Are We "Down with the People" or Up with the Cross? A Call to Courage in Preaching the Cross

070713Some forty years ago the Venerable Bishop Fulton J Sheen admonished the priests of his day in these words:

We become real priests when we empty ourselves, and no longer seek our [own] identity, and where we are lifted up to the cross, not going “down to people.” Too many of us today feel we have to be loved…[thinking] the young will not love us unless we talk like them, eat like them, drink like them, clothe ourselves like them. No! They will not love us simply because we go down, they will love us when we lift them up. Else, the world will drag them down…. (Retreat for priests, “The Meaning of Being a Priest)

I remember those days of the seventies when priests, religious sisters and adult parish leaders wore jeans, sandals, and flashy sweaters. The men grew their hair longish, and the parish leaders recast “Sunday school” as a “rap session.” (Rap in those days did not mean anything related to music, it meant “to talk” but in a way that was “real” and “down with the struggle”).

The goal, it would seem,  was not for the clergy religious or adult leaders to teach, but rather to “relate” and to “facilitate a discussion.” I remember it was considered “hip” (i.e. cool, popular etc) to have the class sit on the floor in a circle. The “teacher” was “one of us” and would often start by saying something like “I do not have the answers, but together we can explore the questions.”

Even those of us in our rebellious teens knew there was something amiss here. I wonder if the “hip” priest, nun or youth leader knew that we laughed at them behind their back. Frankly, they DID look strange trying to dress and act like us. And though we humored them, we knew we had them in our back pocket. They were not to be taken seriously, and we didn’t.

I will not excuse our violations of the 4th commandment, but it was hard not to laugh and even mock them behind their back. We used to particularly laugh at one cleric who showed up with a guitar strapped to his back. And thought he did a pretty swift “Peter, Paul and Mary” gig, he did not. And when he left the room, convinced that he had “reached us,” we would “imitate” him derisively (I am sad to say) playing our air guitars and changing the lyrics to the silly songs he sang.

Of course, one might argue we would still have done so had they taken the traditional role of standing before us, commanding respect, and being in the role of teacher, rather than “fellow searcher.” Perhaps, but at least in the second scenario something would actually have been taught that we might later remember when we got over our “too cool for school” schtick.

Ah the Seventies, a sad and “dorky” time that endured well into the 90s and is still operative in some places today.

I think most younger priests today, who had to endure a lot of that silliness are clear that, as Sheen says, going “down to the people” is not an ultimately effective pastoral approach. Most younger clergy are clear enough that people, young and old, are appreciative when we dress and act as clergy. Religious Sisters too, are far more respected and appreciated when they wear the full habit and exhibit the qualities of dignity and grace that go with their honored state. It is no mistake that the traditional orders attract vocations, while the secular-clad, aging “hippie” orders are all but dead.

But, while the externals may be more intact today than in the dorky 70s and 80s, the desire to be loved is still a deep wound with which many clergy, religious, parents and lay leaders struggle. At the end of the day we must always ask, do I fear and serve the Lord or do I fear and please man?

We serve a Lord who, while popular at times, made a journey to the cross that few, even among his 12 were willing to follow or found pleasing. They were looking for a Messiah who was “down with the struggle” on their terms and who would usher in a new worldly kingdom of power and prosperity. Yes, this is what it meant for them that Jesus be “down with the struggle.” But Jesus went up to the cross and few would follow him there. Only St. John, Mother Mary and several other women made it there.

Those of us who lead, Clergy, Religious, parents, and lay leaders must point to the Cross and be willing to lead others there. As for pointing to what is popular and “hip” and what will make us seemingly “loved” and accepted, any newscaster or Hollywood star can do that.

It is true that we ought not engage in all or nothing thinking, or set up a false dichotomy. To be up with the cross and not merely “down with the folks” is not an absolute conflict. Pope Francis has surely reminded the whole Church that we need to be out among the flock, and out in the public square.

But here is the key, we must be there are Christians, as Catholics, as followers of Jesus, who, who charity but also with clarity announce the Gospel. And key to the Gospel to to point the Cross as the way to glory and healing.

And we preach the cross not as an abstraction, but as focused on some very real and sometimes difficult choices. We preach a cross that includes turning away from the pleasures of sin and the flesh, to embrace, chastity, self-control, openness to life, even in difficult circumstances. The cross means there is to be no abortion, even in rape and incest, we are to work out our marital difficulties instead of splitting. We hold up the cross in calling the unmarried to perfect chastity, to homosexuals there is the call of perpetual continence. We preach the cross of enduring persecution, forgiving our enemies, humbling ourselves through confession, of atoning for our sins and obedience to the Commandments. We hold up the cross when we insist on generosity to the poor, and the forsaking of greed and the accumulation of so many unnecessary things. We hold up the cross when we remind others of their duties to family, community, the Church and the nation.

The Cross is not an abstraction and we who would lead must be up with Jesus and the Cross if we are ever to be “down with the people” and “down with the struggle” in any effective way.

We who are the leaders of the Church, have the mission to reflect the teachings, wisdom and way of our founder Jesus Christ. Many today mistakenly think our job is to find out what the majority of people think, and reflect that. No, this is not our job. We are to be Christ and his voice, his wisdom and his teaching in this world. This goes not only for clergy but also for parents. We are to preach his gospel, the whole counsel of Christ in season and out of season, popular or unpopular. We point the way of Christ.

And Christ had this “crazy” way of the Cross. The cross is like a tuning fork for us. It is the “A 440” that helps us to know if we are in tune with Jesus or just reflecting the world, if we are just “down with the people” or up with Christ on the cross.

Many that Good Friday told Christ they would be believe if he came down from his Cross. But he he would not come down from that cross just to save himself, he decided to stay, to save you and me. Had he been down with the people where they wanted him, he could not have saved them, or lifted them up.

A few quotes from scripture to finish:

  1. Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it….If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mk 8:34-38)
  2. Jesus said, “I do not accept glory from human beings” (John 5:41)
  3. Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:20-25)
  4. You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. (Gal 3:1)
  5. If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Gal 1:9-10)
  6. We speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else… (1 Thess 2:4-6)

Are we with Christ, or just “down with the people?” If we are with others, as we should be, are we there with Christ? Do we preach his way of the cross, or do we seek merely to please men?

Are we up with Christ and the Cross, or merely down with the people and the pillow of popularity and the esteem of men?

Here is a favorite video of mine that both illustrates the silly 70s, but also shows the dark side of “tolerance.” Meet Prof “Stanford Nutting” (i.e. stand for nothing):

10 Replies to “Are We "Down with the People" or Up with the Cross? A Call to Courage in Preaching the Cross”

  1. Thank you so much, Monsignor. You have reminded me again to pick up my cross and to carry it. You are a true friend and a true priest for your constant reminders of what Christianity is really all about.

  2. To borrow a phrase from that benighted decade, “Right on, brother, right on”!

    As one of the products of a Catholic high school (class of 1970) with a “progressive” order of nuns, I left the Church as soon as I graduated since I had just learned that I needed to follow my own conscience in matters of faith and religion. That’s what usually happens when you introduce that concept to a 17 year old who doesn’t have a properly formed conscience but that’s another story. Now, I am a DRE trying to form those consciences in my parish community and the idea of the cross is a hard sell for many today. But I have great hope when I listen to the 5 young people who are currently in our RCIA group. They have actively chosen the Catholic Church because they see something that is worth believing in and even suffering for. And they do not see that elsewhere today.

  3. Thank you for the humbling reminder that the minimal and uneven catechesis I received in the 1970s doesn’t let me off the hook. Please pray for me as I continue my stumble back onto the path of Christ!

  4. Amen! Wonderful article Msgr.! One of the hardest things for a parent who shares the whole Gospel message with their children in their teens and beyond is staying up there on the Cross. It is the waiting, the waiting for your children to realize that, yes, you do love them beyond their imagining and that is it heaven that you truly want for them. I too am a product of the 70’s. It was when I was in my late 30’s that I had my reconversion. Something I read spoke to me in a way to make me understand that I was a minimalist in the way I was raising my children in the Catholic faith. It took many years of praying for my husband to grow in his faith, but my prayers were finally answered. In all this I saw the work of God, not my plan. I Had To cooperate with His work….but I see how His plan, His work is perfect. But I had to cooperate. And so with my children I pray for their needs every single day, I try to live as a true Catholic, I don’t water down the faith to be compatible with the cultures of the day, I make Mass a part of my every day…..without Mass, I don’t think I’d have the strength to stay on the Cross. And I wait. And yes, many a times over I feel very unloved by one or more of my children. It is extremely hard. And so I pray, I pray for patience, perseverance, strength and trust to help me wait it out so that one day I see the Glory of God in His work in my children. Adult children that is. I have to remember that it is His timetable, not mine. But it is me who makes the choice to cooperate so God’s work can shine through. Sure, He could do it all without me, but then what would be the purpose of me being their mother?

  5. God came down to us when Jesus took on flesh. So, when priests attempt to go down to the people they are ignoring that.

    “But, while the externals may be more intact today than in the dorky 70s and 80s, the desire to be loved is still a deep wound with which many clergy, religious, parents and lay leaders struggle.”–I would say that is true for everyone from Adam to the present generation.

    “We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else… “–When you read St. Paul and he says stuff like that, for some reason, you believe him.

    I don’t have the right to make fun of the dorky 70’s influence on the Church because I was one of the people who ran away. “Run, rabbit, run! Get away!” And the rabbit ran away.

  6. Makes me wonder why did these “hip” priests and nuns enter the religious vocation in the first place?
    I guess they were trying to show the youngsters that they were with the “fashion” of the time?
    I guess the 60’s and 70’s were just mess up and now we have to deal with the filth, lameness and the lost of faith on a large scale.

  7. Wonderful article, Monsignor!

    It seems to me there are 2 extremes: trying to fit in with the world as a way of reaching others by dressing like them and speaking like them; or, the opposite, by “proving” to others we have died to the world by neglecting our hair, and refusing to wear make-up, jewelry, or anything fashionable. In both cases, people shake their heads.

    It has taken me so long to even understand what it means to “take up my cross”. I have learned that I can’t do it apart from Jesus. Sometimes we speak a language that we Christians don’t even understand ourselves. We speak to others about our faith without actually living it. Yet, most people can quickly pick out a fake or a hypocrite. They can sense the lack of love and humility.

    I am grateful for priests like yourself who regularly instruct the flock in a deeper understanding of the faith!

  8. Msgr. Pope,

    once again you hit it on the head however I would say that you can still be among the people as long as you do not Secularize the faith by distorting the Truth. this was the way of the UN-orthodox approach of the hipsters of the 60’s – 70’s Kumbuyah or however it is written.

    I am an example of one that was raised in a very Orthodox Catholic household and Parish and I and my siblings attended a very blue collar, wrong side of the tracks fighting Catholic schools. My brother’s, myself and our friends were all Alter boy’s and we all smoked, drank and mocked our Cossack wearing priests, not to mention the Brother’s and Sister Ludsella was known simply as the linebacker. I did know my faith as I am sure yours was also strong and I left the faith at 14 returning at 25 and you are now Msgr. Pope.

    Our Parochial Vicar wears a Cossack daily, I have seen him in Jeans once as he was painting on a day off, and he to carries a guitar. He sings contemporary songs with the youth and some adults all of which are nothing like when we were young, these resonate the Gospels and talk about the Cross and bring the message of the cross to the young. This also intrigues them to find out Adoration is a great experience and Gregorian chant is an amazing soulful feeling that is another way to bring Jesus on the Cross into their hearts.

    We love the full habits that we see more often and a New order hopeful in our Diocese has our Bishops approval just awaiting Pope Francis to give his blessing and they will be wearing the full habit.

    If you are unwilling to tell me I am turning from God are you then disobeying the word of God, so I pray that all those that take on the Priestly garments will tell his flock when they are straying from the narrow path.

    God Bless you Msgr.

  9. It is difficult dealing with the young adults of this age. My 2 sons both have strayed. Yet, I’ve learned to cling to the Cross and pray for them, for all our children. My youngest, the one i dub the Jesuit, for a long time questioned God’s existence. But through my constant sharing of Scripture, of testimony and his own witnessing of God’s graces working in me, last night, praise God He looked at me and said “I KNOW God exists and I’ve seen Him work in you and in us” We MUST stand firm! God bless you Msgr. Pope!

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