Bully Pulpit

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One of the assistant pastors at my parish church is a bully. I’m sure he does not mean to be. But that does not erase the way he demoralizes his congregation and likely makes it harder for many of them to worship their God.

For several weeks, in his sermons, he has been harping on making a “good Communion” – receiving Holy Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ – in the right frame of mind.

In one sermon, he pontificated that if a Catholic took Communion with doubts about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, that behavior would be tantamount to perjury.

I don’t know what goes on the mind of this priest, or what wretched conservative seminary produced him.

I do know that his approach to Catholicism so violates my own experience of my faith that his very presence on the altar arouses rage in me, not exactly the right attitude to attend Mass.

I also know this: If you’re going to discuss making a “good Communion,” maybe the proper audience for this examination should not be the members of a typical Catholic congregation.

As a member of the parish choir, I look out at that congregation, and I see no heretics. I see the woman with Parkinson’s disease who comes to Mass each Sunday, despite the physical toll it clearly takes on her. I see the mothers with several children under the age of six, who show enormous patience – and weariness – as they try to keep their broods happy. I see the widow of one of our deacons who continues to work through her grief.

If we are going to consider sinners against the Eucharist, I would nominate the thousands of priests who molested innocent young children and yet took to the altar each week and offered Mass. They presumed to preside at this miracle, despite the grave sins they had committed.

These priests, I would venture to guess, did not make a good Communion.

But doubters? Goodness, to be human is to doubt. Trying to make sense of the sacraments, or the mystery of transubstantiation, is hard work. “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief,” is a prayer many Catholics say frequently when confronting the mysteries that faith presents.

Priests are supposed to help Catholics live their faith. They are not supposed to be scolds who make people who come to Mass and try to lead a good life feel guilty about doubt.

When I was practicing my faith in the sixties, seventies and eighties, I did not encounter such judgmental priests. Instead, I heard sermons challenging me to do more to reduce injustice and serve the poor and marginalized.

I do not blame this current crop of priests for their skewed ethics. They were educated in the church at a time when conservative clerics were ascendant, obedience and fidelity were the most important virtues, and questioning faith or church policy was out of line.

I would like to think that this assistant pastor is an exception to the rule. But I doubt that is the case. For several decades, the institutional church has been the last refuge for men with a limited and truncated understanding of the human condition, a pervasive sexism, and an intolerance for their own and others’ flaws.

But we have a new pope, and that ought to mean something for U.S. Catholics. Our priests ought to be exhorting us to do more to reach out to others, address the excesses of capitalism, and to protect the earth, all major moral priorities for Pope Francis. Sometimes I wonder: Do priests in the U.S. ever bother to read Francis’s encyclicals? He’s only written two, so it should not be too heavy a burden for them.

In his first, Lumen Fidei, Francis describes faith as a journey, and as relational – not a matter of willing to believe with teeth clenched, but in gradually encountering the divine and sharing that experience with others.

His second, Laudato Si, the pope urges us to care for the earth, a planet that capitalist greed has despoiled. He inveighs against economic powers [that] continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.

Priests presumably ought to pay attention to what their bosses’ boss is preaching. They should not be encouraging the scrupulous among us to forego the sacraments out of fear of not being “good” enough to receive Communion.

The Pope understands that we Catholics are flawed and struggling. He does not condemn us for that. Nor does he bemoan our imperfect understanding.

As he preached late last year: We do not need to be afraid of questions and doubts because they are the beginning of a path of knowledge and going deeper; one who does not ask questions cannot progress either in knowledge or in faith.

Celia Viggo Wexler is the author of Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope (Rowman & Littlefield).