Some forty years ago, the Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen admonished the priests of his day with these words:
We become real priests when we empty ourselves, and no longer seek our [own] identity, and where we are lifted up to the cross, not going “down to people.” Too many of us today feel we have to be loved ... [thinking] the young will not love us unless we talk like them, eat like them, drink like them, clothe ourselves like them. No! They will not love us simply because we go down; they will love us when we lift them up. Else, the world will drag them down ... (Retreat for priests, “The Meaning of Being a Priest”).
I remember during my teenage years (the seventies) when priests, religious sisters, and adult parish leaders wore jeans, sandals, and flashy sweaters. The men grew their hair long and the parish leaders recast “Sunday school” as a “rap session.” (In those days, to rap did not mean anything related to music; it meant to talk, but in a way that was “real” and “down with the struggle.”)
The goal, it would seem, was not for the clergy, religious, or adult leaders to teach but rather to “relate” and to “facilitate a discussion.” I remember it was popular to have the class sit on the floor in a circle. The teacher was “one of us” and would often start off by saying something like this: “I don’t have the answers but together we can explore the questions.”
Even we rebellious teens knew there was something amiss. I wonder if the “hip” priests, nuns, and youth leaders knew that we laughed at them behind their backs. Frankly, they did look strange trying to dress and act like us. Although we humored them, we knew that we had them in our back pockets. They were not to be taken seriously—and so we didn’t.
We used to laugh at one cleric in particular, who showed up with a guitar strapped to his back. He thought he did a pretty swift Peter, Paul, and Mary gig—he didn’t. When he left the room, convinced that he had “reached us,” we would imitate him derisively (I am sad to say), playing our air guitars and changing the lyrics to the silly songs he sang.
I will not excuse our violations of the 4th commandment, but it was hard not to laugh.
I think most younger priests today understand that the laity of all ages appreciate when we dress and act like clergy. Religious sisters, too, are far more respected and appreciated when they wear the full habit and exhibit the qualities of dignity and grace that go with their honored state. It is no coincidence that the traditional orders are attracting vocations, while the secularly-clad, “aging hippie” orders are all but dead.
We serve a Lord who, while popular at times, made a journey to the cross that few, even among his twelve, were willing to follow. They were looking for a Messiah who was “down with the struggle” on their terms, who would usher in a new worldly kingdom of power and prosperity. When Jesus went up to the cross, though, only St. John, Mother Mary, and several other women made it there.
Those of us who lead (clergy, religious, parents, and lay leaders) must point to the cross and be willing to shepherd others there. As for pointing to what is popular and what will make us seemingly loved and accepted, any pop-culture icon can do that.
We preach the cross not as an abstraction, but as focused on very real and sometimes difficult choices. We preach a cross that includes turning away from the pleasures of sin and of the flesh. It includes chastity, self-control, and openness to life even in difficult circumstances (e.g., no abortion even in cases of rape or incest). It means we are to work out our marital difficulties instead of splitting up. We hold up the cross in calling the unmarried to chastity and homosexuals to perpetual continence. We preach the cross of enduring persecution, forgiving our enemies, humbling ourselves through confession, atoning for our sins, and obeying the commandments. We hold up the cross when we insist upon generosity to the poor and the forsaking of greed and the accumulation of so many unnecessary things. We hold up the cross when we remind others of their duty to family, community, the Church, and the nation. This goes not only for clergy but for parents as well. We are to preach His gospel, the whole counsel of Christ, in season or out-of-season, popular or unpopular. We point the way of Christ.
Christ had this “crazy” way of the cross. The cross is like a tuning fork for us. It is the “A 440” that helps us to know if we are in tune with Jesus or just reflecting the world, if we are just “down with the people” or “up with Christ” on the cross.
On that Good Friday, many told Jesus that they would be believe if He came down from His cross—but He would not come down from the cross just to save Himself. He stayed, to save you and me. Had He been “down with the people” where they wanted Him, He could not have saved them or lifted them up.
To conclude, here are a few passages from Scripture:
- Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it ... If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mk 8:34-38).
- Jesus said, “I do not accept glory from human beings” (John 5:41).
- Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:20-25).
- You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified (Gal 3:1).
- If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be under God’s curse! Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ (Gal 1:9-10).
- We speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else ... (1 Thess 2:4-6).
Do we preach His way of the Cross, or do we seek merely to please men? Are we “up with Christ” and the cross,” or “down with the people,” with the pillow of popularity and the esteem of men?