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Posted November 29, 2007

If the truth were self-evident, eloquence would be unnecessary
-- Cicero (106 - 43 BC), Roman orator and statesman

The Prominence of Truth in the Priesthood

My gray mood darkened as I peered out the window of the Metroliner traveling up to New York from Washington, D.C. The administrative board of the bishops’ conference had just pounced on our national study that demonstrated the priests’ shortage was critical. I was sternly reminded, “The church isn’t sociology. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit!”

The purpose of the trip was to consult on a study of Hispanics at Fordham University with sociologist Fr. Joseph Fitzpatrick.

As I entered his office, he asked: “How’s it going Gene?”

“Joe,” I replied, “we just finished a million-dollar study on the priests’ shortage and nobody wants to hear the results. They don’t shoot the messenger. They murder him!”

With an Irish twinkle in his eye, he looked at me and said: “Gene, Gene, I’m surprised at you! You aren’t worth your salt unless you have a dozen miters coming at you at once.”

Some time later, I was talking with a fellow researcher Dr. Dean Hoge about research we had conducted that also wasn’t being accepted. Dean turned toward me in total frustration and blurred out, “Well, why won’t they accept these conclusions? They are as plain as the nose on your face. What’s their problem?”

Unlike the gloomy mood I was in with Joe Fitzpatrick, I jokingly said, “Dean, did you ever hear of the word politics? It comes from the Greek word polis, meaning people? Leaders in high positions feel responsible for the good of the polis. There are times like now that they don’t want to panic them, or give the impression things are falling apart on their watch. Statistics can be very intimidating. They uncover things people would rather let be. You know the old saying, ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ In other words, be politically savvy.”

Years later, I recounted these stories to Congressman Gilbert Gude, who was helping me write a book. He laughed and said, “That’s nothing! When I was director of research for the Library of Congress, we were commissioned by Congress to study the pros and cons of coal and nuclear energy. Because the results of this multi million-dollar study weren’t to the liking of the congressional committee, they never saw the light of day.”

Not far from the Library of Congress is Washington, DC’s new spy museum. The one message visitors come away with most is good counter intelligence is essential to security. The better we know the truth of the matter, the better we can combat the enemy.

When I related the above stories to an MBA professor, he asked, “Gene, what words do you think most appear in text books of an MBA course?” After guessing wrong, he replied, “They are honesty and truth. You’ll find them on almost every page. After recent scandals that caused people to lose their life savings, and tarnished the image of CEOs, the business world is finally turning to truth to bail out itself.”

These stories are examples of the pivotal role truth plays in life, and especially our priesthood. The one virtue more than any other needed to revitalize our priesthood is truth. This is not to say other virtues aren’t as important, but rather to hold that the attributes of truth, when concretely and decisively applied to our problems, best respond to them.

As prominent as is truth, seldom do we translate it into concrete, practical principles. Useful check lists based on its principles are few. I must confess that during thirty years of conducting church research, never was it used as a major variable in our studies. It wasn’t on our radar scope, nor were the times calling for it. For example, in a national study we conducted in 1985, seminarians were asked what one quality priests should possess? The question was close ended; meaning respondents were given a list of defined categories to choose from. The list included apostolic zeal, chastity, friendliness, holiness, intelligence, leadership, obedience and professional competence. Although truthfulness may be implied in some of these categories, it was never directly asked.

In hindsight, I wonder whether we avoided using truth as a variable because of its threatening nature? When we earnestly employ it, it tends to call for change and causes uneasiness.

Even though truth is paramount, why choose this spiritual, abstract concept over more concrete ways of responding to the challenges facing the priesthood? Several of it outstanding principles were the reason for this choice:

• The church is founded on its martyrs who died for the truth.

• It’s the basis of an entrepreneurial spirit and a wholesome priestly image, both of which are presently at a low ebb.

• It’s of unequaled value for keeping pace with the evolutionary issues of our times.

• It’s indispensable for solving our major problems.

The first reason for emphasizing truth is based on the early martyrs upon whom our church is founded.

In the first reading in our breviary for the Feast of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, Saint Bede the Venerable tells us: “There is no doubt that blessed John suffered imprisonment and chains as a witness to our Redeemer, whose forerunner he was, and gave his life for him. His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Does Christ not say I am the truth? Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ.”

A second reason for singling out truth is its power to awaken our drooping entrepreneurial spirit. Truth implores us to utilize our reflective powers to their maximum. It encourages in-depth thinking by getting us to seek the essence of the matter. Truth challenges us with questions like: Have we employed our potential to its maximum? What more needs to be improved, envisioned and created? What is hindering us from changing that which needs to be changed?

On our website, The National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood, http://www.jknirp.comwww.jknirp.com., we have a discussion section. The second question ever posted on it was specifically chosen to stir up the entrepreneurial spirit of priests and lay leaders. It read: The Catholic Church thrives on the imagination and creativity of its members. What two issues do you think are most in need of "The Catholic Imagination" - and what imaginative changes would you envision? $200 will be awarded for the most creative and imaginative response!

Even though responses to the question were interesting, none of them reflected cutting edge creativity. The best recommendation came from a respondent who said: “The first thing the Catholic Church needs to do is to call for and support imagination and creativity in its members. I think the message we get is more of obedience and sticking to the status quo.”

Throughout the country, examples exist of excellent entrepreneurial programs in parishes and dioceses. However, when we closely examine the main focus of the priesthood, its attention tends to be more inward on internal problems than outward and entrepreneurial. All we need do to prove this is to review our literature, convocations and informal conversations. Most of them center around morale, celibacy, divisions, sexual abuse, priestless parishes, and pressing internal problems. These are valid concerns requiring immediate attention, but when they consume us they diminish the altruistic side of our priesthood. They also decrease the spirit of having a mission. The word mission in Latin means to send and has an outward thrust to it. When we have a mission, we go out to others. If a study was conducted on the ratio between outward, creative services for our people and self concerns, I believe we would find that self concerns would outweigh concerns for creative services. More often than not, our critical thinking is focused on everything we consider amiss in the church and our priesthood. Animated discussions of success stories we might imitate, experimentations we might try, and imaginative possibilities for making our ministry more vivacious and effective are few and in between.

In his studies of the church in the U.S., historian Jay Dolan points out that it wasn’t long ago when the priesthood was alive with summit meetings. Priests gathered in great numbers to discuss combating racism, the Catholic flight from inner cities, vitalizing the liturgy, raising social justice awareness, and responding to issues like, the loss of the family farm, the changing face of the family and ethics in the marketplace.

We also had a number of unique priests championing labor unions and just wages. During this time, I was privileged to live with Monsignor George Higgins, the Chicago labor priest who often marched with people like Caesar Chavez to defend the dignity of farm workers.

It was also the time of the Call to Action in which imaginations went wild, [and to the chagrin of some bishops who convened its meetings, so did its participants]. Exciting thought-provoking questions and constructive criticism electrified the air. Take, for example, the observations of Monsignor Gino Baroni, a staunch defender of the poor, “A Theologian (Harvey Cox) once suggested that the decline of the relevance of the major faiths was creating a secular city, indicating that the churches have no role in the urban malaise.”

In stating this, Baroni was chiding parishes that reflected self protected enclaves more than proactive communities of Christian principles.

Baroni also stated, “We need to review and understand what has happened to us as we moved from being aliens to being naturalized, to being ‘Americanized.’ American Catholic young people will be facing new challenges and new cultural conflicts as they strive to find out what it means to be third and fourth and fifth generation. What does it mean to be Catholic? What does it mean to be Catholic in America?”

Baroni’s statements reflect an era in which questions that cut to the truth of matter flourished. Interestingly, the issues Baroni addressed in 1975 apply equally to today’s immigrants. What does it mean, for example, to come from Mexico or South America and to be Catholic in America?

No doubt times have changed, as have the players. We can’t return to the past. We must not, however, lose the timeless spirit of creativity for which all generations are responsible! Our drive for closure on issues crying to be resolved must never be compromised or diminished! One principle our millennium ministry needs to embrace is The Rule of the Final Inch that is summarized by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book The First Circle. In a conversation between two prisoners somewhere in Siberia, Solzhenitsyn’s describes the inspiring force within this rule.

“And now listen to the Rule of the Final Inch! In the Language of Maximum Clarity it is immediately clear what that is. The work has been almost completed, the goal almost attained, everything seems completely right and the difficulties overcome. But the quality of the thing is not quite right. Finishing touches are needed, maybe still more research. In that moment of fatigue and self-satisfaction it is especially tempting to leave the work without having attained the apex of quality. Work in the area of the Final Inch is very, very complex and also especially valuable, because it is executed by the most perfected means. In fact, the rule of the Final Inch consists in this: not to shirk this crucial work. Not to postpone it, for the thoughts of the person performing the task will then stray from the realm of the Final Inch. And not to mind the time spent on it, knowing that one’s purpose lies not in completing things faster but in the attainment of perfection.”

I stand to be corrected, but I believe today most of our thinking is done within the box due to divisions and scandals that are crippling our spirit. We live in struggling times in which keeping our balance and unity are the issue of the moment, let alone practicing The Rule of the Final Inch. As a consequence, the tendency to pull the wagons around in a circle is much stronger than the will to take the offensive. To become overly wrapped up in self preservation is to run the risk of further diminishing our spirit.

One of the most famous Catholic apologists of the last century, G. K. Chesterton, once stated that there is a close connection between the moon and lunacy. The moon is a circle that circumscribes everything within it. As with all circles, there are no openings. Applying this image to humans, Chesterton would tell us that once we become encircled by our self concerns, we become totally wrapped up in self. This in turn smothers our space and often results in bizarre behaviors.

To be, or not to be more outward gazing, creative and in earnest about seeking new horizons are the question of the moment. We have the choice of either backing into the future or storming it. The truth of the matter is in our court.

Another reason for spotlighting truth is because the “reverend” before our name isn’t as reverend as it used to be. Sad to say, dishonest priests who should have been role models are either modeling prison suits, or experiencing the ancient penalty of being ostracized.

Dishonesty will always be with us. Truth, however, would say: if this is especially true today, what new strategies must the priesthood devise to counter a culture in which honesty is increasingly difficult to achieve?

Yet another argument for emphasizing truth is the need to keep pace with new millennium evolutions. Here truth would ask: how faithful are we to our prophetic calling and the theology needed to make it impact on critical issues of our times? Are we continuing to study the disciplines needed to effectively address these issues? Take, for example, the theology we need to wisely address stem-cell research that is at the very heart of life. By nature of our office, and we need to add, the priesthood of the laity, we as church are responsible for teaching the moral truths needed to guide these evolutions. It’s not beyond imagination to say our age could become an age known for creating Frankensteins if our religious influence fails to address new millennium moral dilemmas.

Even though one case after another can be made for the primacy of truth, it might still be argued that truth talks about ideals. It really doesn’t address the concrete realities of the priesthood. It’s too theoretical and is not what philosopher Martin Heidegger calls techne, i.e., a practical means to an end. It doesn’t, for example, lend itself to pragmatic recommendations like those found in the study, Experiences of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years. When priests were asked what more was needed to raise morale they responded:

• Better relationship and leadership o the bishop with his priests. Help them to feel appreciated and part of a community.

• Better rapport with the bishop. We cannot share private information with the bishop concerning our vocations. I personally feel like a serf.

• More communication and less concentration on diocesan and provincial policies.

• Honest appreciation for honest work. There is a disparity between the priests who work hard and those who have learned to keep up appearances.

• Allow priests to speak freely to their bishops or religious superiors without fear of reprisals.

• Trust priests more to do what is best for their congregation, and less meddling with rules from above.

• Treat priests like men, not children. The constant threats about disobedience and demands for uniformity are treating us as children.

• Restructure the offices of the chancellery. Audit them and impose an efficiency assessment.

• Change their attitude toward outlying parishes. Limit the terms of service and/or accumulation of powers. Stop pandering to special interest groups. Stop being so concerned about how we are viewed by others.

• We had a tough time with scandals. Being open and honest will keep us from having more surprises.

As concrete as are these suggestions, a closer examination of them reveals they are crying for truth. For example, priests call for “better rapport,” “honest appreciation,” and “trust.” In other words, there’s a need for more truthful communication between ourselves and with our bishops. Priests are also calling for a more truthful understanding of their accomplishments. Most important of all, they want to be treated as honest, truthful human beings. As one priest once told me, “I dislike being treated as a child. We are thinking adults who serve the church because we have something to contribute as adults.”

When we hear the cry for restructuring the chancellery in this study, what is the real truth of the matter? What needs to be straightened out? And why call for more “openness and honesty” and “no more surprises?” Isn’t this really a call for the transparency generated by truthfulness?

As we can see, truth cuts into the very heart of everything that is of the essence to the priesthood.

One other trademark of truth needs to be mentioned here: truth is forever driving us deeper in understanding the whole truth. For example, as important as are the above recommendations for raising morale, truth would further ask: are they all there is to morale? Aren’t there other categories for raising it? Isn’t it also increased when we are at our best serving others and creating imaginative programs for accomplishing this? Why wasn’t this mentioned? Why so much self centering and no mention of our outward mission?

No doubt, the above arguments make a good case for the prominence of truth in our priesthood. However, making a case is one thing, winning it is yet another story.