Thursday, February 24, 2011

Where to go from here?

Words from the First Reading for Mass on this Thursday of the 7th Week throughout the year (Ecclesiasticus 5:1ff.) urge me to attempt to channel my wonderment over a couple issues in life I am still striving to sort out:
“Do not give your heart to your money,
or say, ‘With this I am self-sufficient.’
Do not be led by your appetites and energy
to follow the passions of your heart.
And do not say, ‘Who has authority over me?’
for the Lord will certainly be avenged on you.”
Mine has to be an open-ended reflection because I doubt if a broad-based consensus could be reached, enabling choices and reforms, on the basis of my observations alone. My hope in sharing these thoughts is that they might inspire someone else to that bigger synthesis or creative initiative which could make a difference for the good or better in the life of the Church.
The dissatisfaction in the general populace, which brought about both the fall of the Berlin Wall and much of what we have seen in the last year for youthful protest against sitting governments somehow compromised by their involvement in the world economic crisis and against despotic regimes also compromised, finds its motor less in ideas and ideals and more (I believe) in the drive for self-sufficiency or material security (Ecclesiasticus!). Just as the economic bankruptcy of European Communism provided the broad-based support for rejection of a system which also came up short in areas less easy to quantify like respect for the dignity of persons and basic human rights, so for Greece or Spain or Egypt, the material sacrifices demanded of the youth tipped the scales of judgment where more fundamental issues were also at stake but alone and on principle could not have carried the day. When it comes to swaying voters people can be very jaded about calculating the weight of economics over enduring values and principle even in the most sophisticated of democracies (how far are we really from “bread and circus”?).
            World politics, however, is not my focus of the moment. Rather, the urgent need to deal adequately, if at all possible, with situations like that in Ireland, where foot washing in the Dublin Cathedral may be recognition of a fact, but resolves nothing. It does not really tackle the question of how child abuse and especially by priests came to be in Ireland. The grand jury in Philadelphia, too, has the archdiocese scrambling to deal with matters from the recent past which evidently still had not been faced by those in authority concerning allegations and possible priest perpetrators. I am not advocating that economics be used to topple the old regime and usher in better times. That is little more than a pipedream and smacks of little more than vindictiveness and rage. The number of bankrupt dioceses across the United States haven’t answered profound questions or given a clue as to what went wrong. Things from the past must be faced and resolved, but more importantly provision must be made for a future which, at least from the example of Philadelphia, does not seem yet to have been inaugurated. Principle should carry the day and not unruly popular groundswells.
I think it is important to focus on Western society as we know it today, after the two great World Wars of the 20th Century. Prior to the wars, society must have had problems but it had certain priorities and restraints, which were lost in the war effort also in the every day lives of people far from the front lines. The almost solitary rebellions against the will of parents and family became the commonplace basically through world-wide upheaval. Ours became that willful world which is the only one you and I have ever known, represented in iconic fashion by the famous news photo of the young sailor giving a uniformed nurse a kiss on the open street in celebration of the end of the war. It’s a world which has not only defied social strictures (public displays of affection were once forbidden) but that has effectively overrated personal choice as the sine qua non for commitment.
Why has the institution of marriage fallen on such bad times and increasingly so in the last half century? Why so much resignation in the face of divorce? Among the factors involved is the prominence of an exaggerated form of personal choice as essential life component. Less than a century ago, families could still forbid children’s marriages and feel terribly responsible for the success of the marriages that parents had arranged for their children. Nowadays, well, it would seem that you are on your own and few are confident enough to face the challenge of going it alone no matter how much we think we love that person. There are lots of components to what we might describe as a healthy marriage culture, not the least of which is the insertion of marriage and family within a support system assured in the first place by the extended family, but no less as defended by a society espousing similar values.
The marriage crisis also sheds light on the crisis of priestly and religious vocations.
            Following World War II lots of men went to the seminary; there was a real flowering of missionary institutes especially in Belgium, Holland and France. Even though these men had a classical seminary formation, it is also from their ranks that came forth the perpetrators of the abuse of young men and boys which has come to light in recent years. As one of my bishop friends told me, the issue is not as simple as formation. The regimentation of a bygone era seems not to have played a role in the lives at least of some of the men trained in traditional structures. The bulk of the perpetrators had classical seminary training. Subsequently, other factors worsened our lot (I’m thinking of the book exposé “Goodbye, Good Men”). It is indisputable that up until recently preference in some seminaries was given to promoting the wrong type of men toward priesthood, thus creating even within some presbyterates a homosexual subculture. Many of us are witness to the kind of “proselytizing” which went on in seminaries where such elements were allowed free rein.
Since then, much has taken place to assure healthy seminaries and better choices of candidates, but the problem remains. It resides within the culture of protagonism which had men in the 1970’s seeking ministry to further the cause of justice and peace. The kind of self-seeking perhaps which describes certain men today is equivalent but without such a social activist veneer. Talk of narcissism, however, may actually distract from a challenge which is not only and not primarily personal but social and has not only debilitated the institution of marriage but thwarted considerably the possibility of distinguishing between a vocation and a career choice.
God does indeed call men through the Church to priesthood. I don’t really think I chose the priesthood, I was called to it and never experienced sleepless nights trying to figure out if I or the world would be happier were I a rocket scientist. The kind of personal protagonism which makes it my choice alone is not real. A couple generations of vocation promoters and directors seem to have missed that point. There is a school of thought, all too prominent, which swings incense in the direction of a new generation of young mystics whose journey to priesthood has an interior dimension mine and many others never had. I’m thinking about a very telling book Archbishop Timothy Dolan produced as rector of the North American College, describing a world of very intense adult interior struggles in the process of discerning a vocation to the priesthood. It may be the reality, but it is not what earlier generations contended with, thanks to the sort of accompaniment they had from childhood on. God surely calls men to priesthood; it is not a job description or lifestyle I choose for myself.
One of the phenomena which confirms me in my analysis is the perhaps formerly unheard of case of the guy who goes smiling right up through ordination and in less than a year afterward, well, is gone and gone without a trace. It has been happening for some years and continues to happen. The parallels to a failed marriage are there, the key would seem to be the fact that it was “my choice” and I’m gone.
Much has been done in our day to provide good seminaries. Just as the perpetrators of nearly a half century ago were the product of good seminaries, however, I don’t think that’s enough in a willful culture where young people have the impression that it’s always up to them to choose and on their own. We need to come to believe once again that God calls, for His own reasons, which have nothing to do with my merits or talents. He asks me in ways that respect my nature over the course of a life of experience and development to simply say yes and keep up the good fight.
Ecclesiasticus says: “Do not be led by your appetites and energy to follow the passions of your heart.” I’d like to think that the “kindly light” is always there to lead, “the encircling gloom” notwithstanding. The little boy Samuel’s vocation was not tended by his own anguished introspection but by simple obedience to the wise old words of Eli: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”.

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