About once a year, I take the time to host what I call a “teaching Mass” in which instead of celebrating Mass, I go through and explain the different parts of the Mass. At the end of the night, I always host an open forum in which people can ask any question they wish. This year, one of the people in attendance began to talk about his hopes that Pope Francis would change a lot of things. I challenged the man to love the Church we have and not the one that he hoped for. I went on to explain to him that staying in the Church, hoping that she would change, was like a husband who promised to love his wife only after she lost 20 pounds.
Ever since then my heart has been wrestling with the idea of “loving the Church I have.” How could I do this better? To answer that question, I decided to reflect on the advice that I give engaged couples as I prepare them for marriage and I came up with 10 ways in which we can love the Church we are in.
1. Positive Sentiment Override
At my first parish there was a person on the staff who actually drove me crazy. Her theology was so completely opposite mine that I wondered how she could call herself Catholic. It infuriated me that the pastor would not fire her, and whenever we were assigned to work together, we did nothing but bump heads. Knowing that Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, I started trying positive sentiment override.
Fifteen minutes before I was scheduled to meet with her, I stopped and said a prayer in which I thanked God for three good qualities in her. Over time, I discovered that I had begun to treat her better and that we were able to work better together. When I find my patience being tested by the Church in one way or the other, I have discovered that all I have to do is to think about the Church’s positive qualities, and I fall in love with her all over again.
2. Criticism Versus Complaining
Many relationship counselors write that it is all right to complain about problems, but that one should avoid criticizing their partner at all cost. Complaining to a spouse is grumbling about how an event or action affected you in a negative way; criticizing goes beyond that to attack the human nature of the spouse.
I have discovered personally that sometimes it is better for me to complain about the Church than to hold it in. While complaining, though, I strive hard to avoid criticizing the Church (attacking her human and divine nature), realizing at the same time that Jesus often found himself frustrated with His apostles.
3. Avoid Defensiveness (Personal Weaknesses)
One of the things that I have to repeat to myself often is the saying from St. Augustine “The Church is a hospital for sinners and not a hotel for saints.” I believe that it is almost impossible for a priest in the post-scandal Church today not to feel at least a little bit persecuted by the Church’s hierarchy.
For example, all it used to take for me to work a youth camp in another diocese was a letter from my bishop to their bishop. Starting this year, I had to watch a one-hour video online and submit to background checks from the diocese that the camp was in because the letter from my bishop was no longer sufficient. At first, I was offended, but I remembered that defensiveness rarely ever accomplishes anything but more conflict because, when I get defensive, I often aggressively criticize the person I am defending myself from. This year, I decided to turn the other cheek, and I prayerfully decided to offer up this extra inconvenience and my hurt feelings for a sick friend.
4. Understand Defensiveness (Weakness in Others)
One of the most important lessons I learned in counseling is that uncalled-for aggressiveness can be a sign of weakness in the person who is being aggressive. For example, when two adults are chatting with one another, they should both feel that they are on equal ground; but sometimes, for one reason or another, a person does not feel equal to the other person. In their conversation, one might try to compensate by speaking louder and becoming more intimidating.
The saying “the loudest one in the room is the weakest” often rings true. When someone attacks me for something I said in a homily or in a new parish policy in a way that appears hateful, crude or obnoxious, I can see that that behavior says more about them than it says about me. I am not only able to keep my calm, but also to unite my sufferings with Christ who suffered so gracefully through the Passion.
One of the worst things that can happen in a marriage is for an argument to end with what some counselors call stonewalling. Stonewalling refers to the moment when one person withdraws from an argument because they are too hurt to continue. Sometimes people do this when it comes to Church teaching because it is easier to live in their error than to change their lifestyle in order to avoid sin.
The best way to avoid stonewalling personally is to stay engaged in learning more about Church teachings that you do not understand. I have found it helpful to talk to teachers from the local university and the seminary about things that I struggle with. I often walk away amazed at the wisdom behind the Church’s teaching that I could not see before.
6. Being Honest With God
Characters like Job — “curse the day that I was born. . .” (Jb 3) and Jeremiah, “you duped me O Lord, and I allowed myself to be duped” (Jer 20:7) — have shown me the power of being honest with God. The more that I am honest with God about my frustrations with His Church, the more I walk away with a sense that God’s wisdom is beyond me.
In addition, I discover that a lot of my frustration with the Church often comes from wounds that I need God to heal. The more that I am honest with God, the more I can ask Him for healing.
7. Praying the Old Testament
Following the story of David’s dealings with Saul or praying over the passages of Moses and Joshua leading the Israelites into the Promised Land have become fruitful parts of my prayer when I am growing angry with the Church. These stories help me see that, from the very beginning, God has never chosen perfect people to be His followers or the leaders of His people.
8. Repair Attempts
A repair attempt is any time that two people in the midst of arguing remind themselves that they are on the same side. Taking time to remind myself that God loves me and that I desire to love Him helps me not only to put up with the Church but also to embrace her evermore. As St. Paul discovered, persecuting the Church is persecuting Christ (Acts 9), and Jesus came into the world not to condemn me, but so that I might have life eternal (Jn 3:16).
Sometimes overcoming my dislike for something in the Church is as simple as getting over myself and stretching myself by performing some type of service such as helping with the parish fish fry or helping out at a soup kitchen. The more I focus on loving and serving others, the more my problems seem to shrink, melt away and disappear.
10. Positive People
Finally, the best thing I can do to love the Church I am in is to be with others who love the Church for who she is. Married couples must remember that their spouses are a gift from God and that they agreed to overlook one another’s faults because no one is perfect.
We must remind ourselves that the Church is an awesome gift from God and that the imperfections we perceive in her are things we agree to overlook because of the love that we promised to give her.
FATHER PASTORIUS is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis, Missouri.