Sunday, March 7, 2010

"Leave it one more year..."

Mors stupebit et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Judicanti responsura.
-Dies irae –
            I had to marvel this week, all of a sudden, at how close my 60th birthday is getting and how important it is that I start thinking of myself as a senior citizen. The issue is not one of no longer being limber enough for cartwheels (not that I ever was), but rather of really belonging to an older generation of priests by comparison with the clergy who have indeed come into their prime! I don’t feel the least bit bad about it; as I say, it causes me to marvel and for the issue at hand to reach out in search of communication with that younger world now calling the shots.
            My “Aha Experience”, my reason to marvel, began this week with a kind of annoyance provoked by a book I was reading. On the recommendation of one very young man (a blogger: The American Papist) I picked up a book by another young man, Fr. Larry Richards, entitled “Be a Man”. I’m too old for the book, but my problem is with a judgment Fr. Richards expresses therein about his poor, deceased father. He classifies his father’s spirituality as Old Testament, as if his dad were critical of Jesus Himself as too merciful. I would have sloughed off this comment had it not been for one that came my way at the same time from another young priest from a very different country and cultural background who recounted in public his father’s criticism of priests nowadays as responsible for all of the fallen away Catholics, and that being so, because in essence the younger generation of priests no longer preached fire and brimstone. Neither of these young priests, each now at the top of his game, is what you’d refer to as a slouch, but both have written off a generation just slightly older than my own as professing a vengeful O.T. God, Who punishes if you don’t toe the line.
            I’m ready for the title “senior”, I guess, because I’ve never met ordinary Catholic men 10+ years my senior whose sense of accountability before God could be so easily dismissed. I cannot identify with the criticism pronounced about them so self-assuredly by the movers and shakers of the moment. I think these two dads and many other men and women of their generation and of an older tradition understood or understand, better than their priest sons do, the words of St. Paul in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, assigned as the second reading in Year C for this the Third Sunday in Lent:
            “These things all happened as warnings for us, not to have the wicked lusts for forbidden things that they had. You must never complain: some of them did, and they were killed by the Destroyer.
            All this happened to them as a warning and it was written down to be a lesson for us who are living at the end of the age. The man who thinks he is safe must be careful that he does not fall.”
            St. Paul is quoting the Exodus account but he is admonishing the Church in his own day and speaking across the centuries to us as well. Whether you heard “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” on Ash Wednesday, the admonition to Lenten penance is always a call to accountability “lest you fall”. Our share in Easter joy comes through our Baptism into the Death of Christ. The tears of Penance are that “second water” St. Augustine talked about, given to the Church for the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism. We have the means; we need to use them now and wash ourselves clean. We will be judged particularly at the hour of our death and ultimately when God is all in all.
            By some odd turn of events, among the YouTube videos recommended for me yesterday a 1991 recording of the Requiem of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and specifically there from the passage Dies Irae came up. I couldn’t say as I cared for the Mozart rendition and so I moved to Verdi’s, which I liked even less. In desperation, I tried Antonin Dvorak’s which was fine, but ended up seeking refuge with the simple one from Gregorian Chant which we used to sing at parish funerals when I was a child. It is a beautiful prayer which says much more about genuine contrition than most of what we hear these days. I put the quote above as a reminder that we are dealing with a mystery far exceeding the bounds of personal piety (cosmic!).
            All I really want to say today is that the burden of proof lies with youth. Why should they (the senior is talking) be allowed to think that the rupture which took place, let’s say in the 1970’s, positioned them better than their fathers for understanding how things are or ought to be configured in terms of time and eternity? Maybe a “penny catechism” training doesn’t necessarily provide the words, the vocabulary tools for explaining a certain dissatisfaction with a world which has emptied the word “Almighty” of any meaning. It is not right that everything has become terribly horizontal, such that “Judge” also is a word without referent. It would seem as though the “studied” sons might show their fathers a bit more compassion and a little less pity and come to their dads’ aid with the words to explain the timeless truth which St. Paul was so anxious to bring across to the Corinthians.
Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce, Deus.


Msgr. Michael said...

I really enjoyed this post of yours. It is well thought and thought-provocative. I have to say, though, that I usually always like what you write.

Something has to be said however...there is a distinction in Churchmen according to their age-group today that is very varied. Perhaps the last time something of the sort happened was at the Council of Trent.

Bear with me. I think this distinction is probably stronger now than ever before. Just consider this. In the Church today, we meet priests who were trained and ordained before the Council. Some were trained before the Council and ordained when the Council was in session. Others were trained "in the crazy years" and ordained then. After all this, you then have the generation of priests who have known only one Pontiff and now are exercising their priesthood under a Successor.

Each of these groups, in my opinion, usually has a similar thinking pattern. I see it when I work with the Conference. When I travelled in South America to Brazil, Columbia, Argentina etc.. I noted it there. Although, always there are exceptions.

I believe that in the Pre-Conciliar Church, the world-view was perhaps more monolithic. Yes, you would have distinctions based on age - older priests with experience, young priests who are greenhorns and priests in their prime. These categories never change. I just think that it has more to do with the mutations of the World and the Church than age. Just look at the website of the LCWR and the CMS in the U.S...

However, I have heard, myself, and more than once, my parents - and their peers - say that alot of the "bad" things of the Church have happened because the "younger priests" don't preach fire and brimstone anymore.

I think that perhaps Timothy Radcliff put it well when he uses his categories of "Kingdom Catholics" and "Communion Catholics" to explain these differences.

We have to learn from each other. As the French put it, "Si vieillesse pouvait et si jeunesse savait" - an eternal paradox !

Cheers [and BTW 60 is not that senior...although I am 12 years your junior !]

Fr Matthew Green said...

I find your post very interesting. I am of that younger generation of priests (not yet 40 years old), but somewhat more "old school" in some aspects of my training.

At the moment, after years of being a seminary professor, I am going through a transition from religious to diocesan life. This fact in itself, plus the increased exposure to more widely varying theological, pastoral, and liturgical viewpoints and practices, is prompting me to re-examine my own beliefs and approaches on these issues.

It seems to me that it is difficult to find the right balance between "fire and brimstone" and compassion, forgiveness and affirmation. Christ takes both approaches in the Gospel. I'm trying to find that equilibrium in my own preaching and prayer life...