It is amazing to think that 30 of the first 33 Popes died as martyrs. Of the other three, two died in exile and only one died in his bed. It’s hard to imagine such suffering today among the lowliest of priests let alone Church prelates.
On the Feast of St. Thomas Apostle (July 3rd) we read this description of the apostolic life by St. Paul:
As I see it, God has put us apostles at the end of the line, like men doomed to die in the arena. We have become a spectacle to the universe, to angels and men alike. We are fools on Christ’s account. Ah, but in Christ you are wise! We are the weak ones, you the strong! They honor you, while they sneer at us! Up to this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, poorly clad, roughly treated, wandering about homeless. We work hard at manual labor. When we are insulted we respond with a blessing. Persecution comes our way; we bear it patiently. We are slandered, and we try conciliation. We have become the world’s refuse, the scum of all; that is the present state of affairs (1 Cor 4:8-12).
As a priest reading this description, I don’t whether I should feel grateful, or ashamed and embarrassed. Frankly, nothing describes our life today less than what St. Paul described. We clergy live rather comfortable, even privileged, lives.
The bishops of the Church are typically surrounded by staff, often layers of staff, insulating them from the lay faithful, who have little hope of ever being able to contact or speak with him directly. There are titles, seats of honor, and regal vesture with insignias.
As for us pastors and parish priests, we are often protected by staff as well. We live in rectories that are often well-appointed. Unlike the faithful we serve, we have job security and few personal financial concerns. We are given food, shelter, health insurance, and retirement benefits, and the people of God are enormously generous with us. Staff stand ready to assist in our administrative tasks, and repair and clean our homes and churches. Many of us even have cooks and laundresses. We too have our titles, seats of honor, and regal vesture.
It is so different from what St. Paul described and himself experienced!
It must be said that there are many priests and bishops who are generous and who live lives of sacrificial service. Many work long hours and seldom are those hours regular.
However, few of us are hungry, thirsty, or poorly dressed, let alone wandering about homeless. Manual labor has become almost unknown to many of us. Perhaps things should be that way. It makes sense that in a settled Church, the faithful should care for their clergy and set them apart so that the clergy may pray for them, study for them, and do the works that feed and form them spiritually.
Of greater concern to me, however, is the inability and even unwillingness of too many clergy to suffer as a result of preaching the Gospel as St. Paul describes. Paul speaks of the apostles as persecuted, slandered, roughly treated, considered refuse, sneered at, scorned, last in line, and like unto those doomed to die in the arena. Lest we think that this is mere Jewish hyperbole, recall that St. Paul himself was cast out of many a synagogue, flogged, stoned, run out of towns, jailed, shipwrecked, and finally martyred. All of this was because he preached the Word of God.
Yet we clergy today can hardly bear to have an eyebrow raised at us. Too many of us play it safe when it comes to preaching. Perhaps we are afraid of upsetting our benefactors. Or perhaps it is just the human tendency to avoid conflict, to want to be liked and to fit in. Perhaps for some (I pray only a few) it is the fear that clerical advancement might be hindered by preaching too boldly or even just preaching clearly.
The lay faithful notice that many of us avoid Gospel teachings that are too challenging. They notice the retreat into abstractions, generalities, and even obfuscation. Indeed, they notice that many clergy dare not risk offense or the pain that comes from being the object of another’s anger and opposition.
Even if we modern clergy are far from Paul’s experience of homelessness and hunger, we ought not to be so far from his experience of persecution and suffering for the Word of God. As the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Priests and the Second Vatican Council teach, the Word of God is the primum officium (the first or primary duty) of the priest (See Presbyterorum Ordinis # 4). This is because no one can be saved who does not first believe, and faith proclaimed is necessary to unlock the sacraments. If we don’t get our preaching and teaching right and are not willing to suffer if necessary, then we don’t have anything else right.
I am less concerned about the fact that we clergy no longer live in abject poverty than that we may have become soft on account of the comforts that have been extended to us. Our comfortable lives have made some of us soft and given us the sense that we have too much to lose. Unlike St. Paul, we can hardly bear the slightest critique or scorn. We even fear that children won’t like us, won’t think we’re “cool.” It is hard to imagine most of us being willing to join Paul in jail, at the flogging post, in the stoning pit, or shipwrecked on the way to execution. We might even be among the naysayers who would say, “Paul is too extreme. He is too certain and argumentative.” Frankly, most of us modern clergy would find the real Jesus shocking, too.
It has been my experience that the people of God can handle strong preaching more than we clergy think. Indeed, many are outright appreciative of courageous, bold, and clear preaching. Even if we encounter resistance, though, we are supposed to preach anyway: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction (2 Tim 4:2).
We do not seek a fight or to provoke anger, but if we preach the Gospel in season and out of season, anger and fights often find us. Does the persecution on account of the Word described by Paul even remotely resemble anything we face in modern clerical life? And if not, why not?
What I say to priests, I say to parents, to elders, and to every Catholic baptized and sharing in the prophetic office of Christ.