February 2, 2016
Maintaining Our Zest in Challenging Times
"We live in a time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power, and acceleration."
"The primordial blessing, 'increase and multiply,' has suddenly become a hemorrhage of terror. We are numbered in billions and massed together, marshaled, numbered, marched here and there, taxed, drilled, armed, worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race, and with ourselves, nauseated with life.
. . . The time of the end is the time when men call upon the mountains to fall upon them, because they wish they did not exist."
Why? Because they are part of a proliferation of life that is not fully alive, it is programmed for death. A life that has not been chosen, and can hardly be accepted, has no more room for hope. Yet it must pretend to go on hoping. It is haunted by the demon of emptiness. And out of this unutterable void come the armies, the missiles, the weapons, the bombs, the concentration camps, the race riots, the racist murders, and all the other crimes of mass society." "Is this pessimism? Is this the unforgivable sin of admitting what everybody really feels? Is it pessimism to diagnose cancer as cancer? Or should one simply go on pretending that everything is getting better every day, because the time of the end is also - for some at any rate - the time of great prosperity?"
Having lived with the Congregation of Holy Cross in San Juan de Lurigancho, Peru, I have experienced Thomas Merton's "time of the end" first hand. Mothers and fathers with their children were everywhere, personifying a population explosion. On busses, people were literally on top of each other. Most of them were sleeping either because of the heat or as escapism from impoverished conditions. Huts dotted the barren, arid mountains where many poor people live without water or electricity.
Although parts of Peru enjoy lush forests, a beautiful coast line and well-to-do neighborhoods, San Juan, like many poor areas in Peru, is overly congested. Its architecture is bland and noise and air pollution are common sounds and smells.
As I experienced this I wondered what would happen when the aging priests, brothers and sisters with whom I lived are gone with few replacements? Will its Catholic population fall victim to secularism, to evangelicals and growing materialism? Will barrios grow and illnesses increase that could have been prevented? Will room needed for quiet and solitude be non existent?
It doesn't take a sociologist to realize that San Juan de Lurigancho and Merton's end of time exist not only in Peru, but are prevalent throughout the world, especially in the world in which many of us priests minister. How to avoid feeling dispirited or disillusioned is one of the greatest challenges facing our priesthood. Even more challenging is avoiding escapism or becoming apathetic. How is zeal and optimism best maintained in these circumstances?
Before answering this, we must ask why I started our discussion on this note of anxiety.
In our zeal to serve Christ some of us priests tend to possess a messianic complex and feel it is our mission to counter all the ills mentioned by Merton. When, however, we sum up the challenges this involves, it can be overwhelming and disheartening. For example, how do we serve a parish or school effectively in which foreign languages and cultures other than ours abound? How do we connect with a youth culture that is immersed in secularism, the tech world and consumerism? Or for that matter, how do we connect with our own priests, some of whom are conservative and others liberal, some from other cultures than ours, and some whose theology doesn't coincide with ours? How can our homilies compete with the well-crafted messages the media fashions? How do we keep body and soul together when we are administering multiple parishes, being a chaplain to several hospitals, or in charge of a school that is forever fighting a budget crunch?
Another reason for my anxiety-filled start of our conversation is living on Capitol Hill. The awe for public office is far from what it used to be. National idealism and its ability to energize us have lost much of its vitality. Not only is there disaffection with our government, but also with our church, the business world, and everything upon which America and religion bank on.
While preparing this paper, I was handed an open letter that the well-known liturgist and musician Benedictine monk Anthony Ruff sent to the U.S. bishops. He writes, "After talking with my confessor and much prayer, I have concluded that I cannot promote the new missal translation with integrity. . . . how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have marked this process - and then when I think of Our Lord's teachings on service and love and unity. . .I weep. . .I see a good deal of disillusionment with the Catholic Church among my friends and acquaintances."
Ruff's letter, the revolt of German theologians some time back, archdioceses continuing to declare bankruptcy, and cases of child abuse and their cover-up appearing with some frequency in the news are like a virus that has gone air born and is infecting us with skepticism and pessimism. I have started on the note of disillusionment because it is a number one enemy of today's society.
Another reason I started our present conversation as I have is because good priests who are leaving tell us they didn't picture the priesthood the way it is. Their disillusion ranges from a lack of ministerial satisfaction, to disappointment with brother priests, bishops, superiors, Rome or the people they serve. When these feelings of disillusionment merge together, they can destroy our zest and dampen our desire for making progress. As is happening in some quarters of the church some priests, bishops and dioceses are circling the wagons and going into a holding position. It is no exaggeration to say that the spirit of making progress, taking giant and sometimes courageous steps, and fostering an entrepreneur atmosphere could be much stronger than presently.
The theologian, Fr. Romano Guardini states progress contains four essential qualities. We make progress when we have true faith and feel committed to someone or some noble cause. It is we having zest for life and awaking in the morning eager to meet the day and its challenges. It is developing sure instincts, and despite being engulfed in chaotic circumstances, having good sense on how to work through them. And finally, it is being knocked down and then lifting ourselves off the mat to take up the fight again.
Disillusionment on the contrary, tends to weaken commitment, to create uncertainty, to disallow us to be forward looking and hopeful, and to deplete our fighting spirit.
The four qualities of progress Guardini identifies are the heart of our priesthood, and more importantly, they are the direct antithesis to disillusionment that sours us on life.
One of the first sociological studies on our priesthood by Fr. Andrew Greeley found what people most desire of a priest is kindness. The last thing they want is a sour puss. They don't care if we can't preach, teach, organize, or even know how to speak their language. What they want is a priest who is well disposed to life, his people, and his ministry.
What is our best means for maintaining an upbeat, healthy disposition and sense of progressiveness? One excellent answer is found in a hymn in the Spanish breviary, "Ven Amor, que illuminas el camino, companeros divino de las amas: ven con tu viento a sacudir al mundo y a abir nuevos senderos a sacudir de esperanza. [Lord come with your wind to shakeup the world and open new avenues of hope]. What our age is calling for is a new gust of hope that excites us into looking forward to new possibilities, creations heretofore not imagined and the courage to cut through our chaotic existence and fill it with God's order.
In Guardini's definition of courage we learn that hope and courage are handmaids: "Courage is to take risk . . .It is the confidence requisite for living with a view to the future, for acting, building, assuming responsibilities, and forming ties. For, in spite of our precautions, the future is in each case the unknown. But living means advancing into this unknown region, which may lie before us like a chaos into which we must adventure."
"Here everyone must take the venture in the confidence that the future is not a chaos or a totally strange thing. Rather, his own character, the ordering power within him, will make a way so that it is really his own future into which he moves."
Note the hope that rings through this definition, "living with a view to the future," "advancing into unknown regions", and owning our future.
Even though I have traveled to many parts of this world and lived in different cultures, I must admit San Juan de Lurigancho was culture shock. The standard of living was very different from ours in the states. When first there, I had a momentary panic attack, feeling all my circuits were being blown. The thought also occurred, "I wish I weren't staying as long as I am." What turned this around was a visit to the school Fe y Alegria. It is not only a school but a movement that was started by the Jesuits. In addition to providing education in Latin America, it also helps poor people create co-opts, how to find and keep a job and practice healthy hygiene.
Later I went to Mass in a half-rebuilt-church next to a crowded market place. As I sat in the church, I noticed a number of offices to one side. Mothers-to-be were awaiting medical help, as were parents with sick children. Other services included psychological help. The air was filled with hopefulness amongst seemingly poor surroundings.
As a consequence of these experiences, I was filled with the spirit of hope. Not only was hope everywhere, but also courage that was driving it. There was the action, building and forming of ties of which Guardini speaks. Fe y Alegria, the lay nurses at that clinic and the people I met and with whom I talked reflected a devoted faith community dedicated to the faithful. These communities were the result of people who were willing to enter chaotic situations and use their ordering powers to create hope.
No doubt this same spirit of hope and courage exist in our ministries. The big question, however, is not whether they exist, but how strongly do they exist? As we know in the world of spirituality, if we don't make continuous progress we go backward, there is no middle ground. How then, do we re-enforce our hope and its handmaid courage in our everyday life?
The English philosopher Philip Sidney once wrote, "They are never alone that are accompanied with noble thoughts." Cardinal John Henry Newman tells us that ideas are illuminations, and he urges us to "invest" in them. These sage thoughts raise several questions about maintaining hope and courage. When last have we had a new illumination that moved us forward in ministry and gave it a new look? Are we consciously on the lookout for rethinking our way of doing business and seeking new ways of conducting it? How would we evaluate our entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and zest for findings new models of ministry?
Several years ago I worked with Fr. Joe Fitzpatrick, S.J. at Fordham University. We were conducting a study on Hispanics and I asked him how we should lay out the results of the study for a book. He looked at our statistics and said, "They are good Gene, but how about starting with success stories?" Since the time he made the suggestion, I have forever been on the outlook for success stories, exciting new models, and adventuresome ideas.
When it comes to making progress, when last have we gone on a treasure hunt for ideas to add to or change our ideas? At the moment, what books, journals, columns or periodicals do we read in order to discover novel ideas? Are there any Internet programs we consult as a means of improving our way of ministering? How frequently do we look for conferences in the area of our ministry that will increase our knowledge and understanding?
In Washington, D.C. we are blessed to have several outstanding universities, to say nothing of our Library of Congress and museum exhibits that contain mounds of useful information and insights for our ministry. When last have we tapped into them?
Some time ago, our botanical garden had a wonderful exhibit on how to best utilize our resources. At the time of this exhibit, I came across several parish success stories in our Catholic News Service that employed many of the ideas found at the botanical gardens. For example, one parish received a grant to grow a particular grass that ate up run off pollutants from its parking lot. Another parish designed an elevated garden that disabled persons in wheel chairs could work on.
Hopeful, creative ideas abound that have the power to change our parishes and work environments. All that is needed is to remember and act on Guardini's exhortation, ""Here everyone must take the venture in the confidence that the future is not a chaos or a totally strange thing. Rather, his own character, the ordering power within him, will make a way so that it is really his own future into which he moves."
Francis Bacon wrote, "A prudent question is one half of wisdom." In the research we conducted over the years, the key to a substantive study was well thought-out-formulated questions. We found that one well developed question can move a mountain, and I might add, it can also create uproar. For example, early on in our research we asked what the future of the priesthood would look like. The answers we received were not all that encouraging. Guardini's idea of advancing out into the unknown with pointed questions comes with a price [not everyone wants to face the future].
Along the lines of asking questions, one question above all needs to be asked frequently, "What if?" For example, what if we adopted our liturgies better to fit the various cultures we serve? What if we had cultural days in which each culture in our parishes and schools had a day in which they explained the traditions of their homeland, provided samples of their cooking and had question and answer sessions on their impression of the American culture?
What if we made better use of medical personnel and brought them in to speak of depression, diabetes, exercise and other topics regarding health?
Recently I was invited to give a talk at a parish I served for twenty years. Before my talk, however, there was a talk by a physical therapist who had some excellent tips on value of sensible exercise. What if we did this on a regular basis? Could we possibly see parishioners grouping together to support each other in better health practices?
What if we took a study of our parishioners to learn of their professional backgrounds and how they might apply them to the parish?
As can be seen, the strength of our hope starts with a spirit of seeking new ideas and raising new questions aimed at bringing more of God's order and uplifted spirit to our people.
Without question, today's priesthood, and for that matter today's generation is living a much quicker pace of life that is more congested and chaotic. Thus the reason we are seeing a rise in chemical dependent people, suicides and bazar behaviors. In light of this the philosopher Baruch Spinoza advises, "Do not weep, do not wax, understand!" Translating Spinoza's advice into the words of the psalmist, "Lord help us to stir up the winds that open up new avenues of hope."