pastoral and neither did Bishop Lance Fairweather whom we promptly called to complain. He said Monsignor Fensterslammer would be hearing from him. I hope he gives it to him good.
Ann T. Clerikuhl
 Dear Ann,
I commiserate wholeheartedly with your grief. I myself am mourning the loss of a beloved friend, one of the finest priests I have ever known. I miss him greatly, because, among other things, he always counseled me to restraint and tolerance. Now that he is gone and no longer able to restrain my baser instincts, I would like to address your question in the context of a long treatise on the priestly life in our times, at least my priestly life in our times. He always told me it would be unwise to do this, but he ain’t here, so here it goes.
First, allow me to say that I have no regrets about having spent my life as a priest. As I see life’s little conveyor belt chugging along and the people just ahead of me dropping into the great beyond like widgets off an assembly line, I have no regrets about having said “Yes” to the Lord’s call to the altar, no matter which way the altar happens to be facing at the moment. I whine a lot, but I come from a long line of world class whiners who thought that complaining was an Olympic event. 
I remember complaining to another whiny descendant of the Germans. He looked square at me and said, “Yeah, but you get to say Mass.”  He was absolutely right. I get to say Mass. To hold bread in one’s hands as it becomes the flesh and blood of the Messiah is an amazing privilege. It is not the priesthood I am complaining about. It is the non-priesthood I am complaining about. And my parish — my parishioners are wonderful. They far exceed me in holiness and generosity. I am not complaining about the parish. It is the non-parish I am unhappy with. 
Non-priesthood? Non-parish?  The non-priesthood and the non-parish are things like the pet “parent” calling and asking for a wedding ceremony for their two dachshunds.  We wouldn’t want them to live in sin now, would we?  Or the person who comes looking for a gallon jug of holy water because some psychic told them they have to paint their children’s bedroom with the stuff.  I just love it when the TV psychics tell people that because their house is built over an ancient Indian graveyard, they have to get a Catholic priest to do an exorcism while a shaman blesses the house with burning sage.  Then the TV pans to some priest, supposedly “Catholic”, doing a scene right out of the “Exorcist”. 
“Get the yellow pages, Junior. That’s just what we need to get Pa’ to stop drinkin’! They got to have discount exorcists in the Catholic Church. After all, don’t all them priests take vows of poverty?” 
I may be exaggerating, but I am not making any of this stuff up. I have been asked to do the strangest things for animals and to cast the devil out of the darnedest places. People seem to get most of their religion and all of their history from the television and having seen a show on the discovery channel, they assume that they know how this stuff is supposed to work.  Catholicism is a coherent and reasonable way of life. As such it is not well suited for present day America. 
I think that the priesthood, especially the diocesan priesthood is in crisis. Our understanding of the priesthood and the parish comes from Middle Eastern and European village life a thousand years ago. The expectations we have of priests and churches are created by television and the popular (lack of) culture. Most of the pundits of modern culture, the geniuses of the media, have not darkened the door of a church or synagogue since Jesus was a boy, yet they create an outdated expectation for the Church that the faithful, the unfaithful and, amazingly the clergy swallow hook, line and sinker.
The faithful and the unfaithful can be forgiven for their ignorance. After all, if it’s on TV it must be true. But the clergy? The clergy of our times constantly talk about “being pastoral.”  This is new-speak for wanting to be liked because if we are not liked, people will leave the Church and that would be horrible wouldn’t it?  Jesus was always nice to people, especially small children and large dogs. He was so nice that they crucified Him.
The geniuses of the media are about as deep as a puddle.  Allow me to recount an incident from my own life. When the movie “The Exorcist” was re-released about 15 years ago, the mid-level officials of the diocese went into panic mode. They had no exorcists because they fervently hoped that no one actually believed in that stuff anymore. The mid-level officials certainly didn’t. They realized that they were going to be deluged with calls from people whose children’s heads were spinning around 360 degrees as they levitated over the furniture. Worse than possessed children, they were going to get calls from journalists looking for a slow news day scoop. The mid-level diocesan officials summoned all the priests who were involved with the charismatic renewal, the only ones who still believed all that mumbo jumbo, and told them to brace themselves.  Having some fluency in the Spanish language, I was assigned to all Spanish speaking demons and the journalists who accompanied them.
Sure enough, it was not long before I got a call from the chancery asking me to come down to the chancery for an interview with some network called Telepsycho, or Mundobizarro or something like that.  I then got another call telling me they would come up to my parish because they wanted some place that looked more, well, religious than an office downtown.  That afternoon I got a call from my secretary to come downstairs. The Telepsycho Mundobizarro people had set up for the interview in church. I walked over and the place had been backlit in smoky purple light that made it seem like a cheap fortune teller’s storefront. They wanted to put a light on me that made me look a little like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. I said “Kill the lights or no interview.”  They grudgingly did so, but it was clear that they were looking for a story and not for the truth. If you see it on TV, it’s probably a lie, especially if it’s on the news.
Next week: More of a harangue that will go on indefinitely.

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