Monday, December 20, 2010

When are the Jesuits going to be Catholic?

I met some friends - guys I've not seen in very many years - this morning for coffee. We ordered our beverages (you can tell we're all growing up by our common order: regular coffee, black) and set about the business of catching up. We chatted of families, weddings, deaths, births of children, and the passing of loved ones. New jobs, career changes, and fears for the future peppered the discussion, too, and it was great to hear the stories and see how the lives of my friends had unfolded since we graduated in 1998.

At a certain point, the conversation turned to my decision to enter the Society of Jesus. "When," one of my friends asked, not without a barbed edge, "are the Jesuits going to be Catholic?"

Now I don't think he meant this to be offensive but, all the same, it cut a bit. Normally, I let these little jabs go but, being fueled by caffeine, I thought to pursue the issue. With no small amount of irritation lacing my voice, I asked him, "What, if you don't mind me asking, do you mean by this?"

He went on to talk about how ALL the Jesuits have become liberal and NONE of them love the Church any more. ALL Jesuits are disobedient and are involved in advancing some RADICAL AGENDA of liberalism. Jesuits seldom wear clerical attire in public, he added, and they breed confusion and dissent rather than clarity of thought and acceptance of the Church.

Having said his piece, my friend sat back. I sipped my coffee and met eyes with the other two guys who were with us, each of whom looked bemused and embarrassed.

The conversation that ensued for the next half-hour ranged over many topics. Later, I'll take up the question of the Catholicity of the Jesuits. Right now, I would like to make two points that touch on the experience of clergy (potentially) in general:

First, to the point of Jesuits being liberals, let me take one instance. When I am asked about whether I am Pro-Life or Pro-Choice (or Pro-Abortion) I have no reservation in averring that I am 100% pro-life. This meets with nods from many who seem to think that there are Jesuits out there who are actively working to kill unborn babies. Yet I always go on to say that not only am I vehemently against abortion, I am against euthanasia, I am against guns, I totally oppose the death penalty, and I'm not a fan of war. I'm also so Pro-Life that I think that we as a nation, and as a world, need to address the economic structures that contribute to crippling poverty. I am so Pro-Life that I think we as a nation need to take steps to address our flailing educational and medical systems. I am so Pro-Life that, when people hear how broadly I construe Pro-Life, I go from being a "Good Conservative" to being a "Filthy Liberal."

Does this make sense? If I agree with a person on abortion, I'm a Good Catholic. If I extend my valuation of life to other issues, I become a Socialist and I'm told that I'm out-of-touch with reality and that I live in an ivory tower (such towers, I guess, abound in Detroit). How is it that the more Pro-Life I am, the more that I endorse and affirm the dignity of EVERY HUMAN LIFE from womb to tomb, that I am transformed from a "Good Catholic" into a "Dissenting Jesuit"? Boggles my mind.

As for clerical attire, I wear the Roman collar every day to work (unless we have a spirit day, when I seize the opportunity to wear jeans and a spirit shirt). I also wear it to sporting events (when we play other Catholic league teams), when I chaperone dances, when I go out to meet benefactors, when I attend social events that are directly linked to the school or to the Society of Jesus. Yet the fact that I spend most of my waking hours wearing black isn't enough for some: when I go to the movies, the doctor's, or to hang out with my friend I should be clad in clerical attire. So should clergy be "on" all of the time?

I think people forget the demands that are placed on priests and religious today. We are expected to be good preachers - not too long-winded, of course, and sufficiently entertaining - and good with balancing the books. A high premium is placed on orthodoxy, so long as it doesn't make waves or make people feel uncomfortable. We need to be available at a moment's notice to bring Communion, celebrate weddings, do wakes and funerals, offer counseling, rush to hospitals, and teach courses. And, I might add, try to find time for personal prayer and relaxation.

In other words, I often wonder if people realize the enormous burden that is placed on clergy today. Speaking personally, some days it really stinks to be a Jesuit. Jokes about pedophile priests, about clergy abuse, about financial improprieties, about discrimination and hypocrisy, about a host of things...I get these a lot. People write comments on YouTube and on the blog and send me emails that are little more than scurrilous attacks on me, the Jesuits, and the Church at large. If my experience is at all similar to that of others, is it any wonder that guys would want to go to the movies, or out to dinner, or to the bar without having to be identified as clergy? Some might see sporting clerical attire as a public witness...others experience it as a target. There is a time and a place for all things and, as I've experienced it, there's no hard-and-fast rule for wearing a collar. I think my solution - wear it when it involves my working or being a Jesuit presence - has worked well...for I just can't imagine that my wearing it to see "A Nightmare on Elm Street" or "Black Swan" has much of a witness value!

It's sometimes disheartening to poke about on the internet to see the great animosity had (1) toward the Catholic Church, (2) toward priests, and within the Church (3) those who hate the Jesuits. These are humbling days, in my experience, for there is precious little luster or glory associated with being a part of the Church. Perhaps I'd have it no other way: the Christ child was born in a manger and, perhaps, it's my job to sit vigil amidst the manure!

My friend did apologize for his comment, saying he didn't realize things were so complicated. This, I think, is symptomatic of idiot-blogging and the news bites we get on television. We want short, pre-digested bits of information so that we don't have to take the time to wade through the information and make informed judgments on our own. Perhaps here, then, is the challenge each of us can accept this final week of Advent: to embrace the story of Christ's coming not as a mere fact, a bit of information, but rather as an invitation to learn more, to explore more deeply what the coming of the Son of Man means and how it might encourage us to grow as women and men for others who have committed themselves to the greater glory of God.
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