We Need to Stop Gossiping About Our Priests

I have been in active ministry for over ten years. I’ve had occasional breaks as my vocation has required, but I’ve worked with a variety of people and priests over those years. In all of my time serving in the parish and local community I have observed–as Pope Francis has said many times–that gossip is a cancer within the Mystical Body that we must cut out. All of us who are not yet saints engage in gossip. Unfortunately it comes easily to us in our Fallen state. It is something that is found where multiple people are gathered and it is highly destructive in an upending of Christ’s promise to be present where two or three are gathered in His name (Matthew 18:20). I cannot say that I have overcome this sin, but I hope to by God’s grace.

Gossip is a form a character assassination. It greatly wounds those who are its victims as well as those who are perpetrators. Rather than see people as made imago Dei, we see them through our own broken, wounded, judgmental, and pride filled eyes. We see them through our own perceptions, desires, sin, and anger. We also often engage in Schadenfreude, which is often a form of envy or essentially ‘joy at another person’s sorrow’ (St. Thomas Aquinas). Rather than cheer on the successes of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we often relish their failures. It gives us an opportunity to come together in an inversion of true community to enjoy the pain of our neighbor.

More than anything gossip is tied to the very heavy sin of pride. Gossip typically erupts in the face of disagreements with other people. We do not like what someone has done to us, so we seek vengeance. More-often-than-not, we feel that we have lost some kind of power or authority and respond in anger and vengeance. How dare so-and-so treat me this way! How dare they question me! If we pay attention to what is going on inside of us then we will quickly see the root cause of our response.

Gossip is a powerful form of vengeance. It can tear ministries apart, churches become places of deep seated sinful anger, and it can create outright wars between priests and the laity. I’ve actually seen this happen, so I am not engaging in hyperbole. Entire books could be written on the topic of gossip. This particular blog post will focus on the destructive nature of gossiping about our parish priest(s).

In our sinful state, there is always a level of tension within the Mystical Body. Our competing agendas, opinions, ideas, and wants tend to meet resistance from people with counter points of view. There are obvious issues in which heresy and heterodoxy must be rooted out and those who do not submit to Holy Mother Church in the obedience required of us need to be encouraged to pray for conversion of heart and humility; as well as make use of the Sacrament of Penance in order to worthily receive the Holy Eucharist. Setting these situations aside, tension often exists within ministries and parish communities themselves and in their relationship with the parish priest.

We live in an age when people believe they are little gods ruling the universe. This nihilistic and relativistic thinking is also prevalent within the Church. Most people do not even realize how greatly they are influenced by these philosophies that pervade our culture. The focus here is not in converting those who have fallen for the heresies of our day, rather, it is on how we treat our priests within our parish while coming to understand our place within the Mystical Body. We must consciously overcome the sinful drive within us to rule over others.

When we are baptized every single one of us enters into the common priesthood. We share in the divine offices of Christ which are priest, prophet, and king. The common priesthood–the laity and all baptized–differs greatly from the ministerial priesthood (Holy Orders). This difference is not only in degree. Lumen Gentium 10 states:

Christ the Lord, High Priest taken from among men,(100) made the new people “a kingdom and priests to God the Father”.(101) The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light.(102) Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God,(103) should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.(104) Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.(105)

Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ.(2*) The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist.(3*) They likewise exercise that priesthood in receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity.

The word “essence” is a metaphysical/ontological term. It means that at the deepest levels of reality and being the ministerial priesthood differs from the common priesthood. This passage of Lumen Gentium explains the Church’s understanding that there is a rather large difference in character or type between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood. It’s important to understand this distinction because it matters when it comes to authority (auctoritas).

Lumen Gentium goes on in Chapter IV to discuss the role of the laity in the Church. Our role differs quite a bit from the ministerial priesthood. Both Lumen Gentium and Christifideles Laici affirm that the role of the laity is primarily secular. Our job is not primarily to run the Church–that is the role of the ministerial/hierarchical priesthood–instead we are meant to take the Good News out into the world and bring the world to Christ in our families, careers, civic engagements, and community interaction. The ministerial priesthood runs the Church, shepherds the people of God, brings the Sacraments to the worshiping community, and safeguards Church teaching through magisterial authority. We bring people to the Church.

This means that when we run ministries within our parish, we do not hold ultimate authority over anything that happens at the parish level. Most priests allow volunteers and parish staff to use prudential judgment while monitoring what takes place within their assigned church. They do not hinder freedom and creativity, but monitor and decide how best to approach certain tasks or activities. Vatican II has brought about  more cooperative work between the priesthood and the laity. This is a good within itself. The unfortunate reality is that this relationship and understanding of authority can easily become disordered because of sin. This is where gossip becomes a problem.

Most gossip about parish priests comes from a place of pride or a lack of humility. That’s where gossip tends to be rooted regardless of situation. Leaving aside the heretical priest who needs to be dealt with through the proper hierarchical channels without gossip, the issue is often one of power. A member of the laity mistakenly believes they have ultimate say over their ministry. First, notice my use of “their”. In reality we do not own our ministries. We are merely stewards serving Christ in the Church under the ministerial priesthood. Second, humility is a requirement of ministry, just as it is of the ministerial priesthood. This is a battle for all of us. If our priest tells us that he is going to do things a certain way and that he is not going to choose our particular option, then we need to accept that we may not know everything and trust that he is attempting to do what is right and good, even if it is not in line with our opinion. We must all learn to swallow our pride. I don’t agree with every choice my parish priest makes, but I respect his choice and authority to do so. Charity also demands that we give them the benefit of the doubt.

Priests are far from perfect, just like the rest of us. Most are not saints yet, but we need to look at them with charity and some level of trust. So they don’t do it the way it has always been done or the way we want it done, in the end we need to learn charitable obedience and let it go. Have we ever considered that a previous priest may have actually been doing something wrong and it needed correction? I don’t know about you, but I have not studied in depth the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) to the point that I know every required step for every Mass of every liturgical season and any given day. I still mix up technical terms for aspects of the Mass. The Mass is a primary discipline of study for priests and liturgists. I am neither.

For instance, the Liturgy is not meant to draw our human activities to the fore. It is the time of giving right praise and worship to God. We are not the center of that worship. We participate and offer it up to God. The ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood converge in that we offer up praise and worship to God through the ministerial priesthood. Whatever else is going on in parish life has its rightful place outside of the Liturgy. This can be confusing because unfortunately “the spirit of Vatican II” misplaced this proper ordering and now many people do not fully understand what is allowed to take place at Mass and what is not. This is through no fault of their own.

Gossiping or complaining publicly about the priest sows seeds of division. This is especially true in parishes where there is high priest turnover. Gossip inevitably leads to character assassination, sinful anger, and is harmful to the entire parish community. It also makes an already difficult task even more difficult for our priests. I’ve seen it get so bad that a priest almost left the priesthood. Deo gratias he did not! I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to stand before Our Lord and explain how I helped someone leave their priestly vocation through my gossip and backstabbing.

Scripture makes it very clear, especially St. Paul, that we are not meant to align ourselves with a particular leader or priest because it leads to division. We are all one under Christ. Lovingly welcoming and getting to know a new priest is not a betrayal against the previous parish priest. If they are holy men, then they are not in competition with one another. They are living holy obedience to the Bishop in conformation to their sharing in his fullness of Holy Orders.

As with all people, we need to give people a chance and get to know them. In my experience most priests will explain their choices in a charitable manner while also expecting their wishes to be respected. All we have to do is ask, not demand. If we encounter a priest who has mistaken spiritual fatherhood for a dictatorship, then all we can really do is pray for them and treat them with charity and bear this burden patiently. This does happen, but it is a misunderstanding of Our Lord’s call for priests which is most beautifully demonstrated at the Last Supper. Men in both the vocation of the ministerial priesthood and men in the vocation of marriage are called to love and lay down their lives as Christ does.

It is also unjust to make assumptions about each priest. Presumption is often incorrect and sinful. Even though they all share in the same Sacrament and authority through Holy Orders, they are still individual men with unique personalities, backgrounds, gifts, interests, and even theological schooling. Some are more influenced by certain popes, saints, or thinkers, which can actually be a key to understanding them. If they are from a religious order then the Rule of that particular order is going to provide insight as to how they view their vocation and live that vocation in parish life.

In order to overcome the tendency to gossip about the parish priest it is important to consider their role and responsibilities. You and I who are in the laity will have to give account for the people God entrusted to us at our individual judgment upon death. This is typically our spouse and our children first. Priests will give account for every person they’ve been called to shepherd and explain how they shepherded them. They have a tremendous amount of responsibility on their shoulders. It is a tall order and most of them take it pretty seriously, especially the priests of the St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI decades. The “spirit of Vatican II” is dying off and the priests of today tend to be serious about holiness.

Priests have a lot that is required of them and they are extremely busy. We need to look to them with patience and charity. You and I are not the center of the universe. Our email or phone call is not the focus of their day, and depending on their personality, they may prefer to talk to you in person. The written word is very easily distorted and misunderstood. This is something I am keenly aware of as a writer. There’s nothing wrong with a priest wanting to discuss things in person. In fact, in a digital age, it’s a blessing! Figure out how each individual priest likes to communicate and adjust accordingly instead of complaining about them publicly at meetings or church gatherings.

Since our priests are not perfect–just like we are not even close to perfect–we need to bear their weaknesses and shortcomings with patience. The same is true in our families and other relationships. If there is one thing God teaches us as we progress in holiness, it is that we possess a great many weaknesses and character defects in need of fixing. A lot! It is easy to think that we are superior to someone else because we do not struggle with a particular sin or weakness, but God will quickly show us the darkness in our own hearts.  Remember that they too are on the path to sainthood and they need us to patiently bear their flaws just as they bear ours.

Another way to help in overcoming the tendency to gossip is to remember that we do not need to provide our priest or fellow parishioners with every opinion we possess. I come from a very opinionated family. This can be a real struggle, but my opinions do not necessarily comport with the truth. They may be my own personal desires or understanding, but not be true, correct, or the only way. If there is one thing being a graduate student in theology has taught me it is how little I know. We women especially seem to feel the need to tell the men in our lives any opinion that comes to mind. This is the same with priests. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said something to one of my priests and later regretted it. I didn’t need to say it. It was wholly unnecessary, unhelpful, or even critical. I’m also rather blunt (I’m slowly getting better about this!) and I won’t mean to say things a certain way and it will be taken completely out of context. If we keep in mind that our opinions probably don’t matter in the long run then we can prudently consider when to express our opinion and when not to.

The most significant way to avoid turning to gossip about our priests is in learning holy obedience. We are called to obedience to God and Holy Mother Church. This means that we must learn to submit in obedience. We are not God or gods. This also means that if we are friends with a particular priest we need to know exactly when they are responding to something in the role of the priesthood and when they are acting as a friend. This distinction is vital to avoid conflict and it requires the willingness to humbly submit to authority outside of ourselves. Remember, even if your priest is also your friend, he differs greatly from you in his vocation. His primary role is priest first and friend second. Obedience, charity, and humility are necessary for maintaining these relationships and for growing in holiness. It also requires a clear understanding of the distinction in order to avoid misplaced anger. Far too many people get upset with their priest because he is also their friend and they confuse the two roles. This can become problematic for people who work in parish offices. In cases when authority is exercised we also have to see past the man and see the priestly office he holds and submit. We don’t have to agree, but we do have to submit and accept his authority.

I’d like to specifically offer some thoughts to my fellow sisters in Christ on how we treat our priests. St. John Paul II brilliantly outlines the role of women in Mulieris Dignitatem. He explains that each woman is called to spiritual motherhood, regardless of if she is a biological mother or not. This is a unique aspect of our nature. We are meant to pray for, encourage, befriend, and help our priests through spiritual motherhood. We are not, however, called to mother them. Every single one of them has a mother on some level, so they don’t need a bunch of women trying to mother them.  It’s important that we understand how to live spiritual motherhood in relation to them without overstepping lines. When they do not respond to our mothering, temptation can arise to begin gossiping about them. Ladies, we are terrible at gossip. It’s tied to our more overt social nature. We have to pray to overcome this weakness.

I’ve contemplated the topic of gossip for years now. I went through a very difficult period when I was gossiped about and stabbed in the back by people I trusted within the Church. If you’ve been the victim of gossip then you know how quickly things turn into falsehoods and outright lies. It’s painful and God used that pain to reveal to me just how destructive gossip is for the Mystical Body. I have sat in on far too many meetings or been to parish events where pockets of people are complaining and gossiping about the priest. He may even be in the same room. Anymore, I try to find ways to encourage people to avoid this sinful practice, help them to consider something they may not know about him, or I refuse to engage in it. We cannot come together in charity to love and serve God if we are busy killing (Pope Francis) the reputation of another, especially the priest appointed over us. Without our priests there would be no Sacraments and no Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The next time you feel tempted to gossip about your priest consider two things. First, what has it been like in your life to be the victim of gossip? Two, would you say the things you are saying about your priest to Christ? A blessed Advent to you all!

 

 

Life is Full of Waiting Right Now

My husband and I are in a time of waiting, which is appropriate for this Lenten season. The doctors have still not found the cause for why my dad is so sick and so we wait, try not to worry (super hard), and leave it to God’s loving care. We are also in the middle of negotiating the purchase of the small farm we have always wanted. If we buy the house, which is right in our price range, but much larger than we need (I trust God will help us to use it well) then we will be uprooting our lives from the community we have known for six years. I am used to moving every 3 years or so and this is the longest I have lived anywhere since I was 18, but it is still a major change if it goes through.

We live in an area of the Appalachians that is filled with small communities and farms as well as a small city nearby. This house is an hour from our current home and we would have to switch to a mission parish (we live in Baptist country so Catholic Churches are spread out) and to a small town way of life. The farm is three miles from a small artisan town near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Living near the Parkway is a huge bonus! Lots of hiking!

The house has everything we could possibly need and more. At 3700 square feet it is palatial for our tiny family, but we are still discerning adoption. We need room for a homeschool classroom and an office for me to work more diligently on my writing career after I complete my Master’s next year. My husband is a skilled wood-turner and he will have space to grow in his craft.

The “old” farmhouse (built in 1910), this still makes me laugh after living in Europe for a spell, sits on 10 beautiful acres complete with pond. The land is rolling and perfect for animals and our garden. I have never lived in the country. I am from the largest “city” in Montana: Billings, population 100,000. My dad was an attorney for most of my young life, so we weren’t farmers. I did learn to love gardening and flowers from my mother who has an amazing green thumb.

Right now we wait for the owners to accept or counter our offer. It’s more waiting added onto the waiting on my dad’s condition. This Lent has been a difficult one for me as I try to learn patience in the face of the unknown. It’s also a time for us to decide on which dream to pursue long-term. We have always discussed starting a small farm, even when Phil and I were dating, but it is hard to leave our parish community and the connections we have made here. It would also mean a probable end to my homeschool co-op membership here. I may try the hour long drive for a while, but it may get to be too much and we will have to be more creative in very rural Virginia.

I always covet prayers, so please offer some up for us. The Solemnity of St. Joseph is next week and he has been an ever growing friend these past few weeks in dealing with my father’s confusing illness and the possible uprooting of our family. May God continue to bless you.

Catholic Exchange: St. Monica Teaches Us to Persevere in Hope

Today is the feast of Saint Monica followed by the feast of Saint Augustine, her son, tomorrow. Her life is a tremendous example of perseverance, faith, and hope. She was born in Tagaste in 331 A.D., which is known today as Souk Ahras, Algeria and is believed to be of Berber origin. At a very young age she entered into an arranged marriage to Patricius who was a Roman pagan and official in Tagaste. Monica lived with Patricius and his mother in their home. He was known to have a violent temper and to engage in self-indulgent behavior, as did his mother. It was deeply difficult for Monica to live out her Catholic faith because her husband was greatly aggravated by her prayers, deeds, and alms. Monica persisted regardless of these difficulties in her home.

Monica and Patricius had three children who survived passed infancy and they were Augustine, Navigius, and Perpetua. She was unable to baptize them at the time and was very distressed when Augustine became severely ill at one point. Her husband agreed to allow the Baptism because of the illness, but then Augustine recovered, and he would no longer allow it. Monica’s concern would not subside for long because Augustine grew up to become a man who lived a misspent youth. He became a Manichean at Carthage and his mother told him to leave her table for sharing such heresy with her.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange…

Down Shifting: Properly Ordering Family and Study

This semester has been a bit of a challenge for me. The challenge is balancing family and full-time studies. Being a full-time graduate student is a lot like working full-time. Not to mention that my entire program is online. I seldom interact with my professors. I am essentially teaching myself theology and philosophy with the school keeping track of my progress. I get feedback on papers, but none on tests. Our online discussions are not live and many professors are very hands off. That means the only piece I get from them is their lecture, which I read each week. This is not an attack on the school or my professors. That is the idea behind online studies. We are to be largely independent and it takes a certain type of student who can learn this way. I enjoy it and it gives me the freedom that I need for my vocation in life.

What started to get to me this semester is that my family is suffering by the rate at which I am doing the program. My goal was to finish all studies in 2 years and then the comprehensive exams and thesis within 6 months. I feel like I barely see my husband right now. He works 11 hours a day and then takes over for me so that I can study until bed time. Our weekends are based on my workload.  For instance, I have a term paper to write tomorrow and an essay on Sunday.  All due by Monday. I have to do it this way because we schedule my big projects and tests for the weekend. I am not a night owl and I stop retaining information if I try to study too late.

I really dislike missing out on family activities on Saturday. My husband has taken our daughter to the museum, park, library, on errands and I miss them. I love my studies and I knew they would come with sacrifice for all of us. I just started to wonder if my breakneck pace is necessary. It is through the summer. I go full-time to make the most use out of my VA benefits. They expire in September, but the whole program will be paid for with all of the benefits I receive by August. The VA has a set amount based on my enlistment contract that they pay me. All the extra money is going to a savings account for use on future tuition bills.

I sat down with my husband last night and asked him what he thought about the pace. I had seen a mother from my church at the store and she mentioned her surprise that I was full-time with a 3 year old. She didn’t know how I was doing it. And I started to think, neither do I. Is this necessary? I can have both worlds, but it doesn’t have to be in such a hurry. I am studying for the pure enjoyment of studying, not because I need my Master’s degree in two years. It loses its enjoyment when it turns into superficial memorization for tests and papers. I know how to play the game and get good grades, but that isn’t the goal. I want to learn this material.  Some of it is extremely complex. I am still wrapping my head around the Thomistic idea of required perfect contrition in the Sacrament of Penance or the theology of sin. It’s amazing to study and I really enjoy it, but in my rush, I don’t have the time to truly understand it in the depth that I desire.

My husband said I should go part-time starting in the fall. We can sacrifice 1/2 of my last VA check so that we can balance things better. He is exhausted. I am exhausted and our daughter is struggling with me being so busy. Reading Chesterton last night really helped me too. He pointed out how the culture does not order things properly. I am not a utilitarian means to an end. I am a unique human being with dignity and my daughter is the most important job God has given me. That does not mean that God doesn’t want me to study. He gave me these intellectual gifts for a reason. It just means that He wants me to slow down and so does my husband.

I have a tendency to race forward with things. This is one of those areas where I am still learning prudence. When I was in high school, I took Geometry freshman year even though my parents encouraged me to take Algebra again. I didn’t want to be “behind” in the Math requirements. But, I am not good at Geometry or Trigonometry. It was a miserable battle that stemmed from my own pride. I honestly didn’t start understanding Math until I was in undergrad in my mid-Twenties.

The point is that I don’t want to take something that I love, namely, theological studies and turn it into a rushed torment. I don’t want my family to become a burden to me as I poorly balance everything. Regardless of what our culture tells us, sacrifices occur when a mom divides her attention. This is not a judgment on people’s choices. It is a reality that we need to be aware of. Once we are aware, then we can make educated decisions that are best for our family and our goals. But, our family comes first. My husband and daughter are more important than my Master’s degree. I am going to say it again: My husband and daughter are more important than my Master’s degree. That is not what our culture tells us, but we need to be strong and ignore the lies. It doesn’t mean that my studies are unimportant, it just means that they are lower on the list. They are rightly ordered, but below my family.

Summer will be busy with my final full-time semester, but at least we will all know that things will slow down in the fall. I am looking forward to it. I can spend time with my family and enjoy my theological studies. That’s the whole point. I am the one who decides whether or not to stress out my family and myself in this whole process. I can rush, or I can down shift and take it slow. I can walk out of my MA having mastered the material, or I can walk out having passed a bunch of tests and papers. The choice is mine and I choose my family and my love of study. My daughter turns 4 this year and I will blink and she will be 18. These years are a gift and I need to be present during them and not focused elsewhere all of the time. So my choice is merely one of balance and proper ordering and in doing so, I get to enjoy all of the gifts that God has given me. Have a blessed weekend! It’s Laetare Sunday this weekend. Easter is so near!

Recommended Reading:
The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism by David Fagerberg (if you are new to Chesterton this is a great place to start)
Orthodoxy-GK Chesterton
The Everlasting Man-GK Chesterton