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Posted Nocember 19, 2007

Putting Truth to Work in the Priesthood

by Eugene Hemrick

It is one thing to show a man that he is in an error, and another to put him in possession of truth -- John Locke (1632 - 1704), English philosopher

It’s easy to talk about the merits of the virtue of truth and hail it savior of the new millennium priesthood. Equally easy is to discuss principles like the need for more transparency among bishops, priests and lay leaders, getting it straight, and being authentic. Translating these principles into concrete action is yet another story. Moving on them is imperative for the priesthood to be imperative!

Some years ago, Bishop Fulton Sheen encouraged his TV listeners to recall the image of God as a person who likes us to seize the moment. “If the opportunity is allowed to slip by unimproved,” he said, “success turns into failure. There is the name of a place that signifies such a turning point in human lives and that is Kadesh-Barnea, which is situated on the southern border of the Promised Land. There came a point in the pilgrimage when the children of Israel were within striking distance of their inheritance. They sent out spies, twelve of them, to report on the land they were about to take. The majority report, made by the representatives of ten of the tribes, was that the land could not be taken because the cities were too fortified and the enemy too numerous. The minority report, brought in by Joshua and Caleb, was turned down despite the fact that God had told the people through Moses that they would possess the land. It’s this point in the journey that determined their future. With the fruit of their tribulations within their grasp they refused to take it and thus had to continue wandering in the desert for many years

. . . . “There is a Kadesh-Barnea in every person’s spiritual life. One’s background may be filled with unbelief, guilt, dishonesties, adulteries, and any of the seven pallbearers of the soul. Then there comes a moment of illumination to the mind, perhaps in a moment of sickness or a startling thought while reading, or the vision of innocence in a child. If this grace is responded to, a person is lifted out of himself, cuts connections with the past and starts out on a new career and new paths, with heaven shining in his face.”

When today’s church and the priesthood are compared with past times, church observers are quick to point out that we presently mirror the Israelites at Kadesh-Barnea. We are in a state of inertia. One bishop with whom I worked recently said that too many of his priests reflect a status quo mentality.

The opposite of being a status-quo-oh-hum-priest is to have a yearning for greatness in everything we do – to be poetic and to change the ordinary into the awesome.

Greatness according to Romano Guardini includes:

• The strictness of man's demands upon himself

• The willingness to stand for what is important

• A breath of vision

• Boldness of decision

• A depth of involvement

• Originality

• Creative power

It’s no exaggeration to say we could use many more creative, inspiring programs than presently exist. We may be demanding of our self, but our entrepreneurial spirit, boldness, originality, breath of vision, and the creation of new, exciting movements leave much to be desired. There are many reasons for this.

First of all, we have been backed into a corner of caution due to the sexual abuse scandals. Compulsory background checks, required attendance at sexual abuse seminars, bankruptcies, clergy embezzlements, and a hesitancy to venture out have retarded our entrepreneurial spirit. Bankrupt and financially crippled dioceses, in particular, have had to reduce their programs, hence reducing their talent pools.

Inertia is also the result of priests who love the trappings of the past church triumphant, but are less prone to embrace its progressive thinking and social justice side.

Inertia is likewise due to priests who tell us they are solely interested in pastoral ministry. They feel their studies were completed with ordination. However, when their pastoral side is overly emphasized, routine, monotony, rigidity, and lack of imagination tend to set in.

As in all walks of life, there’s also the phenomenon of embracing an enclave mentality in which there is no desire to leave the comfortable confines of a parish or community and venturing out in search fresh ideas.

To some extent, the above reasons can be justified. We have taken a heavy hit and need time to come up for air. And too, we have a much different breed of priests than in the past. They are older, more diverse in theological thinking and haven’t lived through a Vatican II age aimed at updating the church.

Among some priests, there’s a feeling the changes the Vatican Council made diminished the sacredness, orthodoxy and the stability of the church and the priesthood. They contend our times are calling for a return to fundamentals and the restoration of devotions that were cast aside. Some even argue that the liberals have done more damage than good for the church. What is needed is to return to times in which the church was much more certain of itself and its authority.

We definitely live at a time in which divisions are more pronounced with some wanting to plunge forward, while others feel the way to go forward is to return to fundamentals. Those who are for being status quo question the need to be forever moving forward. What’s so wrong with being status quo, they ask? What is so wrong about resurrecting the past? Isn’t this what we do with old historical homes and other historical artifacts? Aren’t we forever recalling past legends and isn’t the church founded on past tradition?

Desiring stability, cherishing the past and returning to fundamentals is justifiable. As much as this is true, there is another truth the priesthood must live: it must be balanced. To be balanced, it must draw from the past, enter fully into the present, and combine past and present into a progressive future. At present, a good number of us seem to be more interested in reliving the past, and maintaining the status quo as a means of safely moving into the future. We seem to have lost our appetite for change, risk taking and experimentation.

What is the basis for emphasizing an entrepreneurial spirit? Truth would reply: take a look at salvation history. Early on in the Old Testament God pushed the Israelites to leave Egypt, and continued to push them forward when they revolted against Moses and wanted to return to it. At Kadesh-Barnea God became angry at them for not moving forward.

In the New Testament Christ is forever commending those who are progressive and move forward. New wine needs new wine skins! He wants us to use our talents, to avoid going to sleep at the switch as the foolish virgins did, and to think outside the box. All we need do is listen to him talking with the woman at the well, Nicodemus, his disciples and the Pharisees and Scribes. I have often wondered when Christ is so harsh with the Scribes and the Pharisees if he isn’t actually using the ploy good teachers enlist: chiding students to think beyond their closed world of ideas.

In the bible we are forever hearing “fear not.” In other words, don’t let inertia and paralysis grip you! Move with the confidence that God is with you. Not only are we repeatedly encouraged to adopt an adventuresome spirit based on confidence in God, but one look at the tradition of the church reveals it has been at its best when moving forward with new ideas, new movements and saints who were risk takers.

Interestingly, a first principle of spirituality is: “There is no neutrality in the spiritual life. Either we go forward or we will end up going backward.”

If the Old and New Testaments are testaments of God wishing us to overcome fears, inertia and the temptation to be overly concerned about security, what is the antidote? What practice or exercise is most needed to move our priesthood into the Promised Land?

Some time back, I participated in a Jesuit mission that gives us our answer: we must become a new breed of priests that exemplify the athleticism Saint Paul frequently lauded. We must walk more of our talk, be more assertive, aggressive and earnestly practice purposeful intent. We must exercise the art of practice!

Each session of the Jesuit mission I attended had two parts. The first part of the session was a presentation. The second part consisted in participants breaking into small groups and applying the thoughts of the presentation to their lives. What particularly struck me was the emphasis on performing an exercise. It was as important as the presentation.

Having undergone the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius throughout my seminary formation, I thought to myself, “I have been here before!” We were forever going through spiritual exercises aimed at moving us into action. As one spiritual commentator on the exercises explains, Ignatius wants us to “take a walk,” to “make a journey,” in other words to go beyond meditation and to aggressively walk the talk, to commit to purposeful intent.

Rushworth Kidder, a writer who once wrote for The Christian Science Monitor would add that we especially need to improve and increase our “intentional decision making.”

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic work, The Brothers Karamazov, this principle is beautifully lauded in the quote. “Active love is more than a feeling or a thought; it is a concrete action.” Equally true is the principle: truth is more than a feeling or thought; it is a concrete action.

In the second reading in our breviary for the feast of Saint Denis and his companions, Saint Ambrose echoes this principle in yet another way: “One who hears but does not act, denies Christ. Even if he acknowledges him by his words, he denies him by his deeds . . . The true witness is one who bears witness to the commandments of the Lord Jesus and supports that witness by deeds.”

When we summarize the demands of the new millennium, one of the greatest challenges we face is moving beyond studying, meditating, and lauding new ideas and acting on them. We must avoid the temptation of telling ourselves, “Yes, that is exactly what we need to practice!”, and then do nothing more about it. Convocations and study days are good for priestly camaraderie and ongoing education, but they are much better when they generate concrete actions in which we commit to an action and evaluate how much has been accomplished in the convocations that follow. Often much of our time at these gatherings is spent on camaraderie, with little time devoted to planning on how to convert camaraderie into concrete action that continues after the gatherings are over.

Some might argue that the priest senate or some other type of administrative gathering is where this planning and action should take place. Perhaps this is true, but isn’t this a throw back to the vertical way dioceses and religious orders usually operate: from the top down? Isn’t the millennium calling for the examination of new models of operating in which all priests are convened and made to individually feel ownership in the decision making process and the carrying out of certain decisions? Truth would ask: as much as we emphasize working together,

how much do we really work together? Have we studied the way we presently accomplish this and brain stormed on ways for improving it? Effective modern day organizations are forever seeking models for improving collaboration. One of the repeated refrains we hear in studies on priests is that we need better organizational skills to be more effective and not burn out. Learning ways to better collaborate is one of major skills most called for.

When we speak of practicing truth, we are also talking about asceticism. Without it, truth is like a ship without a propellor.

In the minds of some persons, asceticism conjures up images of stoicism and people who are rigid and no fun. And too, some priests might object here, why point to asceticism when most of us work more than forty-eight hour weeks and feel our work has turned them into stoics whether they like it or not? As true as this may be, asceticism is yet another absolute for the priesthood. It must be the handmaid of truth if it is to be the virtue of the moment. To learn why this is so, listen to Romano Guardini on the subject.

In his book, The End of the Modern World, he points us to terrifying aspects of our present age. Never before in history have we gained control over power as we have today. This is especially true in harnessing the atom. It can be employed to enhance life like never before or totally obliterate it. An Armageddon is not only a real possibility, but as many feel, it is waiting to happen.

In conversations with police officers on Capitol Hill, we have often discussed the feeling that chemical warfare or a nuclear attack is a not a question of “if,” but of “when.”

To insure that this doesn’t happen, Guardini argues we need to cultivate a “new breed” of an ancient spiritual art. The art of which he speaks is asceticism.

In Greek, the word asceticism means to exercise and practice — exercise in the proper directing of one’s life. This is the same asceticism St. Paul lauds when urging us to imitate disciplined athletes.

Asceticism, exercise and practice don’t only mean going into action, but embracing the attitude that they are integral to our progress and happiness. In our new age, we need to pray as much for them as we pray for our people.

What might be an inspiring example of a concrete, contemporary exercise of truth in action?

One such instance is found in the description of how Bishop Tod Brown of Orange diocese exercised truthfulness in handling his sexual abuse cases.

If you ask me where I found the wisdom and courage to move forward during those days, I have to say it was the personal support, honest advice and professional direction provided to me by the other leaders and experts in our diocese, particularly the laity. In legal affairs I not only was assisted by a fine, experienced and able legal team, I was also advised by a dozen or so Orange Country judges and top-level attorneys in the various legal fields.

. . . I have learned two things through all of this:

First, frequent and transparent communication, not only with your advisers but with the whole people of the diocese, is essential, although at the start it feels like the last thing you want to do. As a bishop, I believed that it was my job to figure it all out, to make the right decisions and then tell everyone that I’ve solved the problem. Like any father of a family, I wanted to solve the problem before anyone knew there was one.

What I and the other bishops of our diocese did instead was to make a covenant with the faithful and then keep that pledge, which included, among other things, to be as clear and honest as we could in our communications. Sure, many who had their own agendas did not believe us, and many people do not believe us even today. To them it is still all "spin."

But many, particularly among Catholics, did listen to what we communicated and, after sifting it for themselves, became more and more convinced of the honesty of our statements and commitments. At any time communication with a large, rambunctious and multilingual, multicultural and ethnically diverse flock is difficult, but even more so in the midst of a crisis. But if I ended up making difficult decisions, it was because the people of God were part of the process. I listened to them, and eventually many of them listened to me.

This leads to the second thing that I learned: the church is all of us. Of course, I knew that in theory and in theology before all this happened. I have been committed to collaborative ecclesial leadership during my years as a priest in the Diocese of Monterey and as a bishop in both the Diocese of Boise and the Diocese of Orange. But I had the experience of it at a very deep level during this crisis.

It was only with many people – lay, religious and ordained – working at a very high level of commitment, through many long hours of meeting wherein each brought their expertise to bear, that I was able to take decisive action with conviction and confidence. Along with Bishop William Skylstad, I believe that the whole church will learn "how helpful it is to have the laity involved as fully as possible in the life of the diocese and the parish.”

Note the courage and strength that was required for Bishop Brown to move ahead. As difficult as it is to face the issue, he is decisive, and exerts the energy needed to squarely deal with the situation.

Vince Lombardi once said that fatigue makes cowards of us. It makes us procrastinators. Squarely facing the truth in extremely difficult matters is very tiring because of its demands. More often than not, these demands tempt us to look for easy ways out. Vigilance, as Christ taught us, means burning the candle at both ends, and it’s exactly the asceticism for which the wise virgins are praised.

During the time of the abuse scandals I had a conversation with Cardinal Bernardin about their toll on him. “Gene,” he said, “They [meaning the press and public] don’t want a stand in to answer their questions, they demand my presence. This is extremely fatiguing and takes all the energy one has. It’s tough to be truthful, not because you’re dishonest, but because you’re fatigued and aren’t up to sorting through details.”

We need to note next in Bishop Brown’s description of the honesty that rings throughout it. He states, “I have learned two things through all of this. First, frequent and transparent communication, not only with your advisers but with the whole people of the diocese, is essential, although at the start it feels like the last thing you want to do.”

In other words, the practice of transparency is imperative for acting honestly. Note, the temptation to run from the difficulty of facing the truth, or to think he alone best understood it. He practices truthfulness through the exercise of excising the demons that would tempt him to shortcut his duty.

Note, especially, how he concretely practices truth by having his bishops and himself pledge themselves to be “clear and truthful in our communications.” To be clear and truthful wasn’t just an ideal. They actively pledge themselves to truthful communication.

As laudable and idealistic as is the above honesty, many people resist practicing the straight forwardness it demands. Why is this so? Because most people don’t like to open up themselves. Secretiveness and privacy are more to their liking. The reason for this is justifiable. When we reveal all, it exposes our vulnerability and can increase it. Openness runs the risk of being turned against itself. There’s always someone in the wings ready to make us eat our words. Nowhere is this vicious tendency more evident than in public politics. Many election advertisements reflect the skillful art out of twisting the innocent words of an opponent to one’s advantage. The psalmists know this foible of human nature all too well in stating, “His speech is softer than butter, but war is in his heart. His words are smoother than oil, but they are naked swords.”

As true as this is, every so often a courageous person comes along who rises above worldly follies. The best word to describe him or her is candor, the very candor that rings through the handling of the abuse cases in Orange Diocese.

Candor is derived from the Latin word candere, meaning to shine. It connotes the very brightness our priesthood could use much more of for overcoming our most difficult challenges.

In the psalms for Thursday, Week IV in the breviary for Ordinary Times we read, “No sword of their own won the land, no arm of their own brought them victory. It was your right hand, your arm and the light of your face: for you love them.” The psalm reminds us that the light of face that candor generates contains the very strength we seek in order to respond to the complex challenges that confront us.

The main purpose of this chapter is to prompt us to move beyond lauding truth and to convert it into concrete action. Let’s look at some critical issues in the priesthood that are calling for new millennium candor and the action it encourages us to take.

Issue I: How Creative Are We?

Every so often we need to stop what we are doing and ask: in order to keep our entrepreneurial spirit bolstered, what habits and routines need overhauling? Here candor would ask: when last have we endeavored to change the way our homilies are structured? When last have we earnestly endeavored to add to their substance and weed out the oh-hum that naturally creeps into them? When last have we taken an inventory of our routines, lifestyle and modes of operation for the purpose of amending them? When last did we make an effort to make them more effective, efficient and meaningful? As professional athletes are forever analyzing their most minute movements to learn of ways to improve them, how much do we conduct self-studies of ourselves for the sake of making improvement?

Issue II: Knowing Each Other

During the retreats I conduct, one evening session is always devoted to five or more priests telling their journey through the priesthood. Without a doubt, it’s the best conference in the retreat because of the candor of the priests.

In conversations with retreatants after these sessions, I have often heard them say, “This is the first time we have ever tried to know each other better.”

In Latin, we have two words for knowing: sapere, i.e., we know something about another, and cognoscere, i.e., we know another personally and intimately.

Here candor would ask: How much do we truly know our brother priests? It’s very common to label people and to see them solely through the eyes of a label. Often the label is uncomplimentary. Do we ever put aside labels and truly endeavor to listen to each others’ stories? Have we ever considered this exercise as a means of strengthening our presbyterate and spirit of brotherhood?

Issue III: Understanding the Cultures of Brother Priests

Presently, we average 340 international priests entering the country each year. Studies reveal that not everyone is happy with them.

Candor would ask: Have we, who are American-born, truly faced our attitudes on this issue? Have we listened to international priests about their feelings on being accepted? Do we know them in the sense of sapere or cognoscere? For that matter, how much do parishioners truly know them?

When I was at the conference of bishops, it was customary to have events in which employees from cultures other than an American culture hosted a multicultural fair. We ate their foods, watched documentaries on their countries and learned of their cherished traditions.

In dioceses that have numerous international priests, candor would ask: why not have a multicultural clergy day for them? What better way of becoming one with brother priests?

Issue IV: Understanding the Theologies of Each Other

The current priesthood is composed of pre-Vatican II, Vatican II and post-Vatican II priests.

Candor would ask: Have we ever sat down and truthfully tried to understand each other’s vision of the church and the theologies that have formed us? How about a clergy conference devoted to the different theological backgrounds of priests? How has theology evolved and what was it like to be a seminarian in the past as compared to the present?

Issue V: Addressing Our Life Styles

Approximately 18 to 19 percent of parishes are without a resident pastor. This will continue to increase with time. It’s also becoming common for a priest ordained after a few years to shoulder the responsibility of more than one parish. One bishop with whom I worked once said that we spend all our time in telling priests what they can and can’t do, but we never ask about their health.

In all candor: have we truly addressed the health and lifestyles of those who administer several parishes? Preventive medicine today is a major reason we have curtailed many potential illnesses. What preventive measures are we creating to maintain the health and psychological well-being of priests who have entered a new and undefined millennium age of pastors?

Issue VI: Facing the Continuing Priest Shortage

In the numerous retreats I have conducted, I am amazed at the number of retired priests attending them who are also attending to a parish. In some cases, they may have several parishes under their responsibility. These priests are the last bulwarks against an even more severe decline in priests in the U.S.

Candor would ask: are we going to deny this latest reality as some people denied the first signs of a shortage in the priesthood? What more needs to be done now so that later we aren’t caught sleeping on this change of events? As we heard in the study of priests ordained five to nine years: “Please no more surprises!”

Issue VII: Accountability

It has been suggested by researchers, and I might add bishops, that the priesthood needs more accountability. The call for accountability is based on two reasons. First, accountability helps to make us more conscientious in our ministry. Second, it helps priests who entertain the misconception of entitlement to realize it doesn’t come with the collar. The priesthood isn’t above evaluation! Humbly submitting to evaluation, staying grounded and on our toes beget respect and foster progress!

Every year I get a flu shot. One year my secretary told me to wear thr collar because it would put me first in line for the shot and it would be free. Sure enough, I went first and received a clergy discount: no fee! I must say I enjoyed the privilege. Candor would tell us: even though we are highly respected, our priesthood should never be thought of as a privileged class? Our brightness of character depends on down-to-earth humility and imitating the servant role of Christ.

Issue VIII: Being the Extension of the Bishop

The most recent study of priests ordained five to nine years reveals there is considerable distrust between priests and bishops.

Candor would ask: have we ever openly discussed what it means to be an extension of the bishop? Do we fully understand what working together with, and not just under a bishop, means? Why are bishops seen more as Darth Vaders than co-workers in the vineyard? Do we realize that a better understanding of this role is one of our biggest challenges, and we might add, opportunities for living the principle, “In unity there is strength?

Issue IX: Enlarging Our Conception of Morale

Recent studies reveal that 80% of priests say morale is good.

Candor would ask: When we speak of good morale are we solely talking about feeling good about our self? Is morale an individualistic issue of feeling good about me and my becoming a priest over again if given the opportunity, or is it a collective issue and feeling good about the entire priesthood and church? How well are we working together? When I say “working together well “ this includes working with the bishop, religious superiors, community members, diocesan offices, lay leaders, deacons and religious. Is there heartfelt concern when we see the diocese floundering, the diaconate or lay leadership under fire? Does our diocesan priesthood and religious community spirit have a ring of solidarity? Have we developed a bigness of character that moves us beyond our provincial world of self concerns to the bigger concerns of the communities and church we serve?

Issue X: The Role of Being a Co-worker

Laity and priests working together are a “sine qua non” of the new millennium church. In his introduction to the book, Yves Congar: Theologian of the Church Gabriel Flynn, writes,

“Cardinal Yves Congar viewed the twentieth century as an occasion of evangelic opportunity: ‘I know that it is a century of unbelief and religious indifference, that it is also the century of the expansion of Islam, but among the minority of faithful who truly believe, it is a really evangelistic century.’”

“I have argued elsewhere that the Church should engage in a reassessment of its educational apostolate in order to ensure the success of the enterprise of evangelization for the new millennium, inspired by Pope Paul II. In executing the mission of evangelization, the Church depends on its two richest resources, namely, a holy priesthood and an educated laity — and never has the Catholic laity been so theologically literate and self-confident as it is today. The point I wish to make is that the presence of the priest, alongside his theologically educated and articulate lay friends in the educational apostolate, is more necessary than ever for the renewal of the Church. The Second Vatican Council affirms the teaching office of the priests as co-workers with the bishops in the transformation of the apostolic faith in all its integrity. Pope John Paul II has called for a renewed commitment on the part of all consecrated persons to the Church’s mission of education. He highlights their indispensable contribution to the cause of evangelization and education in his Post-Synodal Exhortation Vita consecrata, given in 1996:

‘With respectful sensitivity and missionary boldness, consecrated men and women should show that faith in Jesus Christ enlightens the whole enterprise of education, never disparaging human values but rather confirming and elevating them [. . .] Because of the importance that Catholic and ecclesiastical universities and faculties have in the field of education and evangelization. Institutes which are responsible for their direction should be conscious of their responsibility.’”

As emphatic as have been our popes and theologians about priests being co-workers with the laity, studies reveal there are a number of priests who haven’t as of yet comprehended this. Some are reverting to the ombudsman’s model in which “Father is THE teacher!”

Some year back we asked priests in one of our studies how they would handle the priest shortage. We were surprised to hear a considerable number say, “I will just have to work harder.” They weren’t interested in working harder to work together with the laity, but were more intent on shouldering the entire burden of ministry alone. Perhaps this has changed somewhat since that study, but I believe we still have a sufficient number of priests who see themselves as long-ranger-ombudsmen.

Candor would ask: how much do we revere our role of co-worker? No doubt, as in all institutions, some people tend to be micro-managers and the boss. As true as this is, how much of our priesthood is diligently working to build a church of share responsibility, shared ownership and adult to adult relationships? Do we take seriously the priesthood of the laity and ever envision how this charism complements our priesthood?

We opened this chapter with Kadesh-Barnea and the urgency to overcome the general inertia that has invaded our priesthood. The above questions are an example of issues awaiting the concrete exercise of truth. The Promised Land is waiting for us to take it. All we need do is to march on it.