Trust me, I have checked several times. It is not leaders in general who are criticized in our Scripture readings this weekend. In Malachi, it is priests who are threatened with a curse for failing to glorify God’s name. And Jesus criticizes the scribes and the Pharisees. They are not priests, but certainly are religious leaders. So pity the poor religious leader who is supposed to preach on the shortcomings of religious leaders! I can see why St. Teresa of Avila once told our Lord, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”
Pity the poor religious leader who is supposed to preach on the shortcomings of religious leaders.
And then there is Mrs. Tierney, a minor but rather sharp-tongued character in Alice McDermott’s newest novel, which unfolds around the work of religious nursing sisters in the past century, The Ninth Hour.
The nuns did more good in the world than any lazy parish priest, she liked to say, especially in arguments with her husband, especially after he learned that she had squandered the week’s household funds on euchre and bridge at some convent, or had given what he called “more than their fair share” to some plucky little sister bound for pagan lands.
The priests were pampered momma’s boys compared with these holy women, Liz Tierney would argue. “Princes of the Church, my eyes,” she would say—if only to get his goat—“Spoiled children they are. It’s the nuns who keep things running.”
I am not going to argue with Mrs. Tierney—and not only because there is some truth in what she says. No, I am always leery when one group in the church criticizes or praises another, because it is so seldom done for disinterested reasons. We all have something to learn from one another, but that is not best accomplished, as our Lord warned us, by pointing out the speck in another’s eye.
When the faith of a religious leader is a passion, it does not know when to quit.
The church does not couple these two readings with an eye toward reforming her religious leaders, though, granted, this is always needed. No, the primary purpose is to draw attention, by way of contrast with the old, to a stunning novelty: the novum of what has been given in Christ, in his teaching, his leadership, in his very person.
And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly,
that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us,
you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God,
which is now at work in you who believe
(1 Thes 2:13).
Human efforts having fallen short, Christ himself comes as our priest, our teacher. And the shortcoming is not simply moral turpitude. Rather, it is a temptation that all religious leaders face—namely, of passion cooling into a profession. When the faith of a religious leader is a passion, it does not know when to quit. It is unwilling to say enough is enough. It is fed by love’s frenzy. It is the professional who draws boundaries, who keeps track of time, who measures out mercy.
The saints are passionate; the lukewarm are professional.
So what tempts religious leaders is of a piece with something that tests all religious people: passion growing into cold professionalism. Instead of loving the Lord and throwing ourselves at him, we lend ourselves to him, fully expecting repayment.
And this happens whenever the novum of revelation, the utter novelty that is Christ, is eclipsed. When our Christian faith is only one more movement, one more meme, in a modern world sinking under them, passion gives way to the piecemeal. We put in our time because we are no longer compelled by what we love.
St. Paul was never a professional. He was always passionate.
With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you
not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well,
so dearly beloved had you become to us.
You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery.
Working night and day in order not to burden any of you,
we proclaimed to you the gospel of God
(1 Thes 2:8-9).
The saints are passionate; the lukewarm are professional. If we have time to watch our brothers and sisters in the church and to proffer our criticism, we may have lost some sight of that one priest and teacher who must be loved, so very desperately loved, by us.