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April 11, 2016

Being At Our Best As A Priest

Eugene Hemrick



"You are required to wear a fedora, a white shirt with cuffs, socks supported with garters, and to smoke cigars, not cigarettes!"

Believe it or not, these were some of the rules seminarians in the past were required to follow. As future priests they were expected to look their best at all times. Certain decorum is not only good in a priest, but also desirable. When, however, is a priest truly at his best? What might be a foremost quality for achieving this?

Years ago, a young student from Illinois Benedictine College and I bicycled from Wall, South Dakota to Seattle, Washington. We plotted the trip so that we could take advantage of free lodging with priests along the way. After our adventure was over, I asked my cycling partner, "Of all the priests we stayed with who impressed you most?" Without hesitation he pointed to Fr. Richard Pates, S.J. who was working with the Native American Indians in South Dakota. "There was something manly and authentic in him," he noted. I too felt that way, but why? Pates was a quiet person. He didn't brag about his work or even mention it that much. And yet there was something about him in the way he talked, walked and acted that carried weight.

One day it dawned on me, "He is a true ad rem priest!" The word ad rem means to deal with the matter at hand. To be ad rem is to be a person whose real and essential consideration is always what the work itself demands, that it be done well and in its entirety. It is devotion to a mission in which "I", "me" and "mine" aren't allowed to interfere with the work at hand. It is the avoidance of posturing to get attention or curry favor in the line of duty. It is what today's youth call a beautiful person.

The Greeks, and then later, persons like Cicero pondered kalos kagathon, which means human beauty at its best. They named kalos kagathon manliness and designated it the ideal civic virtue. This is what shown through in Fr. Pates.

The description of a faithful, dedicated wife in the Book of Proverbs helps us to picture the meaning of kalos kagathon in action.

"When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls . . . Like merchant ships, she secures her provisions from afar. She rises while it is still night, and distributes food to her household . . .She is girt about with strength, and sturdy are her arms. She enjoys the success of her dealings; at night her lamp is undimmed. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle . . .She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy . . .Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates."

Fr. Pates and those like him mirror the faithful wife in Proverbs who took her tasks seriously exhibited these same qualities. During my life, I have experienced several people who were concrete examples of the wife in Proverbs. When staying in the poor village of Huehuetenango, Guatemala, I witnessed Maryknoll nuns rise early in the morning and minister to poor Mayan Indians to sundown in their clinic. Even though raw sewage flowed down ruts in the streets, and the Cathedral floor was dirt, the clinic and its chapel were immaculately clean. Those nuns epitomized attending to the work at hand.

In San Juan d' Lurigancho, I lived with Holy Cross priests and a Holy Cross brother who rose early in the morning, prayed morning prayer, had a light breakfast and then were off to work. Some ministered to the poor, while others provided them with education. Again, the school and educational settings of Fe y Alegria that I visited was immaculate despite the rubble that surrounded them. Those who made this so has left their country to dedicate themselves to the missionary work at hand.

And then there are people all around us who are helping others twenty-four-seven without a murmur. They have a job to do and they do it without expecting recognition. In their vocabulary you don't hear the words, "I", "me" or "mine."

The Greeks felt that kalos kagathon was the ideal civic virtue. Interestingly the word civility contains the idea of a home. When I first learned this, I could not see the connection. Then it hit me, beautiful people have a way of making you feel at home; they epitomize St. Benedict's rule of hospitality. Although Pates was engaged in numerous tasks, he made little of them when talking with us. Most of all, he made us feel at home.

When we plunge deeper into the idea of being ad rem, it leads us to a virtue few people speak of: disinterestedness. In the book, The Virtues, renowned theologian, Fr. Romano Guardini has a chapter on disinterestedness that begins with an old Chinese proverb, "The fewer interests a man has, the more powerful he is; the greatest power is complete disinterestedness."

Guardini then points out, "One of the most profound paradoxes of life is the fact that a man becomes more fully himself the less he thinks of himself. To be more precise, within us there lives a false self and a true self. The false self is the constantly emphasized "I" and "me" and "mine," which refers everything to its own honor and prosperity, wishing to enjoy and achieve and dominate. This self hides the true self, the truth of the person. To the extent that the false self disappears the true self is freed. To the extent that a man departs from himself in selflessness, he grows into the essential self. This true self does not regard itself, but it is there. It experiences itself, but in the consciousness of an interior freedom, sincerity and integrity. The way in which a man puts away the false self and grows into the real self is that which the masters of the interior life call detachment. The saint is the person in whom the false self has been wholly conquered and the true self set free. Then the person is simply there without stressing himself. He is powerful without exertion. He no longer has desires or fears. He radiates. About him things assume their truth and order."

Guardini knows reality and how our interests often possess us. Thus he tells us, "A man must know what he wants, otherwise his actions disintegrate. He must have a goal and must orient his life to that goal. But the goal should lie mainly in the object to which he devotes himself. He will pay attention to remuneration and advancement, since his work gives him the means of which he and his family have need, gives him wealth and the esteem of others. But the real and essential consideration must always be what the work itself demands, that it be done well and in its entirety."

"The man who has this attitude will not let his actions be determined by considerations extrinsic to the task. In this sense he is disinterested. He serves, in the finest sense of the word. He does the work that is important and timely; he is devoted to it and does it as it should be done. He lives in it and with it, without self-interest or side-glances." Note Guardini's reference to living and working without side-glances! In other words, not posturing to be noticed or receive a promotion.

Surprisingly, St. Ambrose would tell us to pay attention to the way a person carries himself or herself to learn whether he or she is living disinterestedness. I say "surprisingly" because outward appearances are deceiving. And yet on second reflection, the way a person carries himself or herself often denotes their disposition.

Ambrose states, "The set of a man's mind can be read on how he carries his body. This is how we size up 'the hider in the heart' --- ranking a man as frivolous pretentious and overwrought; or ranking him as weighty, determined, humble, and restrained. The mind speaks through the body's motions."

When we experience "ad rem-ness" in a person, we experience the weight of which Ambrose speaks. He or she stands out in exuding concern and devotion about essential values in life. In a word, he or she is a statesman.

In speaking about humility, Ambrose, like Guardini, points us to disinterestedness. The work is not about my status and me; rather it is for the common good. Note the prepositional phrase "for the common good!" In his book, The Introduction to Christianity Pope Benedict XVI singles out the Preposition For as one of the pillars of Christianity. As Christ came to earth for us, lived for us, died for us, and was raised from the dead for us, so too, are we to be here for others.

Ambrose's use of the concept of restraint in the way we conduct ourselves, reminds us of another virtue that is connected to being ad rem: silence. "Silence," Guardini reminds us, "does not mean only that no word is spoken and no sound uttered. This alone does not signify silence . . . Rather, silence is that which takes place when man, after speaking, returns to himself and grows still; or when he who could speak remains still. Only he who can speak can be silent."

Guardini goes on to say, "We must be serious about this. A life properly lived includes practice in silence. This begins with keeping our mouth shut whenever this is required by the confidence of another person, the duties of our vocation, tact, or respect for others. It goes on to include keeping silence at times even when it might be permissible to speak, especially if speaking would create an impression. Not to speak at such times is a good exercise in keeping our mastery over the inordinate desire to talk. We should strive to conquer the mania for constant chatter and idle talk. How many superfluous things we say in the course of the day, how many foolish things! We must learn that silence is beautiful, that it is not emptiness but true and full life." Note Guardini's reference to kalos, "silence is beautiful!"

We must now stop and ask, "Why have we addressed lofty idealism when there are so many everyday problems facing priests and their people?"

Several new challenges confronting the priesthood give us our answer.

First, a number of priests have left and are still leaving saying they never envisioned the priesthood as it is. The weigh that is placed on priests today is much heavier than in past ages. Many priests now serve multiple parishes. More and more are becoming circuit riders. One of the lessons we learn from the age of circuit riders is most of them burned out or were killed in the line of duty. We can praise dedication to the work at hand all we want, but when work is no longer glamorous, it turns into disillusionment.

Second, thanks to our new electronic age, priests can be accessed more easily. And no thanks to the new electronic age, space and quiet needed to refresh and make their work more substantive is less and less available. Guardini would caution we are losing our contemplative edge. Our interiority to be centered and vital needs breathing space; it needs silence to grow! When this is absent we tend to atrophy mentally. English novelist Sir Philip Sidney once wrote, "Those who walk with noble ideas are never alone." Priests often point to loneliness as one of their biggest struggles; they need people, and equally true, they quiet need time to cultivate new ideas.

Third, scandals have tarnished the image of the priesthood. This has created ugliness that didn't exist in earlier times. Although a priest may have good self-esteem, living under a cloud of low esteem takes its toll on idealism.

Fourth, from sociology we learn no matter how disciplined we are, we tend to mimic society. It is no exaggeration to say our society is steeped in me-ism and what I can get out of life, rather than what I can give to life. It is the antithesis of disinterestedness. As so often happens, the challenges to priestly ministry can sometimes become overwhelming and unrewarding, causing a priest to wonder if this is the way he wishes to live the rest of his life. All it takes is being moved from a parish he loves or parishioners confronting him to have his world collapse around him and to cause him to wonder "what is in it for me?"

In all of the above, idealism is threatened, and when this goes, so do priests become the walking dead or leave. Why did we go in the direction of the ad rem priest? For priests, or for that matter, for anyone, perseverance is needed in being dedicated to the work at hand, cultivating disinterestedness, and strengthening the power of silence. Maintaining these ad rem virtues is at the heart of keeping a priestly heart pumping sturdily in the midst of overwhelming challenges, disillusionments and disappointments. They are the counter weight needed to generate priestly humanity at its best, reflecting the best of God's goodness within us.