It has been quite a while since the last (real) post. A variety of reasons has been at work but there is one that will receive some focus here. It is as personal as this blog will ever get, because what Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister called “the perpendicular pronoun” always has a jarring effect in more formal forms of writing. And this blog is not primarily about its author at all. But sometimes, needs must, so “I” will appear frequently. Just this once.
First a little recent history. Shortly after my last proper post, on the significance of facing east in liturgy, a complaint about it was received by the webmaster here, in part because this blog was the vocations link from the Douai Abbey website. No approach was made to me by the complainant, who remains anonymous, and I was provided with only a quotation from the email. The quotation given me read:
A third party tell me that if one presses the heading VOCATIONS one is taken immediately to a lecture by Fr Hugh arguing for the eastward position by the presider at mass. I have just tried it and found that. It seems an odd way to inform those who might have a vocation and presents an image of Douai which I do not believe reflects the community. Surely the community can find a better way to attract vocations?
As a result of this, without asking my input, the webmaster removed this blog as the vocations link from the Douai website, stating that while it was fine for me to express “personal opinions” on my blog, they do not necessarily represent those of the community.
Now, to be fair, I can accept that this blog is not the official link from the website for vocations, as it frees me to state things in bolder colours than heretofore. What was disturbing was that the webmaster could make the decision without consulting me; that my “personal opinions” merely reflected the tradition of the Church and the practice of the current Pope and yet could be said not necessarily to reflect the views of this community; that an outsider could presume to know the character of the community as well as an insider; and that a single complaint from an anonymous outsider can change the practice of this monastic community.
Please note that blame is not being heaped on the webmaster. While it is disappointing that he could not see his way to back up a confrere in the face of a solitary complaint is disappointing – indeed, distressing – it may perhaps reflect something other than his full agreement with the complainant. Possibly he has partially succumbed to what is a subtle form of bullying; and certainly he has aided the complainant’s attempt to bully me by proxy. We are all familiar with tales of clerical bullying in parishes in years past, and certainly bullying can occur in monastic communities, and all too often does believe me. But we do not often hear about lay bullies, bullies among the “people of God”, who bully other laity and bully their clergy as well. No doubt they mostly do not intentionally set out to bully; rather their behaviour often arises from an inflated sense of their own rights, rightness and righteousness.
The priest (or monk, etc) who is on the receiving end of this behaviour is in an invidious position. One option for him is to challenge the bully and risk himself being seen as one, and so opening himself to that most awful of modern charges against a priest – that he is “not pastoral”, that he cannot brook opposition, that he is intolerant. Even worse he might be accused of being judgmental and intolerant, which are also among the revised list of mortal sins so cherished by a certain type of liberal (though that designation is ironic to say the least), insofar as they acknowledge mortal sins at all. Another option is for the priest to take seriously our Lord’s counsel to turn the other cheek, and so keep silence. This may have great spiritual value for him, if he is able to receive it, but it may also do him great harm psychologically, since the grace of ordination does not necessarily free him from feelings of hurt and isolation. And of course, it allows the bully to continue as he or she has been used to doing.
Lest I be seen to be talking through my hat (or hood, to be precise), I point out that I know what I am talking about. While the complainant above is unnamed to me, his identity seems quiet clear, by the style and content of his complaint, by his tactics and attitudes, and by the light of recent history. Let me explain… get a cup of tea first, if you wish: this is turning into a long post!
In early summer last year I was asked to provide a 1600-word contribution to the local pastoral area (deanery in the old language) magazine, introducing the revised Roman Missal we will begin using from September. After submitting it, but before it was published, word came that my mother, for some years oppressed by Alzheimers, had suffered a heart attack from which she would not recover, and so I flew out to Sydney to see her. She lasted another 10 or so days and then passed away. Then came preparations for the funeral (only my second as officiating priest – my first was my father’s) and all the stress that this creates. In the meantime, the article had been published. After the funeral, but while I was still in Australia, I was copied an email to the editor of the magazine, who complained in it about my failure to mention the 1998 draft translation, and my being accorded the title “Father” in the article, which he assumed I had insisted on. Regarding the latter point, I had not insisted at all – the editor merely offered the customary courtesy that for most Catholics would be automatic with priests. The author has a connection with the monastery, though not so intimate as he likes to make out, and is well-known for his denunciations of “clericalism” in today’s clergy. So his complaint is not surprising.
I did email him to clarify the matter and to tell him that since I had just buried my mother I had other priorities at that time. He replied to apologise for bringing this up at such a difficult time for me. Good. But not able to leave things well enough alone, he then had to say that he had to protest in the face of “power abuse” and that since I had taken a very public position on a “controversial matter” I could not expect to be “immune from criticism”. The language reveals a common tactic. The legitimate decisions of a legitimate authority are labelled power abuse, and those who support them abusers, and in this instance, in introducing its product, the revised missal, I was making a public statement of my opinion. Since it was only opinion, it was open therefore to attack by him. I replied along the lines that far from taking a position in a controversy I was merely doing what a normal Catholic would expect a priest to do: explain the decisions and teachings of the Church, whose servant I am as a priest. Reflecting my growing irritiability I did also say, rather tersely, that I had not mentioned the 1998 draft due to the word limit and to its irrelevance to a pastoral introduction to the draft we are actually getting, and that discussion of it was academic now that it had been approved. Moreover, still tersely, I mentioned that dissent was destructive for the Church when the Church had clearly ruled on an issue, and that I would always opt for the Church.
That provoked a long email in reply which shocked me and upset me. At the beginning of it he wrote “Is it not better to remain silent rather than risk an accusation of discourtesy, lack of charity or worse? On the other hand, there are the obligations of truth.” In light of what follows I find its irony stupefying. In it he accuses me of behaviour,
more suited to a policeman and unbefitting an ordained priest; you are excluding and judgmental. I believe your articulated views are unworthy of an ordained minister of the Word and Sacraments.
Moreover, having been so labelled as unworthy to be a priest he then attacks my Catholic grounding:
You may accept all the actions of the Roman Curia as sharing in the infallibility of the papacy (call them ‘to be definitively held’ if you prefer) but it is disingenuous of you to pretend not to know that many other sincere and learned Catholics do not. You arrogate the term ‘teaching and discipline of the Church’ to matters you feel strongly about, knowing well that there are varying theological opinions among your fellow Catholics. For you to seek to marginalise and characterise these as dissenters does you and your bullying party no credit. I reject your arrogant claim to know ‘the teaching of the Church’ better than I do. I reject it utterly because you are wrong. Loyalty to the Roman Curia is not and never has been the touchstone of one’s Catholicism, as you well know, still less of commitment to the Gospel of Jesus.
Notice the way he has marginalised the teachings of the Church’s magisterium as those of the “Roman Curia”, and merely one among many valid “opinions” for “sincere and learned Catholics” (though by implication, the officla “opinion” was not valid). But the zinger was yet to come:
You might also consider your vocation. I do not see it as Benedictine; indeed it is antipathetic to most Benedictine values as exemplified by the majority of your community. I think you would be happier with Farnborough, the London Oratory or even the SSPX, where the Second Vatican Council is seen as an aberration. A zealous ultramontane party spirit is alien to the EB tradition and Douai is an unsuitable vehicle for your campaigning. But you will have sensed this from other members of your community already… I could wish you were more a pastor and a preacher of the Gospel than a mouthpiece for the novel papalist party that has grabbed control of the Church over the past 150 years…. So I have matched your vehemence: it is abundantly clear to you now that I despise what, I have to say bluntly, I consider your pharisaical counterfeit perversion of Christianity and see it as false and contrary to the Gospel.
There is much I have omitted. I offer no comment other than to say he did not match my vehemence – he far exceeded it. And all because originally I had the temerity to introduce, as requested, the Church’s new Missal, approved by both Rome and all 11 anglophone bishops’ conferences after free and sometimes vigorous debate and subsequent revision in places. And to introduce it with my support, of course. I have never replied to the email, though I did forward it to my superiors. Thankfully the other brethren I discussed this with (and when one is upset one needs to talk to someone) all supported me.
My point in airing this dirty linen of mine is to show that bullying is alive and well in the Church, and it is far from being the sole preserve of the clergy. Normally it is more subtle that the abuse quoted above. And I have heard of other priests and monks being subjected to such bullying. Having read the above, is it any wonder that the webmaster might have yielded so readily to this bully? Who would want to be on the receiving end of such abuse, even someone as uncharitable, judgmental, exclusionary and unworthy of priesthood and monastic profession as me? And if it is not clear yet then let me say that I believe that the one who complained about my blog article is the same as he who sent the tirade from which I have just quoted.
Most vulnerable perhaps are those priests and religious who are prepared to stand foursquare with the Church in its teachings on faith and morals… and liturgy. These are the ones who, far from being craven stooges of an oppressive authority, recognise that there is in fact an authority given by Christ to the Church which it exercises through the successors to the apostles, in communion with the successor of St Peter, the Rock on which Christ built his Church. Perhaps they might even have doubts about some issues, but realise that by virtue of their ordination, which in effect makes them official spokesmen of the Church, they are committed not to teaching their own opinions, but submitting themselves to an authority, and a knowledge, greater than theirs. They are the ones who are rebuilding the local Christian communities after the chaos of recent decades, drawing people back to Mass and the sacraments, and teaching the truth rather than a neutered Christianity that accommodates itself to the prevailing secular orthodoxy. Their self-appointed critics, who usually speak for an aging and dwindling minority in the Church, rarely do anything so constructive – far easier to tear down. All too often they are foisting their personal “issues” onto the whole Church, seeking to make it accommodate to them rather than they converting themselves to it.
So you might spare a thought for your priests, who may be suffering in silence and isolation the ill-will of those who have an agenda all their own for the Church. You might spare a prayer especially for those priests who labour tirelessly for the Church and its teachings, who provide the sacraments as the Church requires that they should be provided, who visit the sick and the dying, and counsel the unsure and comfort the afflicted. Pray that if they err they might see the right and amend. You might also offer a prayer that God might give men the courage to answer his call despite the bullying they might receive from some quarters, be it from “liberals” or “conservatives”. With the imminent arrival of the revised Missal, priests will need all the support they can get. To end I offer the following prayer for priests. You might make it, or a similar one, a daily prayer the rest of this Lent.
Lord our God, who nurture Your people by the ministry of priests, uphold your priests in faithful service of you and your Church, that by their life and ministry they might ever bring grace to Your people and give glory to You, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
You can wake up now…. I am putting the perpendicular pronoun back to bed.