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Priests: Did Pope Just Make Your Job Easier Or Harder?

I’d like to hear from Catholic priests and religious what they think of Pope Francis’s interview. I’ve heard privately from two priests who are troubled by it, for pastoral reasons, though I have also heard from others who are pleased with it. One of the latter is Fr. Peter Funk, prior of the Monastery Of […]

I’d like to hear from Catholic priests and religious what they think of Pope Francis’s interview. I’ve heard privately from two priests who are troubled by it, for pastoral reasons, though I have also heard from others who are pleased with it. One of the latter is Fr. Peter Funk, prior of the Monastery Of The Holy Cross, a Benedictine abbey in Chicago. I invited Fr. Peter to share his thoughts with you all. I invite other priests and religious to add their insights in the comments thread. You don’t have to use your name, but please indicate if you are a parish priest, member of a religious order, etc.

Here is Fr. Peter’s essay. I’m grateful to him for taking me up on my invitation!

Do the words of Pope Francis, supposedly urging Catholics not to be “obsessed” with rules about “homosexuality, abortion and contraception” make it easier or harder for Catholic priests?

As a priest myself, I would first ask “easier or harder for what?”  I don’t have responsibility for a parish, and so I may not have to answer the questions that arise among the faithful about whether the Pope has relaxed Catholic moral teaching (in his recent interview, he actually reaffirmed that the Church’s teachings “are clear.”).  It is not easy to preach Catholic doctrine today, and I can see how one would feel undermined by the Pope’s words.

But let me invite you to see how things look from the perspective of a priest who is also a Benedictine monk in a contemplative monastery.  I entered sixteen years ago, was ordained a priest in 2004 and the same year became the superior of the community.  We have ten monks and pray the full Divine Office daily, offer Mass ad orientem with Latin chant.  We are considered rather far to the right among the religious orders of our diocese, though I do not particularly care for these sorts of characterizations.  Part of our work in the Church is to pray for parish priests.  I have a great respect for the sacrifices of these men and do not at all wish to add to their burdens by a frivolous or opportunistic embrace of the media’s superficial reports on the Holy Father’s teaching.

Monasteries are places that typically attract the devout and the fringe.  Since we are not part of the hierarchy, persons estranged (for whatever reason) from the hierarchy tend to seek us out.  The Pope referred to “those who do not attend Mass…who have quit or are indifferent” in the full text of his interview.  As he pointed out, it takes time and trust and love to accompany persons in this situation, to find ways of gently shepherding them back into a relationship with God in the sacraments.  It is this personal “nearness” that Pope Francis is suggesting that takes precedence over catechesis—at the beginning.

There is a lot of talk in the Catholic Church today about the New Evangelization.  Perhaps we can learn some valuable lessons in patience and method from the first Evangelization.  In today’s gospel [September 21], the calling of Saint Matthew, Jesus scandalizes the religious professionals by eating with sinners first and apparently correcting them later.  Do we believe that the Ethiopian eunuch, a powerful man in the court of the pagan Candace, had fully grasped the moral implications of baptism before Philip washed away his sins and joined him to Christ’s mystical body?  Is it clear that Paul’s converts could take years (even decades, if we consider 1 Clement as evidence of the slowness of the Corinthians to grasp basic Christian moral teaching) to change their behavior?

We can also take comfort from a prayerful meditation on the fate of the Apostle himself.  In Corinth in particular he seemed to be bested by the propaganda of the “Superapostles.”  His ministry seemed such a failure that he despaired of life itself.  And in this helplessness, the God of all consolation mysteriously comforted him with the Triumph of the Cross.

The examples of the Apostles, especially that of Paul, offer a challenge to the categories of ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ in Christian ministry.  As my novice master liked to say, we all understand that discipleship brings the Cross, but we’d all like to choose our own Crosses.  Yet it is when the Cross appears where we least expected it, where we assumed that we could avoid it, that it is really the Cross.  Here we are really invited to die to ourselves, our preferences and opinions.  Pope Francis’s words, and the media spin on them, are challenging to be sure.  They might be naïve, and to be honest, I wish at times he spoke with a bit more exactitude (who in the Church’s pastoral ministry is manifesting this obsession with a “transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines imposed insistently?”).

If the Pope’s words make things harder for us priests and for some of the faithful, harder does not necessarily mean worse.  The provocative nature of the Holy Father’s style has presented opportunities to talk about Church doctrine in a more open way than was possible before.  Often this comes as a challenge.  For example, I’ve had someone say to me bluntly, “My husband and I have used birth control,” then wait to see how I would react.  This opens an opportunity to talk, to try and understand and to teach, an opportunity that was less frequent under Benedict XVI, simply because people rarely brought him up.

(N.B. I miss Pope Benedict dearly and do wish he were still guiding us in liturgical matters!)

So if we seek to embrace the challenge of the Cross, what would a ministry informed by and open to Francis’s words look like?

First of all, we should discipline ourselves to avoid being sucked into the American culture war and its default categories.  This requires discipline because it requires us to think harder and more clearly.  To say that Benedict was a conservative and Francis is a liberal is facile and misleading.  It falls into just the trap against which the Holy Father is warning us: of not listening to individuals seriously because it calls for effort of a sort that we might rather not exert and an openness to new perspectives on old issues.

Along with this, it is necessary to teach fellow Christians to be even more suspect of the media than they might already be.  And those of us charged with teaching must ‘keep to the message’ and not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by whatever the media wishes us to focus on (after all, is it not the media who are obsessed with homosexuality, etc?).

This brings me to the last point, which is most difficult.  In the 72nd chapter of his Rule for Monks, St. Benedict urges the monk to cultivate that good zeal that leads to God and everlasting life.  It includes the instruction to show unfeigned and humble love to the abbot of the monastery.  I’ve given entire retreat conferences on this small exhortation, because it is so contrary to our modern Western mindset.  It is possibly even more difficult to do this when the ‘abba’ in question is someone so far away rather than someone with whom we live.  What if we allowed his teaching to reach our hearts, to challenge our resistances?  I realize that this sort of language raises specters of 1958 or 1962. But this isn’t 1958 or 1962.  Have we learned in the interim to balance our dove-like simplicity with serpent-like shrewdness?  Or have we just jettisoned one in favor of the other?

For more of Fr. Peter’s preaching, you can listen to his most recent homilies here.

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