Posted November 13, 2007
Facing Resentments and Careerism
Truthfully in our Priesthood
By Gene Hemrick
If our priesthood is to be guided by the principles of truth, it needs to honestly face its two major enemies: resentment and careerism. Why center on these two vices and not others?
The reason for singling out resentment comes from my experience of giving retreats, and days of recollection. Whenever it is mentioned, it touches raw nerves. Most people with whom I have worked agree that once a grudge gets hold of them, it takes forever to overcome.
Resentment has also been chosen because the opposite of resentment is kindness. It is the one virtue that parishioners most desire of their priests.
Careerism is singled out because it’s a natural driving force in all vocations that can either be employed for good or bad, depending how truthfully it’s handled. It also plays very strongly to the male mystic.
Whenever the topic of resentment surfaces, it’s a winner for getting attention. Why is this? Because no one escapes its tentacles. This shouldn’t amaze us. The bible contains one story after another of resentments. Cain resents Abel. Joseph is resented by his brothers. Saul resents David, and David’s wife resents his dancing before the Ark. In the New Testament, the Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees resent Christ, and Judas resents the man who loved him.
The story of the hired laborer in the Gospel contains one of the most informative lessons on how resentment can suddenly turn a cheerful, bright moment into darkness.
Early in the morning an unemployed laborer is hired by the owner of a vineyard. Thanks to his new job, he’s now promised a pay check, and more important, the identity that comes with having employment. What a wonderful way to start the day!
Around noon, another unemployed man is hired, and later in the day yet another is employed.
At the end of the day all are paid the same. Even though the man hired first receives a just wage, he becomes indignant for not being paid more. He should have been happy at having any work at all. If he had done a good day’s work, it should have given an added sense of accomplishment. Most of all, he has a paycheck. And yet, this isn’t enough. Resentment transforms him into an unhappy person whose mind has darkened.
The word resentment means “to feel against,” denoting being at war within oneself or against another. It’s a hardening of heart that raises malicious thoughts like, “I deserve better than what I am receiving? Don’t let them get away with that!” Or we think, “who do they think they are dealing with, a fool?”
At other times these thoughts encompass the whole world prompting us to think, “the world is against us, don’t ever forget it!” On this last sentiment, the French philosopher, Voltaire would comment, “Never having been able to succeed in the world, he took his revenge by speaking ill of it.”
Revenge doesn’t always follow resentment, but lifelong grudges do. In my Italian home when we repeated old resentments, my mother would say, “That’s an old canzone — an old song. Turn the record over, and let life begin anew!”
Despite knowing resentment is wrong, some people, and priests in particular, find it difficult to turn over the record. Instead they keep playing the same side by avoiding diocesan meetings, divorcing themselves from the presbyterate, and knit-picking.
In the Spanish version of the Benedictus, we have the phrase sombra de muerte, the cloud of death Christ the Light of the World came to dispel. Sad to say, when we can’t get over our resentments, we become the walking dead. The war within us destroys our ability to smile, joke and be our true self.
In Hearts That We Broke Long Ago, Canadian writer Merle Shain paints a dreadful description of the effects of resentment in observing, “Until one forgives, life is governed by an endless cycle of resentments and retaliations, and we spend our days scratching at the scabs of the wounds that we sustained long ago instead of letting them dry up and disappear. There is no way to hate another that does not cost the hater, no way to remain unforgiving without maiming yourself, because undissolved anger shutters through the body of the person who cannot forgive.”
Without a doubt, there’s always something to resent in our priesthood. Resentment is an occupational hazzard especially because we are men of high ideals and often have a false expectation that everything is supposed to be like the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Being able to live with the gaps in life isn’t part of our spirituality. We forget that perfection is preceded by imperfection.
To be a real priest is to practice the exercise of identifying and squarely facing resentments that create sombra de muerte in our ministry. The major resentments that can infest the priesthood are many. When they coalesce, they can literally smother our spirit. Take, for example, resentments over:
• An incommunicable bishop or superior
• Feeling unrecognized or misunderstood
• Not receiving a parish or position we felt we deserved
• Priests who left and “deserted” us, or priests who tarnished the image of the priesthood by foolish behavior
• Divisive parishioners
• Brother priests who are forever tearing down the church and our priesthood
• Conservatives if we are liberal and liberals if we are conservative
• Married men from other denominations being allowed to become priests while talk of a married priesthood is off limits
• International priests within our ranks, or being an international priest who feels unaccepted
• The censuring of theologians
• Poor health
• The slow pace of renewal, and at times, its reversal
The laundry list of woes is endless.
A friend, who is a vicar general of a diocese, once confided, “The guys used to like me before I got this position, and I really cherished their camaraderie. But once you’re raised above peers, it’s interesting how the level of resentment toward you also rises.”
As he told me this, I could hear the crowds saying of Jesus, “Isn’t this the son of the carpenter?” How very difficult it is to see someone from among our ranks elevated!
Would that it was true that resentments like the above were the only ones badgering our priesthood. Unfortunately, resentment has several levels, and the higher the level, the more difficult it is to overcome.
At the moment, the level of resentment over the handling of sexual abuse cases is very high. Several priests have told me, “I lost respect for the bishops because of their policy of three strikes and you’re out.”
One priest raged, “The term ‘three strikes and you are out’ is so secularly American, and ever so divorced from Christian theology.”
Several priests point to the way in which religious orders handled the same scandal, and have remarked, “Why didn’t we follow their example? It was much more in line with the priesthood.”
The religious orders were also under heavy pressure. And yet they seemed to be better balanced. Take, for example, the response made by Fr. Ted Keating, director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men [CMSM]. "Whether he's sick, or in prison, or charged with something, he's still a member of the family, and we take care of him and watch out for him, even though we would not tolerate what he did in any way.”
In this statement we hear echoed the age-old belief, Tu es sacerdos in aeternum. We also have the image of the good shepherd seeking the lost sheep, and personification of God’s mercy.
The CMSM statement not only reflects mercy, but it also contains a quality of love that is seldom referred to — fraternal correction, i.e., no toleration for unpriestly conduct, ever! If so, it is to be corrected immediately! By no means did CMSM look the other way. Like the bishops, it disciplined its priests severely.
Sad to say, I have met too many priests whose rage reflects the rage of the priests above. Anything as deep seeded as it is will require a lengthy effort to uproot. It won’t disappear on its own. If we don’t diligently work to overcome it, it could cause some disenchanted priests to use it as an excuse for leaving the priesthood on the grounds it isn’t all that sacred.
In Italian, we have the phrase non si preoccupare, meaning, “don’t worry”; “don’t be preoccupied or let something get hold of you!” As easy as it is to say this about deep seeded resentments, it’s extremely difficult to practice. Once resentment stings us, its venom tends to infect our entire being. Even the saints had their resentments and found them very difficult to resolve. Why is it so difficult to overcome? One reason is that resentments penetrate deeply into our entire being, and once in it, they tend to recycle themselves, mutate and get stronger.
During my ministry, I have counseled many women whose marriages were annulled. In the course of our conversations, they would often speak openly about their ex-husbands. When I listened between the lines, I could see they still loved them. Every time I have gently said to them, “You still love him, don’t you?”, tears swelled up and the head bowed, indicating yes.
When we are deeply touched by another, whether it is through love or a love betrayed, the heart is pierced. This is but one reason why resentments are so difficult to resolve. No matter how much the mind may say, “Forget it and let life begin anew,” it’s very difficult to convince an afflicted heart. What might be one way to treat this affliction?
Karl Rahner would counsel us to remember we are less than perfect. One of the major blocks to curing resentments is self-righteousness: we feel we are above reproach and hence don’t deserve affliction. Or we may feel life should be this or that way, and no other way; that life is meant to be perfect. In these cases, Rahner counsels us to remind ourselves we are sinners. He further reminds us that as we have been injured by others, so too, have we injured others. Admitting our imperfectness is the truth that levels us. Once so humbled, it’s less easy to be resentful.
The opposite of resentment is the virtue of kindness. It means being well disposed toward oneself and life.
In one of Fr. Andrew Greeley’s first church studies, he found that parishioners desire a kind pastor more than any other type of pastor. Good homilies or being an excellent administrator is admirable, as are being a champion of social justice, good fund raiser or builder. Kindness, however, leads the list. Parishioners will overlook his foibles if he’s kind and gentle of heart. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe sums up this extraordinary power of kindness in telling us: "Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound." We might add, it’s also the golden chain by a priest becomes a true shepherd with his flock.
One of the best descriptions of the kindness inferred here is found in Cardinal John Henry Newman’s definition of a gentleman.
“A gentleman is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast; all clashing of opinion, or collision of feelings, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home. He has eyes on all his company; he is tender toward the bashful, gentle toward the distant, and merciful toward the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best. He is never mean or little in disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves toward our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend.”
The second major stumbling block in the priesthood, and for that matter, in all institutions, is careerism. Although it’s an occupational hazzard, our priesthood is more than an occupation. It’s a sacred vocation in which we are called to be good shepherds.
Even though Pope Benedict XVI could have chosen other topics that would seem more apropos for the occasion, his homily to the first priests he ordained as pope began with a reflection on careerism.
“Carreerism,” he said, “is the attempt to 'get ahead, to gain a position through the church: to make use of and not to serve." The psalmist in Psalm 131 echoes this same aversion to careerism in praying:
Oh Lord, my heart is not proud nor haughty.
I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me.
Truly, I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
As a child has rest in its mother’s arms,
even so my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
both now and for ever.
This psalm teaches us that an inordinate desire for self-advancement is undesirable, and those who successfully avoid the temptation are blessed with a peaceful soul.
The opposite of careerism, Benedict points out, is being a shepherd who knows his or her sheep, cares for them, and who is willing to give his or her life for them.
This theme of Benedict’s can be traced to his classic work The Introduction to Christianity. In it, he points us to one of the hallmarks of Christianity: the principle of the proposition “for.”
He writes: “Because Christian faith demands the individual, but wants him for the whole and not for himself, the really basic law of Christian existence is expressed in the preposition ‘For.’ . . . That is why in the chief Christian sacrament, which forms the center of Christian worship, the existence of Jesus Christ is explained as existence ‘for the many’, ‘for you’, as an open existence which makes possible and creates the communication of all between one another through communication in him.”
During the Vietnam war, a reporter asked a Vietnamese man, “Why are your people going over to Communism when they are traditionally Christian?” The man replied, “Because Christians aren’t very Christian! They are more interested in themselves than being for others.” The principle of the proposition “for” was missing.
The admonition to avoid careerism in the priesthood reminds me of an ironic story I heard while working at the conference of bishops. Immediately after the installation of a new bishop of a large archdiocese, two powerful monsignors, who were known for running the archdiocese, lost their positions in the chancery office and were given parishes. Within a year both died of heart attacks.
Only God knows why they were taken. The news of their deaths, however, left many of us wondering whether they envisioned their careers over, and died as a consequence.
Interestingly, when I mentioned Pope Benedict’s homily on careerism to a marine general, he said, “I would really like a copy of it. This is one of our biggest problems in the corps. Too many men and women are entering it with the idea of making it a personal career. In doing this, they are losing sight of our motto, semper fidelis. In pledging faithfulness to the corps, a marine dedicates himself or herself to others, not to personal gain. In battle, you aren’t out there for yourself, you are there for the other.”
In his address at the dedication of the new Marine Museum at Quantico, Virginia, Jim Lehrer of the Lehrer News Hour gave an inspiring picture of the “for” proposition as it applies to the Marine Corps, and we might add to our priesthood.
“ It's about the shared experience and the shared knowledge that comes from being a U.S. Marine, such as knowing that you are only as strong and as safe as the person on your right and on your left; that a well-trained and motivated human being can accomplish almost anything; that being pushed to do your very best is a godsend; that an order is an order, a duty is a duty, that responsibility goes down the chain of command, as well as up, as do loyalty and respect; that leadership can be taught, so can bearing, discipline and honor; that "follow me" really does mean "follow me"; and that that Semper Fidelis really does mean "always faithful"; and that the Marines hymn is so much more than just a song.”
. . .”When Marines stand for or sing the Marine’s hymn, . . .it’s never for ourselves personally. It’s always for Marines who went before us, with us, and after us, first and foremost for those who gave their lives, their health, their everything . . .”
We can only wonder if some of the problems bombarding our church are traceable to those of us in leadership positions who have consciously or unconsciously fallen into careerism, watered down our intellectual honesty, and forgotten that we belong to a corps of men and women who “went before us, are with us, and will come after us?”
“Intellectual honesty,” U.S. business executive, Charles Sanford, Jr. once said, “is more than what's legislated; It is inherent in the best people, those who take a broader view of their actions than simply ‘What's in it for me?’"
We will always have careerism. When its emphasis is on what’s in it for me, it not only stifles the “for” principle upon which Christianity is built, but reduces the priesthood to mercenary status.
In order to avoid becoming too self righteous in condemning the aspiration of moving ahead, truth would remind us of the virtue of magnanimity that encourages us to utilize our gifts to the fullest? It asks, didn’t St. Thomas Aquinas say, ‘It belongs to magnificence to intend doing great work with a broad and noble purpose in mind?’
This leaves us to ask, “Where’s the line drawn between careerism and magnanimity?” Speaking from past experiences in my own priesthood, I can honestly say this is one of the most difficult things to know.
As the director of research for the bishops, I truly believed I was on the noble mission of employing research for the good of the church. Success was based on four principles: the number of talented persons we were able to enlist; our studies being utilized on the national level; the amount of press we garnered, and the number of lectures and articles based on our studies.
In hindsight, I now see how easy it is to cross over the line between the good of the church and what’s in it for me. Relishing glory is easy to justify on the pretense of pursuing a noble purpose. When we get on the glory trail, it has an insidious way of smiting us with blind ambition. It’s true that the church runs on an entrepreneurial spirit and that ambitiousness is part of its energizing force. But how do we avoid falling into careerism and “me-ism?”
Here is where the wisdom of truth is most fruitful. First and foremost, truth would encourage us to be critical thinkers. We must forever be raising soul-searching questions. Never stop growing in self-knowledge, especially self-motives! To be truthful to our self, we need to be forever asking tough questions. We must forever remember, ‘A prudent question is one half wisdom.’ As long as we never stop probing our interior motives, and are truthful to ourselves, we needn’t worry about crossing over any lines. Truth has a way of making us conscientious, and thus growing in wisdom.
In the movie Ben Hur, there’s a sobering scene that strikes at the truth of a glorious career. After Ben Hur has vanquished his rival Marcellus in a furious chariot race, he is crowned the victor by the emperor. Within minutes after this, the stadium becomes eerily quiet. The crowds are gone and there is no one more to vanquish. One senses the emptiness of it all.
I remember a woman saying to me, “That scene reflects a humbling fact of life. Once all its rush, cheering, and exaltation is over and nothing remains but silence, what ultimately have we achieved?”
Her remark causes us to wonder, “Ultimately, what are we about in all the advancements we seek? What is the real truth of the matter?”