The Elder Son Grows Up

Bishop Joseph Martino’s active episcopal ministry is now history. I still feel a certain unease at the sudden ending of it all. A person may dislike a neighbor, but they wouldn’t want to see the person evicted from their house in the middle of the night. I remember once in sixth grade when a classmate made a rude gesture to a friend. The friend was sent to the school office on some invented errand. The rest of us watched a humiliation that far outstripped the initial offense. My classmate had transgressed, certainly. But the punishment rendered was embarrassing to witness.

I’ve been following some of the internet commentary the past few days on Bishop Martino, Cardinal O’Malley, and their supporters and detractors. Deal Hudson concedes these “last few days have not been good ones for the Church,” though I think he means mainly gray skies for Republican or conservative Catholics. Frankly, I don’t see much to cheer in the abrupt downfall of a bishop. It weakens the fabric of the Church. The pope is not the only servant of unity in Christendom; it’s a role bishops share, too.

In pondering what went wrong for Bishop Martino, I went back to Christus Dominus, the Vatican Decree concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops. I blogged on it over four years back. (Has it really been that long ago?) The Scranton ordinary would seem to have failed CD 13:

Since it is the mission of the Church to converse with the human society in which it lives, it is especially the duty of bishops to seek out men (sic) and both request and promote dialogue with them. These conversations on salvation ought to be noted for clarity of speech as well as humility and mildness in order that at all times truth may be joined to charity and understanding with love. Likewise they should be noted for due prudence joined with trust, which fosters friendship and thus is capable of bringing about a union of minds.

I’m suggesting that some bishops have, at times, followed neither the spirit nor letter of Church teaching on this distillation of Pope Paul VI’s Ecclesiam Suam. Bishops have a duty not only to accept dialogue as an aspect of ministry, but to ask for it, and “promote” it. Liam sent this link in his most recent post this morning. I think the cardinal gets it. Note the qualities of the expected conversations: clarity, humility, and mildness. Why is this so? Because truth is not an absolute virtue. Truth must be linked to higher virtues. Charity reassures the partner of one’s best motives. Understanding implies a willingness to communicate within a substrate of larger truths, especially an ability to utter language so as the inner meaning is more clearly perceived, and not just the dictionary definitions of the words used.

When sent on a solo errand, Truth may well be rejected as an impostor. “We have our own Truth,” someone might retort. But when accompanied by affection, by understanding, by caritas, perhaps the credentials are strengthened for the doubters.

Even more, bishops are urged to make friends. I would assume the council document is trying to communicate the full spectrum of what friendship means–not just being friendly, not just making nice. But an engagement in all of it: being able to tell your friend when she or he is full of spit, but also being able to share a deeper communication of respect and genuine affection.

Let me also suggest that conservative cheerleaders may be contributing of late to a watering down of the role of the Catholic bishop. Martino is praised for his candor and forthrightness. But I wonder what the particular episcopal virtue in that might be? Internet denizens–including me, certainly–are often straight-talkers, often annoyingly so. Martino said he was only doing what he thought was right. It seems to me we believers should all be struggling to do what’s right. Doing the right thing is not the hallmark of a bishop. It’s the duty of a baptized person. Doing the right thing: that’s everybody’s job. The bishop doesn’t just do that role better, louder, or with a bigger audience. The bishop has much, much more on his plate.

Whether they realize it or not, the tone of the conservative conversation is one of reducing the bishop and his public role to that of the “ideal believer,” the paragon of orthopraxis, the dutiful son. In so doing, they have bypassed the particular qualities the bishop requires to serve in his ministry more effectively. They promote a certain ecclesiastical adolescence, encouraging our pastors to be less fathers, and more older, much-admired brothers.

The hype about bishops and public figures seems to underscore the cult of celebrity in the secular culture. Let Mother Teresa care for the dying. Let the pope shake his finger at a dictator. Let a bishop excommunicate a politician. It’s a cheerleading moment, but it is a twisted rendition of Christianity. It bypasses the required qualities of bishops. Instead of being shepherds, too many Catholics want their ordinaries to be a hero, a Super Believer, like us in all things except for having a bully pulpit and a PR machine.

Don’t misread my particular premise here. I still think the Church and the culture needs firebrands to whip up attention and stir consciences. I just don’t think bishops and parish pastors are the guys to do it. I even consider a person who is to me a sympathetic figure, Roy Bourgeois. I met the man once at a workshop and had an excellent conversation with him. I certainly endorse the effort to close the SOA. But does one have to be a priest to do that? I realize that in his day one had to be a priest or a religious perhaps to get involved deeply and get things done. And it might well be a passionate man like Joseph Martino has a God-given call to prick our complacent consciences. I just doubt that the office of bishop or priest is the best locus for the prophet.

Over the years, I’ve seen my own role change as I left the pews, as it were, and moved to the parish office. In the parish setting, it’s no longer appropriate for me to be the firebrand I once was. I have been given, and I accept, other responsibilities. In the same way, my life changed when I got married and adopted a child. My life is far different as a father than it was as a son. I embrace that with happiness. If bishops and priests are to realize their full potential, perhaps they need to realize it, too.

In his brilliant book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen reflects on his own transition from being the elder “good” son, to being the patient, waiting father. a father who was, by the way, a source of embarrassment in the way he conducted himself with the younger son. When he was called to pastor the L’Arche community in Ontario, Nouwen describes a change in his ministry. While his people encouraged him to continue to write, and travel, and so on, there was a shift in the essence of his self-image and how he conducted himself. Do pastors and bishops perceive that the role of the elder son is no longer appropriate for them?

From the beginning I was prepared to accept that not only the younger son, but also the elder son would reveal to me an important aspect of my spiritual journey. For a long time the father remained “the other,” the one who would receive me, forgive me, offer me a home, and give me peace and joy. The father was the place to return to, the goal of my journey, the final resting place. It was only gradually and often quite painfully that I came to realize that my spiritual journey would never be complete as long as the father remained an outsider.

Do we approach the parable of the two sons without considering the father not only as an image of God, but as a model for ourselves when we become parents or pastors? Like the younger Nouwen, have some otherwise faithful commentators failed to perceive the distinction between the obvious people of virtue in Luke 15: the elder son and the father? When a person is authentically called to be part of that “elder generation,” do they understand what must be left behind?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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11 Responses to The Elder Son Grows Up

  1. Liam says:

    Todd

    This is one of your best reflections. There is much to savor and learn from here; at least for me.

    I would like to take note that some have criticized Cardinal Sean for talking about health care with the President in person at the funeral during their one-on-one exchange before the liturgy; the criticism was surely that the President would hear a Boston Cardinal’s points if they had been delivered in a separate message.

    I think that critique is misguided. First, while American Cardinals are important to American Catholics, they (and especially Boston Cardinals) do not carry the positive weight of authority to non-Catholic America that they once did. Second, Cardinal Sean quite wisely chose a personal exchange at a liminal moment, which can be one of the most effective ways to underscore at least his own sincerity and openness: cor ad cor loquitur. Just from watching the President’s face and body during this exchange, without yet knowing its content, I knew something important was happening.

    Now, do I believe it changed the President’s mind? No. But do I believe it amplified the President’s mind? Quite possibly. And quite possibly more than other approaches thus far taken.

    And, I applaud Cardinal Sean’s transparency in discussing this on his blog. That’s something we *never* would have seen with his predecessor.

    I know Cardinal Sean has taken hits for serial episcopacies, as it were, and I’ve disagreed strongly with certain things he has done and not done. But I do think there is something genuine and authentically good about him, not just as a man and a friar, but as a prelate, that we’ve not seen often among high American Catholic prelates. I’d like to focus on encouraging that; that’s part of *our* job as laity.

  2. Mike E. says:

    Thank you Todd. Like Liam said…most definitely one of your best.

  3. Mike E. says:

    Thank you Todd. Like Liam said…most definitely one of your best.
    BTW I love your blog!

  4. FrMichael says:

    “I just doubt that the office of bishop or priest is the best locus for the prophet.”

    Saints John Chrysostom, Athanasius, the Cappodocian Fathers, Hilary, Oscar Romero, et al, please surrender your miters.

    The gift of being a prophet is given by God, regardless of office. If it falls to a bishop or priest, who are we to challenge it? Such a call should be judged by the traditional means (congruence with Scripture and Tradition and accompanied by the holiness of life of the prophet himself) rather than a blanket assertion that Holy Orders makes it deficient or unwise.

    Even though I’m not in total agreement with your post, it is a very good one and food for thought. Thanks.

  5. Dear Todd,

    I echo the compliments already given. Excellent post. I’m glad yours was the first blog I read today. I’ll be tweeting this one.

    Diana

  6. Jimmy Mac says:

    “Because truth is not an absolute virtue. Truth must be linked to higher virtues.”

    The truth will set you free — but first it will make you miserable.

    Truth is Catholic, but the search for it is Protestant. (W.H. Auden)

  7. Jim Burnetti says:

    You’re reading too much into this. The basic problme is that in Northeastern PA there are ethnic churches and bars on every corner (Polish, Italian, Russian, Irish, etc.) The Polish people don’t go to the Irish church and vice versa. The economy of Scranton has tanked. The population is shrinking and aging. There are no more priests coming through the pipeline. The Bishop has been closing and consilidating the cash-starved ethnic churches and schools, and grandma and grandpa rebelled. No one will give to the Bishop’s appeal when their favorite church is being closed, and their favorite priest has been transferred. The Bishop was forced out by the flock (and I wonder if he was told to resign because revenues are down!).

  8. Tony says:

    Whether they realize it or not, the tone of the conservative conversation is one of reducing the bishop and his public role to that of the “ideal believer,” the paragon of orthopraxis, the dutiful son. In so doing, they have bypassed the particular qualities the bishop requires to serve in his ministry more effectively. They promote a certain ecclesiastical adolescence, encouraging our pastors to be less fathers, and more older, much-admired brothers.

    I found this an odd inversion, until I remembered the “prodigal son” theme. In the case of the prodigal son, the elder brother was annoyed that the younger was accepted back into the father’s household with such fanfare when he, the dutiful son, had not been given even a small party…

    I see no “prodigalness” in many of the priests and assorted lay ministers in Bishop Martino’s flock. We are not even mentioning the assorted politicians who have been corrected by him. These people are still spending their inheritance. They still believe they know better than their “father”. (Or in this case the Mother Church.)

    The truth seems to set your analogy on it’s head. Bishops like Mahony appear to want to be like an elder brother, your pal and confidante not making waves and giving you what you want (not necessarily what you *need*), while Bishops like Martino strive to be like a true father. Lovingly leading you when you follow, gently tugging you with the crook when you need direction, but still whacking you in the ass with that same crook when it’s necessary.

    We need more Bishops like Martino, and I have hope we will receive them, in time.

  9. Sean says:

    Todd, thanks for the great post!

    FrMichael- Consider the unique historical circumstances surrounding the careers of the several outspoken bishops that you cite. Athanasius, the Cappodocian Fathers, and Hilary played prominent roles in the formation of Christian theology vis-à-vis Arianism. John Chrysostom and Romero both spoke against the abuses authoritarian secular powers; the dignity of their office allowed them to be heard when others with the same message would have been ignored or immediately silenced. In the United States today, pro-life sentiment is widespread and very public. Bishop Martino’s radical hardline approach to the abortion legality issue (e.g. his attacks Senator Casey) was misguided and probably harmful to the pro-life movement.

    I also recognize, of course, that a variety of factors beyond the political sphere contributed to the bishop’s removal.

  10. Tony says:

    Bishop Martino’s radical hardline approach to the abortion legality issue (e.g. his attacks Senator Casey) was misguided and probably harmful to the pro-life movement.

    As shepherd of his Diocese, Bishop Martino’s primary concern is for the souls of his flock.

    Senator Casey, being a member of his flock, and a public figure, Bishop Martino’s concern is twofold. First, as someone living in unrepentant public sin, he needs to be called to conversion and reconciliation, and since he’s causing scandal and leading other Catholics astray, he has to be publicly corrected.

    I also recognize, of course, that a variety of factors beyond the political sphere contributed to the bishop’s removal.

    You meant retirement didn’t you?

  11. Jim McK says:

    In what way was Sen. Casey “living in unrepentant public sin”?

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