November 2019 Editorial: ‘On Not Being God’
‘On Not Being God’
Attacks, snide words, subtle, or obvious
Are aimed in the culture, as in the past:
This stern test calls us to the First-and-Last.1
One of my younger parishioners recently figured out that Fr Chris is not actually God. That’s a view I heartily subscribe to myself – in theory, at any rate. But unlike five-year-old Sarah, who has effortlessly moved on to the next part of her breath-taking journey of discovery, I have to work hard at the many, many practical aspects of not being God. I am, I confess, one of God’s legion of advisors; a good deal of my prayer consists of keeping God posted, or setting him straight, or expressing varying degrees of incredulity.
To me, Ananias of Damascus is a kindred spirit. When the Lord told him (in Acts, chapter 9) to go to Straight Street and restore the sight of Saul, soon-to-be Paul, Ananias quite reasonably assumed that God had missed one or two important details. I’m inclined to think that Ananias went off to Straight Street with something less than serene enthusiasm. Yet he went, and in doing so, helped to launch a persecutor of the Church on his mission as Apostle to the Nations.
One of the tasks of discipleship is to let God be God, to recognize that one has only a partial view of a very broad landscape. When the opposite happens, when we presume to see more than we actually see, a lot of blame and criticism can ensue. Blame and criticism may be reasonable at certain moments and in certain, limited contexts, but when they become a more or less permanent disposition, more harm than good is done, and hoped-for renewal is repulsed rather than facilitated.
Not a few people today are anxious about the state of the Church and the faith. Many sincere believers walk in the shoes of Ananias. Others again have been trodden on by the same shoes, by the unenlightened zeal of those who mistake a part for the whole, a plot twist for the entire drama. I recently heard the doleful observation that priests are criticised by the ‘left’ for what they say, and by the ‘right’ for what they don’t say. In any given instance, of course, criticism may be warranted, but it’s hardly the case that priests in general are both strident denouncers and silent colluders.
Another colleague remarked that a vexed parishioner had taken him to task for not taking certain people to task. The same priest is the last person I would accuse of being lax or complacent, yet he very sensibly remarked that we can’t spend our entire lives on a war footing: ‘the Great War,’ he remarked, ‘ended after four years, but the end of the present culture wars is nowhere in sight.’
Jesus himself is described as the one who ‘does not break the crushed reed or quench the wavering flame’ (Mt 12:20; quoting Is 42:30). Without doubt, gentleness is more fundamental to pastoral ministry than any form of stridency. On the other hand, the war footing has its place. Considered, charitable denunciation is necessary at times. If we fail to speak up for the truth and to speak against what is false, then we will merit the criticism Jeremiah made of the false prophets: ‘They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ where there is no peace.’ (Jer 6:14).
Pastoral ministry entails ongoing discernment; its effectiveness is compromised by habitual stridency and by universal niceness. We are not engaged in PR; our task is not to discern what will comfort which faction, or who is most or least liable to be offended by what. Instead, having reminded ourselves that God is in charge and that we are not God, that there is a time for denunciation and a time for affirmation, ‘a time to keep silence and a time to speak’ (Qoh 3:7), we can be free (at least to the extent that our temperament allows) of the burdens placed on us by those who think we don’t say enough and by those who think we say too much.
One day, I may pronounce the beatitudes of Matthew’s Jesus; another day, I may pronounce the woes of Luke’s Jesus. So be it. What counts is that the pastoral approach of both days is a response in good faith to the promptings of the Master.
1 Fr Eamon Flanagan CM, ‘Triumphing Over Obstacles.’ In Proclaiming God’s Name to Multitudes (Cork: Kolbe Publications, 2019)