I sat stunned in the back of the room. I was in shock. “Did he just say that?” I asked myself in utter disbelief.
I had been asked to speak at a multi-parish teen retreat (in a state that will go unnamed). During this particular session a local priest was present and had agreed to answer teen questions about the faith. I had joyfully handed over the microphone and retreated to the back of the room to listen, as I love to learn and jump at the chance to grow in knowledge.
- I hate romantic comedies but love my wife.
- I have a love for all things Mac (the computers not the makeup).
- I have a fear of snakes…and clowns.
More importantly, though:
- I have an ardent, deeply rooted respect for the priesthood (Sir. 7:29-31).
- I can be a little overzealous when it comes to the honor and privilege of sharing God’s truth.
- I take assaults against Mother Church very personally.
Now that we’ve covered that, let’s resume the story.
Teens had begun the “Q and A” with the typical questions. Questions about Confession, questions about the severity of popular sins, questions about who was or wasn’t/is or isn’t going to hell, etc. One teen, however, asked a question of supreme importance. It was not about a Church discipline. It was doctrinal. It was basic theology 101 but with an undertone of cynicism and disbelief on his part. It was one of those prime moments in youth ministry, one where he just lobbed up a softball and you smiled knowing that the batter could take it out of the park if he just leaned into the Church’s wisdom.
The priest, the spokesman for the Church in this moment, in a collar and holding the microphone said, “Well, I’ll tell you what the Church teaches…but…”
And that’s when it happened. That’s when the priest said it.
He said the three little words that caused me a whole new patch of gray hair – the three little words that can cause a world of problems for any well-intentioned youth minister or, worse yet, impressionable and hungry young teenage soul.
He said, “…in my opinion…”
To be clear, it wasn’t wrong for Father to have an opinion any more than it is for me to have one. Opinions are important. Opinions are valid because we feel them. Opinions, however, are not truth. Opinions are not, necessarily, even rooted in truth. Opinions are just that – they are opinions; they are useful (sometimes) and painful (often).
The way that the priest phrased and framed his response, though, was completely inappropriate. Saying “Well, I’ll tell you what the Church teaches, but in my opinion…” in a catechetical moment, in a public setting was not only irresponsible, it was manipulative and selfish. It was betrayal of both Mother (Church) and Bride (of Christ).
Imagine, just for a moment that the teen had asked me a question about my marriage or about the Sacrament, in general, and I as a married man replied, “Well, I’ll tell you what my wife wants to hear…but here’s what I really think.”
In that moment, if I’ve got the microphone. I’m not only using my voice, I am the voice of the Church. I don’t care if it’s in a cabin in the woods or behind an ambo – in the mind of the adolescent, new to the faith and wading through the often conflicting messages of the world and the Church, there is little difference. The teens’ faith lives are still finding roots. Their loyalties are still being tested and their trust still being built.
In an effort to honor Father, I allowed him to finish and leave the room before I resumed the session and “re-explained” the Church’s official position in such a way that left absolutely no doubt as to where Mother Church stands on the matter. Remember #6 up top? Ya, nobody better be talkin’ bad ‘bout our Mama!
Now this is not to pick on that particular priest. I can only name a handful of times since I first became a Core Member (almost 20 years ago) that a priest has said or done something like this in my presence. Our priests are good men – great men – valiant warriors for truth and harbingers of Christ’s glory.
No, most of the time when I hear those three little words, they come from a random Core Member or a lost parent. I’ve heard them uttered in small groups. I’ve heard them uttered when meeting with a disgruntled parent at a coffee shop. I’ve heard them used to cover a multitude of situations in which people outright disagreed with Church Teaching and wanted to alleviate all guilt in teaching their young people otherwise.
We are called, however, to raise our children in the truth. Actually, we’re called to “drill truth into them” (Deut. 6:4-9). We are called to support parents as the primary catechists (CCC #2223), again reinforcing the truth of God’s revelation safeguarded and offered to us by Mother Church.
There is no room for personal opinions, euphemistic language, watered-down and vanilla theology or private agendas. Raising our next generation in the faith is a privilege. It is a grace and a gift from God. Being a good Catholic parent takes prayer and study. Being a solid Catholic Core Member takes prayer and study. Good intentions aren’t enough – not when formation is coming through the lens of the secular media.
I’m not under the impression that anyone who is on this website, reading blogs has a hard time with the Church or her guardianship of objective truth. This is preaching to the choir (quite literally, for those of you who are also in music ministry). I do offer it, however, because if we don’t remind our Core Members, parents and others of the divinity of our Church – beyond just her humanity – encouraging constantly growing prayer lives and spiritual reading, we run the risk of unraveling from within.
I pray you never have to hear those three little words in a ministry setting. I pray, too, that you’ll never have to leave a room, seek out the person who said them and have a conversation like I was forced to have many years ago with that well-intentioned by misguided priest. I offered mercy. He responded with indignantly. And while we didn’t see eye to eye (and possibly never will) – it’s comforting to know that Mother Church still loves him deeply…and that he knows never to talk about my Mama in that way again.