Some 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:
- 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)
- Jesus said, “I do not accept glory from human beings” (John 5:41)
- 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)
- You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. (Gal 3:1)
- 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)
- 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):