By Eugene Hemrick
A first principle of good writing is to avoid unconditional sentences like, ''Never before in history,'' ''These are the most challenging times that we ever lived in.'' Sooner or later we inevitably end up eating our words.
As true as this is, it is correct to state that today's priests live in challenging times unlike generations before them. Of all the challenges we face, on which should we focus most?
May I suggest it is our culture and the need for a highly cultured priesthood that ministers to it?
''Culture,'' Plato states, ''is education in virtue from youth onwards, which makes men passionately desire to become perfect citizens, knowing both how to rule and how to be ruled on a basis of justice.''
Plato's definition of culture raises the question: what new millennium virtues do we need to better perfect ourselves, our ministry and the City of God?
Multiculturalism and the heightened virtues it requires is the first place to start! When I worked with the priests of Brooklyn, New York, it was no surprise to hear of twenty, thirty or as many as a hundred languages spoken in their parishes. In response to this, today's newly ordained priests are required to be fluent in foreign languages that range from Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese to Italian and Polish. To be articulate in a foreign language is one thing; perfecting the additional virtue of solidarity to accompany it is yet another and more difficult task to accomplish.
As a teenager, I worked in an Italian pizzeria and quickly learned of the need for heightened sensitivity when working with other cultures. Young students in a neighboring college would come in and try to act Italian, even though they were anything but Italian. With all due respect to them, they were a joke.
How to be our true selves in working with other cultures and not a joke requires utmost sensitivity. To achieve this, studying their traditions and identifying with them is imperative. Equally imperative is authenticity and sincerity in the process. This is a tall order that requires a heightened practice of respect and prudence.
As white persons we may work and identify with African- Americans, but in truth we are not African-Americans and African-Americans know this. Prudence dictates that we learn how best to be a brother among brothers, but not a big brother, to be respectful and avoid patronizing, to know our true place. Depending on how well we perfect this will determine how much we grow as a cohesive multicultural church.
This holds equally true when ministering with brother priests from other cultures. To work together cooperatively and effectively, mutual respect must be raised to a much higher level.
The word respect contains two qualities: awe and keeping a respectful distance between another and ourselves. It is realizing that every person is unique and possesses special qualities of his own or her own. Respect also implies giving another space. We don't take possession of another by trying to lead them by the hand or hovering over them. Space and the freedom it creates are the handmaids to openness, willingness and effective collaboration.
The principle of reverential space is easy to violate by both American-born and foreign-born priests. If priests from another culture don't speak our language well, it is easy to move in on them and be overpossessive. And too, some international priests coming from caste systems will not associate with priests whom they deem below them. This also holds true of priests whose cultures tend to demean women. When the awe and reverential space that are essential to mutual respect are missing, so too, is the opportunity missed of being one, united brotherhood.
In addition to maintaining awe of each other and respect for another's space, Pope John Paul II would add the virtue of solidarity. Simply defined, it means putting ourselves in the place of another, and endeavoring to understand his or her experiences, frustrations, anxieties and pain.
Over the years, I had the luxury of cycling through Europe. Riding through the countryside and quaint old towns was absolute joy. However, negotiating foreign money, buying food and getting directions in another language was extremely frustrating. As difficult as it was, it gave me a much deeper sympathy with the frustration immigrants and migrants experience in this country. This empathy with suffering and frustration is ever so essential to solidarity.
The degree to which we can identify with people of other countries is the degree we are truly cultured and live the Christian principle, ''Look at how they love each other!'' The degree to which we practice the virtues of solidarity and respect between our international and American-born priests is the degree we will become a united priesthood and live the principle, ''In unity there is strength.''
Not only are we being challenged by our growing immigrant and migrant populations, but we are being equally challenged by our technological culture. New technologies, especially the Internet and the Nano- world are often touted as examples of an advanced culture. This is true to the extent that we employ them prudently.
When we wisely use modern-day technology, we have rich educational resources for evangelization at our fingertips. Not only this, but we enjoy one of the most effective means of communication for achieving success. Staying in touch with our people affords us our best opportunity for creating new evangelization. As Christ lauded those who increased their talents and were enterprising, so too, must we practice the virtue of enterprising in this area in order to increase God's kingdom on earth. Taking initiative and embracing new ways of doing business is not only a needed virtue in our times that Plato would laud, but one which Christ demands.
It is one thing to respond to challenges of our technological culture with the virtue of initiative, and yet another thing to practice the wisdom needed to separate the good from the bad in it.
In a study conducted years ago on seminarians, we found they ranked low in research skills, i.e., knowing how to find and sort out reliable information. This void often leads to undesirable consequences. How many times have homilies been preached that contain unsubstantiated and shallow information that our parishioners immediately sense?
Often they will seek another parish in search of a cultured priest who practices docility, an essential quality of prudence. The sparsity of docility is not only found in the priesthood, but throughout our society. A major complaint is that our culture isn't as cultured as it should be and that its shallowness reflects the loss of taste for doing its homework. For many, information must be immediate! To follow blogs, or keep up with the latest church gossip may be entertaining, and to some extent even informing, but substituting this for serious reading and research is unacceptable.
Often this leads to shallow information, which end up as misinformation, and the blind leading the blind. It is no exaggeration to state that our times are crying for our priesthood and society to raise the bar on being wisely informed and using the best of our discursive powers in seeking ultimate correctness and truth. Expending long hours on research and reflection are the basis of being a truly cultured person and especially a cultured priest.
Another virtue our technological age is crying for is moderation! We need to control the Internet and the latest technological gadgets ever so much more. Moderation requires regulation and setting rules. Most of us will agree that we are highly addicted to our cell phones, text messaging, and instant news twenty-four-seven. However, do we consider this a serious addiction, or just part of the times we live in?
Lately we are seeing signs aimed at curbing them that indicate alarm. Texting while driving is being contested. Warnings to shut down cell phones are much more pervasive. We even have silent cars on Amtrak that are reserved for total silence. Are these danger signs that we aren't living the sane and healthy life we should?
I believe our times are calling for a new breed of Internet-savvy priests who prudently practice moderation. We need to know when to turn it off and shut it down in order to be more fully in possession of ourselves, and especially to mirror the contemplative spirit expected of us. Although there are some who don't like the word ''counterculture,'' we are a culture that, by its nature, is expected to be countercultural when it comes to following or not following the crowd.
The renowned theologian and liturgist Father Romano Guardini once wrote,
All around us we see activity, organization, operations of every possible type; but what directs them? It is an inwardness no longer really at home with itself. An ''interiority'' too superficial to contact the truth lying at life's center, which no longer reaches the essential and everlasting, but remains just under the skin-level of the provisional and the fortuitous.
It is very easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of our culture and, in the process, to lose our interiority. As interiority was the hallmark of Christ, so too, must it be ours. Karl Rahner once said, ''The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he won't exist at all.'' As priests, we are expected to reflect mysticism. This can only be achieved if we rule ourselves wisely and religiously practice moderation for the sake of interiority.
We would be remiss if we didn't address one of the greatest dangers of the Internet and threats to the priesthood: Internet pornography. We are as prone to temptations as everyone else. One of the most disastrous addictions of our times is the thirst for Internet pornography. Its addictive powers are as strong as the addiction to alcoholism and drugs. All it takes for someone to turn to it is perverted curiosity, a bad day, or the excuse of needing relaxation. Once engrossed in it, our spirituality is threatened, and worse, we aren't the real person we want to be or should be. We are cheapened.
No doubt there are many other cultural challenges that require heightening the virtuous life needed to be cultured in Plato's definition. Working in a fishbowl existence, we need the patience of Job and the tough skin of the prophet Isaiah. Poverty, shut-ins and parishioners suffering from mental disorders require the best of mercy, compassion and patient, sympathetic listening.
Our prayer life is anything but easy to maintain, requiring an even stronger asceticism and the discipline that implies. Not only do we work with depressed and sick people, but we too are prone to depression and sickness and require the humility to admit our weakness in order to be healed.
The list of challenges requiring heightened virtue is endless. Why then did we focus on the above challenges? One very good reason is because our Church in the U.S. is changing dramatically. We are moving rapidly toward a multicultural Church that is requiring rapid response. We are importing approximately 300 to 400 international priests a year.
That is changing the face of the priesthood, and it will require greater understanding and cohesiveness if we are to be unified. We live in a secular society that is tempting us to mirror it rather than change it. The world of the media is usurping our attention and time, tempting us to enter it daily and lose our taste for the contemplative world we represent.
In Plato's definition of culture he speaks of knowing how to rule and be ruled. To rule wisely, our priestly vocation is calling for rethinking and retooling the best of our Christian virtues. Being ruled wisely is prompting us to fashion new sets of self rules that are structured to guide us through our ever changing and challenging culture. In the words of Christ, we must become as wise as serpents and know how to protect our heads from anything that would turn them in the wrong direction or lose them. TP
FATHER HEMRICK is director of the National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood at Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C.
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