Last week I turned the television back on—for the comfort of its background noise if you want to know the truth. But I am a news junkie, and the clicker I grab as I pass through the living room is basically set to two channels¯FoxNews and CNN.
These days I feel like Indiana Jones searching for the Crystal Skull trying to find the news buried in televisions hissing jungles. (God bless Brian Lamb!) Cable news has largely devolved into an intramural league of pundits and spinners nudging and winking through typecast roles, all brought to numbing effect by the need to fill twenty-four hours of ad space. Hence, the endless loops of footage and commentary.
Enter Father Michael Pfleger, ablaze in the pulpit of a mostly black church and giving Robert Duval in The Apostle a run for his money. Wittingly or not, his lampooning of Hillary Clinton, the lacerating rhetoric on racism, and a lash at certain U.S. policies forced Barak Obama back into the glare of some mighty uncomfortable klieg lights. The alarm sounded within the pundit league, the usual suspects were rounded up, and the ostensible analysis began.
I dont want to add my two cents to the prosecution or defense of Father Pfleger. Instead, Id I like to offer a few thoughts on something that impressed me as the histrionics looped over and over.
Pfleger, a white Catholic priest, was speaking in an ethno-emotional idiom not native to him. Successfully, too, it seemed. No small feat. What makes that especially impressive is that in my experience many Catholic priests seem daunted by the commission to speak in the emotional idiom of their own backgrounds, let alone someone elses. Lets be honest¯its just rare to hear a good homily in a typical Catholic church unless youve done some advance scouting. I make this observation with regret and hope.
The situation affects everyone, not least of all the one struggling in the pulpit. But, in an era of widespread illiteracy among Catholics when it comes to the Tradition generally, and the central Mystery of the Eucharist specifically, the homily is a critical key to an infinite treasure.
It used to be thought that better education was the remedy, and a case can be made that in recent decades big strides have been made in this area. For the last few years Ive been fortunate to be surrounded by intellectually gifted young men receiving a world-class education in philosophy and theology as they prepare for Holy Orders. Its unquestionably important, but its not enough. The difficulty in communicating in an emotionally resonant idiom¯the language of the heart, if you will¯persists. If this is true, we need to ask, Why? At this point, two things come immediately to mind.
First, as Heraclitus pointed out a long while back, the learning of many things does not teach understanding. I think this speaks to some strong tendencies in Catholicism toward dogmatic fundamentalism. By this I mean a disposition you could sum up to the tune of I dont have to understand all this¯the Church has already done it for me. Von Balthasar once said that theres no getting around Being ¯in academic terms, metaphysics. How practical Aristotle therefore seems when he opines that no one under the age of fifty is ready to monkey around with matters metaphysical. Thats not a view Thomas Aquinas shared, but I think we can see the Greek philosophers point. Its possible that the unfortunately dubbed trend of second-career vocations could exert some positive influence here.
Second, I think it may be useful to recall the 1971 Kennedy-Heckler study of priests in the United States, which concluded that an overwhelming percentage of those exercising sacerdotal office were in some state of emotional underdevelopment. Lest we pogo-stick to conclusions, we should remind ourselves that this study was commissioned by no less a Catholic-baiting group than the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
We can hope that, were another study done today, the results would be more assuring. While the limitations and weaknesses of the Kennedy study have to be taken into careful account, I mention it because its conclusions dont seem at sharp variance with my own anecdotal experience. One can hope that the serious-minded who move regularly in clerical circles recognize that a tremendous amount of work remains to be done. I submit this would include far more than an attempt to reduce the challenge to the issue of homosexuality.
I recently had a conversation with a seminarian who has the potential of becoming a very bright light. His intellectual gifts have been apparent to every superior and professor hes encountered. Whats more, his heterosexuality is as certain as his comportment is awkward. This fellow told me something that seems beyond the grasp of those pushing him to ordination: Im not ready to be a priest¯I mean, to be responsible for the people of a parish. I hardly know how to be responsible for myself. Im a kid . I like going to my room and playing Nintendo.
Now, some might say a good swift kick is in order. But, in such a situation, whos to administer it? The Monsignor DArcys (of Bernanos Diary of a Country Priest ) are in short supply, and those pushing him are, statistically at least, likely to rank among the emotionally underdeveloped. For that matter, so am I.
The vocabulary necessary to point compellingly to the rich inner dynamisms of any given doctrine needs to be developed in the years of seminary formation. These doctrines are not dots on a map which once connected lead to the Promised Land. They are the fruits of serious human grappling with the deep mysteries of grace. They may be intellectually elegant but they are also aimed at the gut.
The Tradition into which many of us were born seems to more than a few outside it an opaque system of rituals intended to conjure rather alchemical results. But rituals are indeed central to the Catholic sacramental view of reality. Its troubling, then, that the language they form is spoken fluently by so few.
Father Alexander Schmemann described rituals in a way at once audacious and orthodox. They are, he said, the incarnations of a dream; a vision, of reality. Putting it that way helps underscore the importance of a personal connection to the Churchs eschatological vision. An integral, existential experience of that vision is needed to communicate it to a world gasping for its liberating truth and beauty. But the attempt to connect heart and mind often runs into serious obstacles in formation programs.
One of the biggest challenges we face right now is not how to reorganize shrinking parishes and schools. Its evangelization¯communicating what is compelling about the gift we hold in such abundance. If I may rely on another of Father Schmemanns pearls: Christ didnt give us a religion. He gave us the Kingdom of God. Speaking for myself, the insistence on religion is a tough habit to break. That seems also to be true in the corridors of what we tend to call the institutional Church.
The light entrusted to us is meant for more than the comfort of our own homes. We, the Church in the United States, have been glacial in our response to John Paul IIs relentless exhortation to make bold, imaginative use of the media in sharing this light. We may be late to the game, but Im hopeful. Im a seminarian myself. Gratefully so. And I can assure you that at this point in my life its not because I relish the hurdles peculiar to seminary existence. One indispensable step in heeding the call of Pope John Paul II, and now Benedict, is appreciating the pulpit as the critical, sacred medium it is, and addressing the impediments that contribute to its current stifling reputation.
Say what you want¯and, oh, we shall¯Father Michael Pfleger can connect with his hearers. It may not be enough to get him his own reality show. But, who knows, maybe Ill pitch my own. We could call it: Seminary: You Cant Make This Kinda Stuff Up . Once I solve those pesky hot-tub challenges, I may do just that.
Tim Kelleher, a seminarian studying in Washington, D.C., is also an actor, writer, and director, with nearly one hundred film and TV credits. He recently completed his own television pilot and can be seen this fall in films starring Will Smith and Greg Kinnear.