Not long ago, while discussing the viability of a continued Eucharistic church given the dearth of priestly vocations, I told someone that the outlook is better than our perceptions would have us believe. In Maryland, Colorado, Missouri, and other parts of the Midwest, for instance, and even in the American South, some seminaries are at capacity.
My good news was met with a snort of derision and a joke about corn-fed simplicity. “Oh, the Midwest; oh, the South,” my friend said, sounding for all the world like Nathaniel asking whether anything good could come from Nazareth. “What about the coast? What about Boston, and New York,” where the empty seminary halls, we are told, produce only echoes of bygone days?
I resisted reminding my friend that America has more than one coast because I didn’t want to distract him from learning that even in those cities, even in California, the number of seminarians in formation for the priesthood is on the rise, if only slightly.
“Slightly,” he said, again with the snort, adding that the number of new ordinations cannot keep up with losses due to death or retirement.
Just as coastal conceit can devalue what comes out of “flyover country,” our First-world conceit can blind us to what is happening in the church “out there” among the “thems.” Upon learning that in 2004 Hungarian Archbishop Csaba Ternyakny reported such a worldwide increase in seminarians that the number bested the Catholic heyday of 1961, my friend was stopped in mid-snort. No provincial, he, the notion that third-world priests would be missioning the church in America nevertheless left him discomfited. We wouldn’t need to be missioned-to, he argued, if the church would just be reasonable, do its social duty and either allow priests to marry, ordain women, or both.
His harangue hasn’t changed in our twenty-year acquaintance, but this time it occurred to me that there was a tinge of conceit to it—that he resented the idea of being ministered to by people who, in all likelihood, were too inclined toward curial-obedience and therefore couldn’t possibly have much to say to his finely tuned sensibilities. When I said so, things erupted into a predictable donnybrook, with each of us accusing the other of being narrow-minded in how we defined the universality of the church.
There exists an undeniable tension between left-leaning “social justice” Catholics and the right-leaning “pro-life” side; they share a conceit of primacy—one side sees itself as more compassionate; the other as more obedient. I personally know “social justice” Catholics who will pretend pro-lifers care nothing for the poor. And I certainly know pro-lifers who think the “social justice” side pays only reluctant lip-service to church teachings on abortion and euthanasia.
That we do not wholly respect each other is inarguable; I credit “nun on the bus” Sister Simone Campbell for speaking with refreshing honesty when she said, “I have allowed a very narrow perspective on what is life . . . I don’t want to be thought of as in [the pro-life] camp. Because of my pride, as opposed to my faith.”
I wait in joyful hope for the day a pro-lifer can admit that, while she cares deeply for the plight of the poor, she just can’t stand the idea of being associated with that “kumbaya hippie remnant.”
Our unwillingness to charitably credit each other with being truly concerned about both “life” and “justice” issues—to see them as shared burdens differentiated only by their weight of emphasis and theoretical “solutions”—is tearing us apart.
Contemplating this past Sunday’s gospel reading could, I think, help mend our rifts.
A man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good?
No one is good but God alone.
You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother.”
These words are all about life and justice; their shared importance is part of that tenuous balancing between left and right—both sides of which Christ embraced, equally, upon the cross.
He replied and said to him,
“Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
“You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
In social media, I noticed the predictable in-fighting; some of my friends focused solely on the latter message—about giving to the poor—while others noted that Jesus’ first words were to life.
Elsewhere in scripture, Christ tells us that the poor are forever with us—they are ours to see and to serve, for the sake of our very souls. Why, then, this insistence by Jesus that we give everything away?
To fixate on the material is perhaps to miss Christ’s deeper challenge, which is to rid ourselves of anything that keeps us earthbound and distracted from God’s constant desire for our interaction with him; to surrender our conceits of self-sufficiency, self-importance—or even of the primacy of our moral outrage—in order to place our entire security into the hands of God.
All things work to God’s purpose. Perhaps our third-world priests, many up from poverty we Westerners cannot imagine, are meant to teach us just how that is done.
And perhaps we can all badger each other a little less by recalling Jesus’ first lesson in this gospel reading: No one is good but God alone.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Worldwide Seminary Optimism
Increased U.S. Seminary Numbers
Seminary Enrollments Half the Story
Next Generation of Priests
Boston Seminary Sees Increase
Sister Simone's Candor
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