April 16, 2012

On Discretion and Troubling Conversations

I've had a couple of similar experiences lately that have troubled my conscience. Each was a conversation with an older women who had assisted at a Mass I was celebrating.

In one conversation the woman, on hearing that I was to be transferred to Rome, offered her condolences and encouraged me to "straighten them out over there." The Pope and the hierarchy were "out of touch," she said, as she also explained to me that one of the great virtues of Catholics in the United States was that we "didn't feel obliged to follow every dumb edict that comes from Rome."

In the other conversation, the woman complimented me on my daily Mass homilies and said that I was "right up there" with the "woman priest" whose 'Mass' she attended on Sundays. She went on to explain to me how liberating it felt to have "Mass" with a "woman priest." This wasn't a Protestant thing either, she went on to explain, her priest was a real Catholic priest.

Both times I just listened and tried to be polite. I didn't challenge any of it. I guess doing so is according to some of my instincts; part of me thinks it would be disrespectful to issue uninvited challenges to those who are older than me, especially when they are folks who were probably doing all kinds of good work and parish service before I was a even a Christian, and probably before I was born.

On the other hand, I'm a priest, an ordained minister in the church and a steward of the Church's teaching and sacramental mysteries. In that sense, do I sin in the second case if I don't encourage my interlocutor to attend an actual Sunday Mass? Her confusion probably mitigates her guilt with regard to the Sunday obligation. But if I'm just polite and thus passively encouraging, am I not complicit? Should I not confess and ask absolution for failing to even try to plant a gentle seed of correction? In some sense, am I not now the guilty party in her absence from Sunday Mass?

There are so many situations like this in ministry and community life. It's so hard to know when you should challenge and when the better part of gentleness invites you not to. And since they all have to be discerned in an instant, I know I need to pray for the gift of that discretion ahead of time.


Terry Nelson said...

I know people like that. They are quite convinced they are right. I'm not sure what you could have said. I actually like how you handled it. Anyway, there is always a next time.

God bless you gentle Father.

Anonymous said...

Yikes. How can two active Catholics be so oblivious? Is it years of bad catechesis? Encouragement by some priests to follow one's own preferences (which many do themselves in the way they offer Mass)? I have to admit Father Charles that in the case of the second woman I would not have been as restrained and told her there is no such thing as a "real" woman Catholic priest. Probably an argument would have ensued so your approach was better and more charitable than something I would have said!

PJ Baum said...

Fr. Charles,

I admire your tact and prudence.

How could one unravel in a moment's ad hoc conversation so many misunderstandings?

You are not alone, Father. We laypeople deal with these situations, too. I've tried the scatter-gun-of-orthodoxy approach. It fails every time. These days, I usually recommend, tactfully, a book by Dr. Scott Hahn such as Reasons to Believe, and walk away politely.

My family shall keep you and your former parishioner in our prayers.

May God bless you always, especially in your new assignment.

All for Christ,
PJ Baum

Anonymous said...

My thoughts on this topic lead me to think about the bishop’s crosier. I recall reading somewhere that the tip of that device is sharply pointed to prod the flock in the right direction. There likely is a prayer recited when the bishop receives the staff to guide them in its proper usage. Unfortunately that prayer is probably in Latin, which I do not understand.

Anonymous said...

I may be wrong, Father, so forgive me if I speak wrongly. As a priest you are in the business of saving souls, so I think you should have corrected this woman's false belief that a female priest can be valid in the Catholic church and that American Catholics are not bound to obey Rome. How to say that gently and lovingly I'm afraid I'm at a loss as to how to advise you. I would suggest you consult your superior or spiritual director (I hope they are orthodox in their beliefs). Please do not ever let an opportunity go by to instruct people. We lay people are poorly catechised (spelling?) and may be inadvertently heading away from heaven without the guidance of priests such as yourself. God bless you. Your work is difficult indeed. You are in my prayers.

Nate Johnson said...

It truly is difficult to know when to speak up for Church teaching, and when to show discretion. As a previous commenter noted, us laypeople (and new Catholics) run into similar situations from time to time as well. I appreciate how finding the balance could be even more difficult as a priest, since both responsibility to accurately present Church teaching, and the possibility of a negative reaction, are greater. In my limited and novice opinion, the polarization of American Catholicism can make it harder to have any such conversation since speaking on one issue can immediately lead to being flagged as a conservative or a liberal and thus on someone's "other side". A remarkably transparent post, and a useful situation to meditate on. Praying for you, Fr. Charles.

Rebecca said...

Should I confess and get this off my record? Is that really your core question? I'm beginning to worry about the things you worry about.

The statements themselves appear to be veiled challenges, not the result of mere confusion. "Older women" make informed choices too, you know! A return question about the crazy edicts or outlaw mass can leave the conversation open, w/o leaping into a confrontation.

Anonymous said...

You asked :P

I think you should have said something, Father (with all due respect).


pml said...

Fr. Charles -

Every situation is different ... surroundings, time limitations etc. But I lean w/Rebecca on the idea of 'veiled challenges' or a 'veil cry' for some spiritual help.

These two encounters point to a need for a well thought-out adult formation program.

Perhaps too an offer to meet with the individual at a later date to get to know them -their background [family, schooling, parish etc.]. Really. Not to debate but to listen and really hear from where their confusion springs.

I recall reading a conversion story about a mother whose teenage child introduced her to a priest by way of something like, "this is my mom, the one that needs to go to confession".

She made sure the priest knew where she stood on certain issues contrary to Church teachings. The tactic the priest took was to extend an invitation to talk, since he wanted to listen to her concerns -one-on-one. They did and several months later she was in the confessional. The one-on-one conversation is very important. Not enough of it, sadly.

Your 'tact and prudence' was best in a not sure situation.

Greg said...

In Taming the Wolf: Peace through Faith. I grapple with some of these same situations.

In the work, which combines contemporary conflict resolution and the legacy of Francis, I bring out the importance of process — often we know what we should do in these situations but we do not know how.

So we must learn processes that help us address difficult conversations without causing undue Face Loss.

In this case, you might have scheduled a personal meeting, a tea perhaps, with the parties and at that tea explained the struggle you experienced as a result of their comments.

In other words, use an "I" message: ( "I struggled greatly with your words, as I did not know how to work with my feelings that came up. Just felt I should share with you that I became uncomfortable.")

Thus you are not scolding but are sharing a clear message that you do not agree... and you struggle with how to address such disagreement. You turn it around and ask them to minister to you - handling the upset their words caused.

Anonymous said...

Late to the reading, I think some times are not the place for debate or scolding, even gentle. There are times to teach, and times to just listen. I am a nurse, and a non-catholic; if asked to describe my beliefs, I would say I am somewhere between atheist and agnostic. I know that there are times to teach a patient, and times to be a silent and supportive prescence. Good luck on your journey to Rome, father!