Lately I’ve been reading a rather unusual book called TO MY PRIESTS. It’s a shockingly difficult translation of the Spanish original written from the years 1927 – 1931. They are inspirations or ‘confidences’ of Jesus to a Spanish woman called Concepcion Cabrera de Armida and add up to the most insightful and confronting observations I’ve ever read on the priesthood. Let me quote a little from Chapter 46 on Vanity: This vice, when it initiates itself into the souls of the priests ought to be rooted out because, if it reaches an accustomed level of living and possesses the person, it removes him from his interior and spiritual life - which ought to be where his existence gravitates - it lowers him to the things of the earth and makes him delight in them. Then he is saddened when there is a lack of human praises and he is joyful only when he sees himself enveloped in them. Powerful stuff!
Perhaps because this book caused the priestly ministry to be so much in the forefront of my thinking, today’s Gospel image of the steward giving away the master’s property to make himself popular speaks to me also of the dangers inherent in the vocation of the priest.
When I was first ordained it was my habit to invite parishioners to call me by my first name rather than say Father. It seemed like a jolly good idea. It showed people I was not ‘hierarchical’ which was code for ‘power hungry’; it showed them that I didn’t want them to think I was better than they were; and, all in all, and perhaps most importantly, showed them what a nice, friendly, approachable guy I was.
To be honest, I have now come to see that what I was really doing was saying to my parishioners 'Please like me!’ What is apparent to me, after thirty-two years of priesthood, is that I was wasting, or giving away the Master’s property in order to win a welcome for myself. I was giving away what didn’t belong to me. At the time I didn’t realize that the familiarity I then sought, even in this seemingly trivial way, would one day become an obstacle for those who needed Father John Speekman and not John Speekman. I guess that’s why so many parishioners, especially the older ones, resisted me. They understood this title was not mine to give away. It had been placed on me at ordination and represented who I had become. Another group of parishioners, however, was only too ready to acquiesce to my invitation.
A little smarter now I have begun to cast the light of this self-understanding on all sorts of areas of priestly ministry, some minor and some gravely serious. Take the wearing of the Roman collar, for example. Patients and staff at the hospital where I served as chaplain were always grateful to see me wearing clerical attire and occasionally told me so. A religious sister in lay clothes who sometimes visited the wards once chided me and suggested it was a little overdone. She asked ‘What difference does it make?’ and I answered, perhaps too abruptly, ‘When I walk down the street I make people think of God and the Church, and you don’t.’ Let me hasten to add that there was a time when I didn't wear clerical clothes either, but I have learned.
Rome has repeatedly requested priests to wear clerical attire. Our bishop sets a great standard here. Why then should we not comply with this requirement? For only one reason: it’s easier for us when we are not so conspicuous. And because people have a right to the example of priestly obedience, and of visible priests, I propose this as another example of wasting the Master’s property.
We priests need you to love us, though, depending on circumstances and life situations, some priests more than others. But this need can run very deep and often causes us to baulk at making difficult decisions.
- ‘Father, is it OK for me to be on the Pill?’
- ‘Father, can I still go to Holy Communion even though I’m married outside the Church?’
- ‘Is it OK to sing “She’ll be coming round the mountain” as the first hymn at Mum’s funeral Mass?'
The more a priest needs to be loved the more difficult it is for him to say no. Then we find that awful temptation to give away more of the Master’s property. Our loyalty shifts from the Master to his debtors and the consequences are tragic for the Church; it becomes a Church ruled by the wishes of the people rather than the rights of the Master, and there is no place where this becomes more apparent than in the pulpit.
Have you noticed that there are some pulpits from which you never hear anything challenging? There is lots of affirmation, lots of thanking, lots of congratulating, lots of humour, but almost no teaching of prickly truths. It’s not that heresy is preached, it’s just that the difficult teachings of the Faith are somehow ‘left out’. As one Catholic man put it recently, ‘Our priest gives us nothing to take home. All he does is talk about climate change, refugees, and progress on the school hall.’
We priests are called to set the hearts of our people aflame, not to blow smoke in their eyes. There will be many to love us today for not challenging them - but tomorrow – they will quietly despise us.
We priests are called to use the Master’s riches to make friends who will welcome us ‘into the tents of eternity.’ I haven’t always understood this and have been as guilty as most of self-serving ‘wastage’.
Nowadays I deliberately never tell a joke at Mass; I am so conscious of how this destroys the (Lord's) sacred atmosphere which should surround it. I don’t make use of extraordinary ministers unless it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t just let the choir sing whatever they want but try to direct them more to appropriate hymns and music. Above all, I never deliberately change the words of the Mass.
All this is learned behaviour, acquired wisdom. If it is essential that we priests, stewards of the Master, remain accountable for our use of the Master’s goods, it is equally necessary that religious and lay persons be attentive also. The steward in the Gospel was not a thief, he was just wasteful - but the master still gave him the sack.