August 21, 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 recently, 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 jammed together 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 Peru enjoys 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 took this in, I wondered what would happen when the aging priests, brothers and sisters with whom I lived aren't replaced? 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 Luriganchos and Merton's end of time exist not only in Peru, but are prevalent throughout the world, especially in the world in which we minister. How to avoid feeling dispirited or disillusioned in the midst of this is one of the greatest challenges facing our priesthood. Even more challenging is to avoid slipping into escapism or becoming apathetic as a way of avoiding its chaos. How can we realistically maintain zeal and optimism in these circumstances?
Before answering this, we must first ask why I started our discussion on this note?
For one reason, in our zeal to do the Lord's work we tend to possess a messianic complex and feel it is our responsibility to counter Merton's time of the end. When, however, we sum up the challenges this involves, it can be overwhelming, and worse, 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 and consumerism? Or for that matter, how do we connect with our own priests, some of whom are conservative while others are liberal? How can our homilies compete with the well-crafted messages found in the media? How do we keep body and soul together when 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 beginning as I have is living on Capitol Hill. The awe for public office isn't there. National idealism and its ability to energize us has 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 pride themselves.
While preparing this talk, 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 recent revolt of German theologians, archdioceses continuing to declare bankruptcy, and cases of child abuse and their cover up appearing in the daily newspapers are like a virus that has gone air born and is infecting us. I have started on the note of disillusionment because it is a number one killer of the human spirit in today's society.
Another reason I started as I did is because our best priests who are leaving tell us they didn't picture the priesthood the way it is. Their disillusion ranges from lack of ministerial satisfaction, to disappointment with brother priests, bishops, superiors, Rome or the people they serve. As is happening in some quarters of the church, some of our priests have left, while others have gone into a holding position and are circling the wagons. When these feelings of disillusionment merge together, zest and our desire to make progress are deflated.
The theologian, Fr. Romano Guardini points to four essential qualities necessary for making progress. We make progress when we have true faith and are deeply committed to someone or some noble cause. It is awaking in the morning with a zest to meet the challenges of the day. It is possessing sure instincts and having a good sense of how to work through chaotic situations. And finally, it is lifting ourselves off the mat after being knocked down and taking up the fight again.
Disillusionment on the contrary, weakens commitment, creates uncertainty and skepticism, destroys our power to be forward looking and hopeful, and depletes our fighting spirit.
These qualities of progress are at the heart of a healthy priesthood. 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 almas: ven con tu viento a sacudir al mundo y a abir nuevos senderos de esperanza. Lord come and shakeup the world with your wind that uncovers new avenues of hope. What our age is calling for is a new gust of hope that raises new exciting possibilities and creativity heretofore not imagined. It is calling for a new breed of courage capable of cutting through our chaotic existence and filling it with God's heavenly order.
In Guardini's definition of courage we learn that hope and courage are handmaids: "Courage, he states, 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," Note, the means for accomplishing this, "our character, the ordering power within us." Note, the final quality of courage, "to own our owe future." In this final note, we are encouraged to be the forgers of the future. We, not someone else, are to be the visionaries, the entrepreneurs, the co-creators of God.
Even though I have traveled the world and lived in different cultures, I must confess San Juan de Lurigancho was culture shock. The standard of living was very different from ours in the states. 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 created by the Jesuits. In addition to providing education in Latin America, it also helps poor people create co-opts, learn 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.
These experiences exuded hope. Not only was hope in the air, but also the 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 talked to 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 what are we doing to strengthen them continuously against the weakening forces of disillusionment? As we know from the world of spirituality, if we don't progress, we go backward; there is no middle ground. How then, do we reinforce our hope and its handmaid courage in our daily lives?
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 strong hope and courage.
First, the word noble come from nobilis, to be well known. As an adjective, it translates possessing esteemed ideas that are prominent and powerful.
In light of this definition, do we make it a point to identify the best in literature for fortifying our ministry and priesthood?
When I was studying for my doctorate, I had a professor who often graded us on the quality of our footnotes and the authorities we used to back up our statements. In giving homilies, teaching and dealing with everyday ministry are noble thoughts companions there to guide us? What is the depth of knowledge?
Newman would further ask us, when last have we had a new illumination that moved us forward in ministry and gave it a new look? 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. At the time, we were conducting a study on Hispanics. I asked Joe how we should compose the results of the study for a book. He looked at our statistics and said, "They are good Gene, but how about starting with some success stories? They contain inspiring models that catch your eye and fancy immediately. Joe than employed graduate students to find those stories. When they finished, we learned of pro bono medical and legal assistance given to immigrants, as well as political organizing that helped to give them a voice in government. Upon further investigation, it was learned numerous other services were available that ranged from marriage counseling, community organizing and learning English to baby sitting that freed impoverished mothers to earn a living.
Ever since Fitzpatrick's suggestion, I have made it a practice to search for success stories. It is no exaggeration to say they are abundant, and are saturated with hopeful suggestions.
In Washington, D.C. we are blessed to have several outstanding universities, to say nothing of our Library of Congress and museum exhibits that offer useful information and insights for our ministry. No doubt New York, like many big cities, also has these opportunities. Here Newman and Sidney would ask, when last have we taken an inventory of these resources and tapped into them?
Some time ago, our botanical gardens had a wonderful exhibit on how to best utilize our resources. At the same 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 like these abound that have the power to uplift the life of a parish, school and our communities. All that is needed is to 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."
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 an uproar. [Early on when we asked what the future of the priesthood would look like and found out the answer, it caused a riot. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't add that Guardini's idea of advancing out into the unknown comes with a price.]
William Shakespeare wrote, "Ignorance is the curse of the gods, knowledge the wings whereby we fly to heaven." Although questions come with risk, forgoing them deprives us of one of our best ways for making progress in sometimes very chaotic circumstances.
Another dimension of a prudent question is the hypothetical question, "What if, what then would follow?" Recently, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life learned that a high percentage of Catholics who left the church dropped out because their "spiritual needs were not being met." What if we examined this finding in greater depth to learn what is meant by spiritual needs and then compared it to what we offer in terms of spiritual needs? What if we took this study seriously and did extensive brain storming on its most startling findings?
Along the line of spiritual needs, what if we adopted our liturgies to fit the various cultures we serve better? 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 studied our people to learn of their professional backgrounds and how they might apply their talents in the parish or our schools?
Recently I was invited to give a talk at a parish I served for twenty years. Before my talk, however, there was a physical therapist spoke about the value of sensible exercise. What if we did this on a regular basis? Could this possible lead to a parish fitness club?
We need to ask now, when all of what is said is summarized, what one thing most are we encourage to focus on? "All around us we see activity, organization, operations of every possible type; but what directs them? [It is] An inwardness no longer really at home with itself. An 'interiority' too superficial to contact the truth lying at life's center, which no longer reaches the essential and everlasting, but remains somewhere just under the skin-level of the provisional and the fortuitous."
In the book, Power and Responsibility, Romano Guardini, like Merton and Pope John Paul II realized we live in a culture of death capable of destroying God's kingdom on earth. "All around us," he points out, "we see activity, organization, operations of every possible type; but what directs them? [It is] An inwardness no longer really at home with itself. An 'interiority' too superficial to contact the truth lying at life's center, which no longer reaches the essential and everlasting, but remains somewhere just under the skin-level of the provisional and the fortuitous."
By pointing us to interiority, Guardini is asking, what if we read, increased our knowledge, brain stormed, meditated and prayed more, wouldn't this lead to being more substantive, creative, progressive and alive, and isn't this at the core of hope? If knowledge is the wings whereby we fly to heaven and getting understanding is paramount, isn't this the best way to leave no room for disillusionment?
Without question, today's priesthood, and for that matter today's generation, is living a much quicker, congested and chaotic pace of life that is causing a rise in chemically dependent people, suicides and bazar behaviors.
Without question, worldly and church issues that weigh heavily on cause us to wonder where sanity and inspiration can be found. No doubt, there are many times we feel like giving up on life. In his day, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza sensed this and advised, "Do not weep, do not wax, understand!" Paraphrasing our Spanish hymn, we end by praying, Lord help us to stir up the creativity and inquisitiveness of our minds that open up new avenues of hope and dispel disillusioning thoughts of giving up on life.