I am working my way through Cardinal Gerhard Muller’s recent book
You Shall Be a Blessing: Twelve Letters on the Priesthood. The book is
an honest discussion on the priesthood in our current age and throughout
salvation history. The target audience is both priests and members of the laity
and religious who want to come to a deeper understanding of the priesthood and
what priests face within their ministry.
As I was reading the book, I was deeply struck when he stated:
“People are prepared to make enormous efforts, even as far as giving their
lives, if their love meets with a response and understanding. There is no
greater frustration than experiencing mockery, indifference, and hatred in
response to selfless love.” It can be found near the end of his third letter as
he discusses the ever increasing de-Christianization of the West. This
statement cut me deeply because it is something that I myself have experienced
and so has every other Christian disciple regardless of vocation.
Priests are faced with the difficult task of evangelizing and
ministering in the face of both indifference and hostility from the culture.
They also carry the heavy burden of a frequently indifferent or hostile laity
who have taken on the lies of the culture. There should be little doubt in
people’s minds that priests experience an onslaught of pushback and criticism
from the wider culture, and even more so on a daily basis, within their own parishes.
Cardinal Muller is honest about the very real struggles and
temptations priests experience at various points throughout their lives; many
of which the laity they serve would not even consider or fully understand.
There is an ever widening gap between these two vocations as everyone grapples
with the state of the Church and the world.
I think it’s important to point out that the pain,
misunderstanding, and frustration can be found on both sides. It is
understandable that priests suffer from the indifference and hostility that
they endure throughout their priestly ministry since they have offered
themselves up to Christ and His Church in a complete surrender of self in
kenotic love. This surrender has a totality to it that can be difficult for
many in a lay vocation to grasp or relate to.
That being said, the laity has also been immensely hurt by the
indifference and hostility of our spiritual fathers. Some of us have
experienced this same response from our own priests at various points in our
lives, even in the face of acts of self-emptying love on our part for their
sake. It is absolutely true that there “is no greater frustration” than to be
met with indifference or hatred in the face of our own offering of love.
Where the priesthood has failed us the most in the last 50 years
is in their role to call us to be authentic Christian disciples. Instead, we
have been met with lukewarm, banal, and often heterodox teaching. We have not
been called to rise up and become saints in an age of darkness and confusion.
Many within the pews want to answer the universal call to holiness, but some of
our captains—that is our priests—refuse to lead us in a powerful way. In fact,
many in the laity have been left victims of indifference or fear on the part of
This is most frequently experienced by members of the laity who
at times genuinely try to encourage their priests to rise up and fulfill their
sacred role. Many members of the laity attempt to rouse their priests to action
in response to threats both within the Church and outside of it only to be met
with hostility, apathy, or excuses. A general malaise has overtaken much of the
Church in the West, which is destructive to priests in fulfilling their role.
Cardinal Muller explains this danger to priests:
“In the days of sailing ships, people learned the art of tacking
against the wind. You can make progress and arrive at your destination even
against the wind. What was even more dangerous on the ocean than a headwind was
being becalmed. The same is true of pastoral care. If the lack of interest is
so great that no one even contradicts us any more, all we can do is pray: “God
is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Lk 3:8).
But we, too, are frail human beings who would prefer to be borne
along gently on the waves of mainstream than to constantly feel the icy wind of
indifference and rejection blowing in our faces. We certainly want to work
hard. But why should I forgo the comforts of a secure bourgeois life?—so the
tempter inside us asks.”
It is understandable that priests would become disheartened and
burned out by constant rejection, hostility, and indifference, but the reality
is, this is what Christ promised them on their ordination day. The pain priests
experience in response to our indifference or rejection in the laity is also
one the laity experiences when our priests do the exact same thing to us. It is
a breakdown of charity on both sides. It is a destructive cycle we have found
ourselves in for quite some time.
There is pain in both the priesthood and the laity at present.
Everyone has been wounded by the clergy sex abuse scandals and the corruption
gripping the hierarchy. Both are also hurt from the abysmal catechesis and
general loss of faith that is so prevalent both within the culture and the
Church. It’s important that the laity and priests seek greater communion with
one another rather than returning to their respective corners in order to lick
their wounds and blame the other.
The laity should keep in mind the high demands priests face and
the criticism, hostility, and indifference many priests are subjected to each
day. The priesthood’s image is at an all time low and that weighs heavily on
priests. Cardinal Muller offers a reminder to us in the laity of some of the temptations
priests face in their vocations:
“The maxim “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2) runs lightly
off the tongue. But it has often been easier to continue to proclaim sound
doctrine undeterred in the face of threats than in the face of the sweet venom
of flattery. “You’re really too good for the priesthood. With your good looks
you could easily find a good-looking wife, and you’d be a good father. With
your gifts you could make a quite different career for yourself somewhere other
than in the Church. The social prestige of priests has hit rock bottom after
the abuse scandals—and you want to join that club?” This is the sort of thing
priests often hear while they are still young. When you get older, people start
pitying you as a hopeless case because you have not “enjoyed” your life and now
“you’ve missed the boat.”
Many of these comments come from the very flock they’ve been
asked to serve, but it also provides a reminder—albeit a painful one—to priests
that calm winds can be destructive to their souls and the souls in their care.
There is a temptation for all of us to pride and vanity. Seeking
the approval of others in order to avoid rejection or criticism is one of the
most destructive temptations for priests because it blocks their ability to
faithfully and boldly proclaim the Good News. They no longer seek the approval
of Christ, but the approval of others. Love of God and love of others quickly
dies in the priest who is only interested in what others think of him.
It’s important for priests to remember that the laity is hurt by
their indifference, hostility, low expectations, or open mockery. To call us to
a sentimental or banal form of Christianity is to show us an utter lack of
charity. If priests truly love their flock, then they will boldly and with
great fortitude call us to the high demands of Christian discipleship. They
will be leading us by their example and helping us to get back up when we fall.
We should all be of one heart, mind, and purpose. Priest and laity alike are meant to walk together on the pilgrim way home in order to become the saints we are called to be. It is impossible to live the charity and communion we are called to if we treat one another with scorn, derision, indifference, or hostility. Let us truly seek to live the demands of charity towards one another in Christ.