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Posted June 2, 2011

Maintaining Our Zest in Challenging Times

Eugene Hemrick

“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 the poor area of San Juan de Lurigancho, Peru recently, I experienced Thomas Merton’s “time of the end” first hand. Mothers and fathers with their children were everywhere, personifying population explosion. Busses were jammed with tired, worn out people, and 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 arid, dusty and very congested. Its architecture is bland, and noise and air pollution are common.

As I surveyed this, I wondered what would happen when the aging priests and religious brother with whom I lived aren’t replaced. Will its Catholic population fall victim to secularism or the evangelicals? Will barrio-like huts continue to spread through the area, preventable illnesses increase, and opportunities for solitude no longer exist?

It doesn’t take a sociologist to realize that San Juan de Luriganchos and Merton’s end of time not only exist 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 we face in today’s ministry. Equally challenging is not succumbing to escapism or becoming apathetic as a way of coping. This leads us to ask, how do we not only cope, but go on the offense and take control? Before answering the question, we need to reflect on why our discussion started on the note of disillusionment.

For one reason, we tend to possess a messianic complex and feel it is our vocation to change life for the better. When, however, we sum up the challenges this involves, the crushing demands of our present age are overwhelming. For example, how do we serve a parish or school effectively in which foreign languages and cultures other than ours abound? How can we serve the vulnerable poor and the growing number of homeless best? How do we respond to our people who are suffering from depression and chemical dependency? How do we get on the wave length of our wired youth culture? How do we unify our presbyterates that are split between conservatives and liberals, old and young, foreign and native? How can our homilies speak to our times effectively against a backdrop of cleverly crafted messages the media produces? 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 with disillusionment is that I live on Capitol Hill where awe for public office is on the wane. There is not only disaffection with our government, but also with our church, religion in general, the business world, and everything upon which America and religion pride themselves.

While preparing this talk, I was handed an open letter that the renowned liturgist Fr. Anthony Ruff, O.S.B. 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.”

At the same time of Ruff’s letter, we had a Protestant church protest at the burial of a soldier killed in Afghanistan. As one commentator commented, “when do groups who claim they are a religion, lose their license to be so?”

The black eye religion is getting because of fanatical groups, Ruff’s observations, the recent revolt of German theologians, diocesan bankruptcies, and cases of child abuse appearing daily are like viruses containing disillusionments that have gone air born and are threatening the vitality of our human spirit. I have started on this note on the principle that before a prescription for ministry is recommended; the disease must be identified and diagnosed first.

Another reason I started as I have, is priests leaving and telling us they didn’t picture the priesthood the way it is. Their disillusionment ranges from lack of ministerial satisfaction, to disappointment with brother priests, bishops, superiors, Rome and the people they serve. In some quarters of the church, there is a circling of wagons. In other quarters, there are self righteous groups who feel they are the church with a capital T. Although we pray for unity at daily mass, the issues and events around us speak of anything but unity. Whenever disillusionment fills the air, the fervent desire to make progress is endangered. In describing the essential qualities of progress, theologian, Fr. Romano Guardini shows what is at stake when we talk about this danger to our ministry.

Progress is made when we possess a vital faith and are deeply committed to someone or some noble cause. It is present when we awake in the morning with a zest to meet the challenges of the day. It is developing sure instincts and good sense needed to work through chaotic situations. And finally, it’s when we have cultivated the ability of taking up the fight again after being knocked to the mat.

The curse of disillusionment is that it cripples our desire to commit, cultivate sure instincts, to hope, and to maintain a fighting spirit. Ultimately, it sours us on life.

In his early days of conducting research, sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley found that our people desire kindness more than anything else in a priest. The last thing they want is a sour puss; someone who always seems weighed down by life and sees only its dark side. Our people 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, the world and his ministry. On the topic of kindness, Guardini is quick to remind us that kindness is by no means weak.

“In kindness,” he states, there is strength, strength in proportion to its purity, and perfect kindness is inexhaustible. Life is full of suffering, if a person is well disposed toward life, the suffering touches him and makes itself felt. But that is wearing. Suffering demands our understanding, and that requires exertion.”

This needed strength being true, what is our best means for enforcing kindness and our fervor for progress? A hymn in the Spanish breviary offers us one very good answer, “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. The hymn petitions God to come and shake up the world so that new paths of hope will be opened up. I believe our times are crying for a shake up that generates new gusts of hope, an age that is desirous of a vital faith that is antithetical to skepticism — an age looking for renewed zest, and a fighting spirit that refuses to let disillusionments knock it down and keep it there.

The hope of which the hymn speaks, like all virtues, doesn’t stand alone, but is linked to other virtues, the most prominent being courage. Hope is the longing of the heart, whereas courage is the fighting spirit needed to fulfill that longing. Listen to Guardini’s definition of courage to learn how true this connection is.

“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.” Finally, note how courage encourages us to “venture into unknown regions that lie before us like a chaos.”

I must confess when I first experienced San Juan de Lurigancho, it was culture shock. The squalor living conditions were difficult to digest. At first, I didn’t know how to compute this in my mind, even though I have traveled the world and lived in these conditions before. The result was a momentary panic attack. The thought occurred, “I wish I weren’t staying as long as I am.” My missionary spirit was anything but courageous, well disposed and hopeful.

Suddenly this state of mind changed. And what, we might ask, turned it around? It was a gust of hope that hit me when I visited a school named Fe y Alegria. It was nestled among unpaved streets, rubble and dust. Once inside it, you found yourself in a well designed, clean, architectural delight. The staff I met were very professional, and most hospital. I was told that parents are heavily involved in maintaining the physical well being of the buildings and that they are required to be involved in all matters pertaining to the education and development of their children. Students unable to master the 3 Rs, have the opportunity to learn trades.

Latter I learned that Fe y Alegria is not only an educational institution, but also a movement created by the Jesuits. In addition to providing education, it also helps poor people create co-opts, learn how to find and keep a job, and how to practice hygiene. It also provides adult education and has a radio station to help in this matter.

Right after this, I attended Mass in a half, rebuilt-church next to a crowded marketplace and experienced yet another gust of hope. 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 and crowded surroundings. Suddenly I experienced what Guardini meant in saying courage is taking action, building and forming of ties. Fe y Alegria, the nurses at that clinic and the sisters, priests and lay persons with whom I talked reflected a devoted faith community dedicated to uplifting the human spirit: action was being taken; communities and the forming of ties were being generated. I also sensed the beautiful combination of zeal with faith-driven calmness: priests, sisters and lay persons calmly, but with sturdy determination performing their ministries.

Another gust of hope hit me when I realized the poor may be poor, but their simplicity and faith were anything but poor. They reflect the spiritual richness in the Magnificat in which Mary lauds the lowly. They were beauty in seemingly chaotic surroundings.

The spirit of hope and courage I experienced is not limited to the poor in Lima, it rings throughout the Church. The most challenging question we confront presently is not whether hope and courage exist, but how to strengthen them against the debilitating 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 keep alive our desire to make hopeful progress? Three quotes by sage thinkers give us one very good insight on how to achieve this by the questions they raise.

Baruch Spinoza writes, “Do not weep, do not wax, understand!” In urging us to understand, he is encouraging us to stop crying about the malaise we are in, to stand up and plunge on by pointing to our backbone and raising the question, how much backbone do we possess?

The English philosopher, Philip Sidney, writes, “They are never alone that are accompanied with noble thoughts.” Cardinal John Henry Newman, on the other hand, states that ideas are illuminations, and urges us to “invest” in them. These sage quotes contain the secret behind our zest and hope.

The word noble that is used by Sidney comes from nobilis, meaning to be well known. As an adjective that modifies the word ideas, it translates walking with ideas that carry weight and prominence.

This leads to the question, how often we make it a practice to increase our depth. When last have we challenged our self to think through ideas that at first seem over our head? When last have we stretched our thinking?

Stretching our thinking leads us to another valuable tool in ministry: to seek related literature that pertains to making our ministry more effective.

Whenever research studies are undertaken, one of the first requirements is to review related literature and to learn as much as possible about the area being researched. This raises the question, if, for example, we are dealing with people in depression do we consult places like The National Institute of Health to learn the latest in dealing with it?

In Washington, D.C., St. Luke’s Institute serves priests suffering from psychological and behavioral difficulties. Its website is filled with wonderful ways of identifying and curtailing mental and physical ills. For example, how to deal with being workaholic, addicted to Cyber-sex, loneliness, alcoholic addiction, the trauma of being in a foreign culture. The archives of St. Luke’s are filled with wonderful case studies and discussions on problems we and our people face daily. These resources are at our finger tips just waiting to be utilized. Most important of all, they contain enormous amounts of hope! One of the biggest criticisms of our homilies is they aren’t substantive enough. This is partially due to the way they are composed and delivered. But most of all, it is because they are superficial and reflect walking with noble thoughts is minimal.

In graduate school, we had a professor who graded us on the quality of our footnotes primarily and the weight they gave our arguments. In hindsight, I can now see that he was teaching us not to avoid the trap of egotism in which we alone are the authority on what we preach. Here it must be asked, how much weight do our homilies carry? It is not an exaggeration to say that the more effective our homilies, the more hope we can bring to people. Equally important, we also bolster our hope by giving hope to others. Take, for example, a comment we often hear from parents who bring their adolescents to mass, “I pray and hope the homily is good so that my son or daughter will continue to come to mass!” All it takes to fulfill this hope is to do some serious homework in connecting the Word of God to everyday questions and problems our people experience.

To accomplish this even more fully, Newman would further ask, when last have we had a new illumination that added to our knowledge? When, for example, have we looked for new illuminations found in the success stories that abound in our church? Several years ago, we worked with Fr. Joe Fitzpatrick, S.J. at Fordham University on the study Strangers and Aliens No Longer: A Study of Hispanic Presence in the U.S. I asked Joe how we should compose the results of the study for a book we were planning to publish. 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.” Joe than enlisted his graduate students to find those stories. From the stories that were compiled, we learned of pro bono medical and legal assistance being 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. Each of those stories contained gusts of hope.

In Washington, D.C. we have several outstanding universities, to say nothing of our Library of Congress and museum exhibits that offer useful information that applies to our ministry. For example, religious art collections are filled with beautiful concrete symbolism that can be employed in our homilies and in adult education. These are the illuminations Newman invites us to invest in.

Some time ago, our botanical gardens had a wonderful exhibit on how to utilize our resources best. 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. No doubt Newman, Sidney and Spinoza would applaud these noble illuminations!

Francis Bacon takes the advice of Newman, Sidney and Spinoza even deeper in saying, “A prudent question is one half of wisdom.”

In research, the key to success is well-thought out questions. One prudent question can move mountains, and I might add it can also create uproar. [Early on when we asked what the future number of priests would look like and learned 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. However, it was an excellent question and had it been acted on more forcefully, it might have produced a more hopeful future for the priesthood.

Another dimension of the prudent question is its handmaid, the hypothetical question, which translates, “What if, what then would follow?” Recently, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life learned 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?

In our reviews of the latest books that come onto the market, we found there is an enormous upsurge in spiritual books.

Take for example:

Solace in Suffering Wisdom from Thomas a Kempis
Pauline Books and Media, Boston, Massachusetts. 2010

Spiritual Friendship: Aelred of Rievaulx
Editor and Commentator: Dennis Billy, C.Ss.R.
Christian Classics, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, IN. 2008.

Slow Down: Five-minute meditations to de-stress yours days
Joseph M. Champlin. Sorin Books, Notre Dame, IN,

The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully
Joan Chittister, Blue Bridge. New York.

St. Therese of Lisieux: Story of a Soul

Translation by John Clarke, O.C.D. Prepared by Marc Foley, O.C.D. ICS Publications, Washington, D.C., 2005

Lent and Easter: Wisdom from St. Ignatius of Loyola
James L. Connor, S.J., Liguori Press, Liguori, Missouri. 2010.

The Search for Spirituality: Seven Paths within the Catholic Tradition
Stephen J. Costello, The Liffey Press, Dublin,

The presence of these publications raise the question, how many of our people, and for that matter, how many of us are aware of the latest in spirituality? What if more awareness was raised? Could this possibly be one good way to meet the spiritual needs of our people and keep them from falling away from the church?

Along the same line of spiritual needs, what if we adopted our liturgies better to fit the various cultures we serve? What if each culture in our parishes and schools had a culture 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?

Staying with the power of the hypothetical question, what if we surveyed our people to learn of their professional backgrounds and how they might apply their talents in the parish or our schools?

When I was a young priest in charge of vocations, I learned of an artist in our parish and asked him to use his imagination in designing a poster on vocations to the religious life. Not only was the poster magnificent, but his services and printing of the posters were free.

In the Notre Dame study on the parish, it found that our people will volunteer their services if we only ask them. The challenge here is not only to ask, but how ask in the right way.

Recently I was invited to give a talk at a parish I served for twenty years. Before my talk, a physical therapist spoke about the value of sensible exercise. What if talks like this were repeated in our parishes? Could this possibly lead to a parish fitness club, which then would lead to strengthening our faith community?

We need to ask now, when all that has been suggested here is summarized, what one thing most are we encouraged to focus on?

In the book, Power and Responsibility, Romano Guardini, like Merton and Pope John Paul II realized we live in a culture of death that not only endangers the soul, but also the human spirit. Guardini begins his comments on today’s malaise, “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.”

Guardini concludes, “Before all else, then, man's depths must be reawakened. His life must again include times, his day moments of stillness in which he collects himself, spreads out before his heart the problems which have stirred him during the day. In a word, man must learn again to meditate and to pray.”

In speaking of reawakening the depths of man, Guardini echoes our Spanish hymn, Lord, come and stir up the earth. It is my hope that this discussion has shown the countless paths to a hopeful future just waiting to be stirred up in the depth of our hearts.