Bullies for Christ?

It has been quite a while since the last (real) post. A variety of reasons has been at work but there is one that will receive some focus here. It is as personal as this blog will ever get, because what Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister called “the perpendicular pronoun” always has a jarring effect in more formal forms of writing. And this blog is not primarily about its author at all. But sometimes, needs must, so “I” will appear frequently. Just this once.

First a little recent history. Shortly after my last proper post, on the significance of facing east in liturgy, a complaint about it was received by the webmaster here, in part because this blog was the vocations link from the Douai Abbey website. No approach was made to me by the complainant, who remains anonymous, and I was provided with only a quotation from the email. The quotation given me read:

A third party tell me that if one presses the heading VOCATIONS one is taken immediately to a lecture by Fr Hugh arguing for the eastward position by the presider at mass. I have just tried it and found that. It seems an odd way to inform those who might have a vocation and presents an image of Douai which I do not believe reflects the community. Surely the community can find a better way to attract vocations?

As a result of this, without asking my input, the webmaster removed this blog as the vocations link from the Douai website, stating that while it was fine for me to express “personal opinions” on my blog, they do not necessarily represent those of the community.

Now, to be fair, I can accept that this blog is not the official link from the website for vocations, as it frees me to state things in bolder colours than heretofore. What was disturbing was that the webmaster could make the decision without consulting me; that my “personal opinions” merely reflected the tradition of the Church and the practice of the current Pope and yet could be said not necessarily to reflect the views of this community; that an outsider could presume to know the character of the community as well as an insider; and that a single complaint from an anonymous outsider can change the practice of this monastic community.

Please note that blame is not being heaped on the webmaster. While it is disappointing that he could not see his way to back up a confrere in the face of a solitary complaint is disappointing – indeed, distressing – it may perhaps reflect something other than his full agreement with the complainant. Possibly he has partially succumbed to what is a subtle form of bullying; and certainly he has aided the complainant’s attempt to bully me by proxy. We are all familiar with tales of clerical bullying in parishes in years past, and certainly bullying can occur in monastic communities, and all too often does believe me. But we do not often hear about lay bullies, bullies among the “people of God”, who bully other laity and bully their clergy as well. No doubt they mostly do not intentionally set out to bully; rather their behaviour often arises from an inflated sense of their own rights, rightness and righteousness.

The priest (or monk, etc) who is on the receiving end of this behaviour is in an invidious position. One option for him is to challenge the bully and risk himself being seen as one, and so opening himself to that most awful of modern charges against a priest – that he is “not pastoral”, that he cannot brook opposition, that he is intolerant. Even worse he might be accused of being judgmental and intolerant, which are also among the revised list of mortal sins so cherished by a certain type of liberal (though that designation is ironic to say the least), insofar as they acknowledge mortal sins at all. Another option is for the priest to take seriously our Lord’s counsel to turn the other cheek, and so keep silence. This may have great spiritual value for him, if he is able to receive it, but it may also do him great harm psychologically, since the grace of ordination does not necessarily free him from feelings of hurt and isolation. And of course, it allows the bully to continue as he or she has been used to doing.

Lest I be seen to be talking through my hat (or hood, to be precise), I point out that I know what I am talking about. While the complainant above is unnamed to me, his identity seems quiet clear, by the style and content of his complaint, by his tactics and attitudes, and by the light of recent history. Let me explain… get a cup of tea first, if you wish: this is turning into a long post!

In early summer last year I was asked to provide a 1600-word contribution to the local pastoral area (deanery in the old language) magazine, introducing the revised Roman Missal we will begin using from September. After submitting it, but before it was published, word came that my mother, for some years oppressed by Alzheimers, had suffered a heart attack from which she would not recover, and so I flew out to Sydney to see her. She lasted another 10 or so days and then passed away. Then came preparations for the funeral (only my second as officiating priest – my first was my father’s) and all the stress that this creates. In the meantime, the article had been published. After the funeral, but while I was still in Australia, I was copied an email to the editor of the magazine, who complained in it about my failure to mention the 1998 draft translation, and my being accorded the title “Father” in the article, which he assumed I had insisted on. Regarding the latter point, I had not insisted at all – the editor merely offered the customary courtesy that for most Catholics would be automatic with priests. The author has a connection with the monastery, though not so intimate as he likes to make out, and is well-known for his denunciations of “clericalism” in today’s clergy. So his complaint is not surprising.

I did email him to clarify the matter and to tell him that since I had just buried my mother I had other priorities at that time. He replied to apologise for bringing this up at such a difficult time for me. Good. But not able to leave things well enough alone, he then had to say that he had to protest in the face of “power abuse” and that since I had taken a very public position on a “controversial matter” I could not expect to be “immune from criticism”. The language reveals a common tactic. The legitimate decisions of a legitimate authority are labelled power abuse, and those who support them abusers, and in this instance, in introducing its product, the revised missal, I was making a public statement of my opinion. Since it was only opinion, it was open therefore to attack by him. I replied along the lines that far from taking a position in a controversy I was merely doing what a normal Catholic would expect a priest to do: explain the decisions and teachings of the Church, whose servant I am as a priest. Reflecting my growing irritiability I did also say, rather tersely, that I had not mentioned the 1998 draft due to the word limit and to its irrelevance to a pastoral introduction to the draft we are actually getting, and that discussion of it was academic now that it had been approved. Moreover, still tersely, I mentioned that dissent was destructive for the Church when the Church had clearly ruled on an issue, and that I would always opt for the Church.

That provoked a long email in reply which shocked me and upset me. At the beginning of it he wrote “Is it not better to remain silent rather than risk an accusation of discourtesy, lack of charity or worse? On the other hand, there are the obligations of truth.” In light of what follows I find its irony stupefying. In it he accuses me of behaviour,

more suited to a policeman and unbefitting an ordained priest; you are excluding and judgmental. I believe your articulated views are unworthy of an ordained minister of the Word and Sacraments.

Moreover, having been so labelled as unworthy to be a priest he then attacks my Catholic grounding:

You may accept all the actions of the Roman Curia as sharing in the infallibility of the papacy (call them ‘to be definitively held’ if you prefer) but it is disingenuous of you to pretend not to know that many other sincere and learned Catholics do not. You arrogate the term ‘teaching and discipline of the Church’ to matters you feel strongly about, knowing well that there are varying theological opinions among your fellow Catholics. For you to seek to marginalise and characterise these as dissenters does you and your bullying party no credit. I reject your arrogant claim to know ‘the teaching of the Church’ better than I do. I reject it utterly because you are wrong. Loyalty to the Roman Curia is not and never has been the touchstone of one’s Catholicism, as you well know, still less of commitment to the Gospel of Jesus.

Notice the way he has marginalised the teachings of the Church’s magisterium as those of the “Roman Curia”, and merely one among many valid “opinions” for “sincere and learned Catholics” (though by implication, the officla “opinion” was not valid). But the zinger was yet to come:

You might also consider your vocation. I do not see it as Benedictine; indeed it is antipathetic to most Benedictine values as exemplified by the majority of your community. I think you would be happier with Farnborough, the London Oratory or even the SSPX, where the Second Vatican Council is seen as an aberration. A zealous ultramontane party spirit is alien to the EB tradition and Douai is an unsuitable vehicle for your campaigning. But you will have sensed this from other members of your community already… I could wish you were more a pastor and a preacher of the Gospel than a mouthpiece for the novel papalist party that has grabbed control of the Church over the past 150 years…. So I have matched your vehemence: it is abundantly clear to you now that I despise what, I have to say bluntly, I consider your pharisaical counterfeit perversion of Christianity and see it as false and contrary to the Gospel.

There is much I have omitted. I offer no comment other than to say he did not match my vehemence – he far exceeded it. And all because originally I had the temerity to introduce, as requested, the Church’s new Missal, approved by both Rome and all 11 anglophone bishops’ conferences after free and sometimes vigorous debate and subsequent revision in places. And to introduce it with my support, of course. I have never replied to the email, though I did forward it to my superiors. Thankfully the other brethren I discussed this with (and when one is upset one needs to talk to someone) all supported me.

My point in airing this dirty linen of mine is to show that bullying is alive and well in the Church, and it is far from being the sole preserve of the clergy. Normally it is more subtle that the abuse quoted above. And I have heard of other priests and monks being subjected to such bullying. Having read the above, is it any wonder that the webmaster might have yielded so readily to this bully? Who would want to be on the receiving end of such abuse, even someone as uncharitable, judgmental, exclusionary and unworthy of priesthood and monastic profession as me? And if it is not clear yet then let me say that I believe that the one who complained about my blog article is the same as he who sent the tirade from which I have just quoted.

Most vulnerable perhaps are those priests and religious who are prepared to stand foursquare with the Church in its teachings on faith and morals… and liturgy. These are the ones who, far from being craven stooges of an oppressive authority, recognise that there is in fact an authority given by Christ to the Church which it exercises through the successors to the apostles, in communion with the successor of St Peter, the Rock on which Christ built his Church. Perhaps they might even have doubts about some issues, but realise that by virtue of their ordination, which in effect makes them official spokesmen of the Church, they are committed not to teaching their own opinions, but submitting themselves to an authority, and a knowledge, greater than theirs. They are the ones who are rebuilding the local Christian communities after the chaos of recent decades, drawing people back to Mass and the sacraments, and teaching the truth rather than a neutered Christianity that accommodates itself to the prevailing secular orthodoxy. Their self-appointed critics, who usually speak for an aging and dwindling minority in the Church, rarely do anything so constructive – far easier to tear down. All too often they are foisting their personal “issues” onto the whole Church, seeking to make it accommodate to them rather than they converting themselves to it.

This rant is over.

So you might spare a thought for your priests, who may be suffering in silence and isolation the ill-will of those who have an agenda all their own for the Church. You might spare a prayer especially for those priests who labour tirelessly for the Church and its teachings, who provide the sacraments as the Church requires that they should be provided, who visit the sick and the dying, and counsel the unsure and comfort the afflicted. Pray that if they err they might see the right and amend. You might also offer a prayer that God might give men the courage to answer his call despite the bullying they might receive from some quarters, be it from “liberals” or “conservatives”. With the imminent arrival of the revised Missal, priests will need all the support they can get. To end I offer the following prayer for priests. You might make it, or a similar one, a daily prayer the rest of this Lent.

Lord our God, who nurture Your people by the ministry of priests, uphold your priests in faithful service of you and your Church, that by their life and ministry they might ever bring grace to Your people and give glory to You, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

You can wake up now…. I am putting the perpendicular pronoun back to bed.

35 thoughts on “Bullies for Christ?

  1. Dear Father and brother in the priesthood,
    A number of us have experienced ‘bullying’ -from both clerical and lay Catholics- who hold to the hermeneutic of discontinuity re. Vatican II, and who, though we must say are sincere in their belief about what is good and right for the Church, often become as intolerant of the Magisterium, the Tradition of the Church and her priesthood as the clericalism they claim to denounce. Unfortunately we have formed many of our preists and laity in the hermeneutic of discontinuity over the last few decades, and we have a heavy task ahead of us in correcting that formation. Until then, with Christ we hang upon the cross, but, dear Father, with Him we shall one day rise to glory.

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    1. Father, quite so. But even those priests so poorly served by their formation have the grace of ordination, as I know you acknowledge. They need our support as much as the well-formed. We both know animosity wins no one, but loving patience and gentle truthfulness will. Did not our Lord model this for us when addressing the woman taken in adultery? We have and need our more trailblazing advocates of truth in the Church, but the key to the endurance of their work will be the patient perseverance of the faithful, clergy and laity alike.

      May the Lord bless your work and your people.

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  2. Father, quite so. But even those priests so poorly served by their formation have the grace of ordination, as I know you acknowledge. They need our support as much as the well-formed. We both know animosity wins no one, but loving patience and gentle truthfulness will. Did not our Lord model this for us when addressing the woman taken in adultery? We have and need our more trailblazing advocates of truth in the Church, but the key to the endurance of their work will be the patient perseverance of the faithful, clergy and laity alike.

    May the Lord bless your work and your people.

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    1. So you can see why I have taken a while to recover from it: nastiness always takes the wind out of my sails. Which of course makes me realise that I am far from spiritually or psychologically mature as yet, but we are all works in progress I guess. May the Lord preserve you from similar!

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  3. I would also like to add that Fr. Hugh came to my university on a very troubled day a number of months ago: one of our students had committed suicide. Fr. Hugh was visiting and going to celebrate Mass as a friend for my student lay community which I live in but the Mass was offered for the poor young soul and the Mass was opened up to those who wanted to come. Our oratory was so packed with students (about 40+) that we had to remove all the chairs and there was only standing room. Fr. Hugh exercised a truly pastoral attitude despite only being briefed on the situation the very same morning. I know for a fact for many students this was exactly what they needed, even if some of them were not Catholic. We still speak fondly of that evening despite the tragic circumstances in which the Mass took place. The students were not ‘traddies’ and just ordinary folk, but our music was Gregorian chant. We only had compliments from those in the congregation. Fr. Hugh’s homily was spot on.

    I’m positive Fr. Hugh has his faults which are well known to him, but not being pastoral, as someone who actually knows Fr. Hugh, is completely fictitious. Whoever wrote that nasty email/letter would do best to apologise personally to Fr. Hugh.

    I for one cannot wait to see you Father next week. We need good, holy, and PASTORAL priests like you!

    Ad multos annos.

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    1. Thank you so much Shaun. As important then was the atmosphere of welcome, consolation and prayerfulness offered by Benedict XVI House that sad day. And we did not shy away from the hard truth of the tragedy, but in doing so we discovered Christ in the midst of it. It just shows that the Lord can use even the weakest instruments to do his work.

      In Xto.

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  4. Oh Fr. Hugh!
    What a nightmare! I hope you’re ok. You do know me, but I am staying anon at the moment purely because of my world of work. As well as this, I can therefore (as biased as it will be) say more than I usually would.
    Firstly, I am completely and utterly shocked at such a personal attack. When I heard I was completely outraged, how could someone say such a thing about someone who I have so much respect for and hold in such high esteem?!
    This ‘complainant’ clearly doesn’t know you as well as others do, neither do they fully understand the purpose of your wonderful blogs. I regularly read you blogs and often forward them to friends, clergy and lay alike. The blogs never fail to entertain us by starting debates, although sometimes rather heated, they challenge us to look deeper and to broaden our own understanding and horizons! So thank you Fr. Hugh!
    However, I have always been a fiery tempered indiviual (as you will know when you realise who I am) but on this occasion I think you should take the words of Matthew’s Gospel from yesterday. “Forgive your brother from your heart” Mt 18:21-35
    I do hope you’re well. Take care.
    L + P
    Rom83839

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    1. Thank you … (yes I know who you are!!) for your kind words. It is very gratifying to hear that what you find on this blog can you and your friends talking and debating. That is a pretty good outcome as far as I am concerned. I shall be looking at your blog as soon as I can.

      Forgiveness in this case does not feel too hard; but forgetting is, which of course casts into doubt the authenticity or depth of the forgiveness! Another reason why I make no claim to spiritual maturity.

      So far I have never seen your fiery temper: I will have to start prodding you more vigorously.

      Blessings on you.

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  5. I am in shock reading your blog and very dishearten by it that someone can be so cruel but …. I love your blog for the educational value it provided not a vocational one mind you and I can fully understand the hurt. If I ever meet the person the human in me would want to be very nasty but as a Christian I am going to offer prayer for this person.

    I have come to realize my ministry is to pray for priest and religious and i have many who are good friends and who are on my regular prayer list and every monk of Douai has my prayer for their nurturing, education and support of my faith. Something that I will be internally grateful for.

    I also know for a fact a new catholic friend of mine reads this blog and was the one who told me about it and find it a very useful tool in understanding the catholic church!

    So please promise me that you will continue it as reading the other post we DO NOT WANT IT TO END 🙂

    I am off to pray for you and the nasty person but more for your pain.

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      1. pleasure Fr Hugh,

        I had Rosery group last night and you were one of my prayer intessions. I am so shocked by it all still

        I just hope and pray you do not lose heart by it

        You are a good priest and a source of encourgement to me and my faith

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  6. Such a nastiness is amazing (sorry if it is not the good word, I do not speak English fluently). I hope you are not too much sad, as such harshness from modernists (I know well this situation) used to desesperate me in my ministry. From the parish-priest-in-jacket-and-tie to the attend-the-Mass-once-a-month-and-yet-judgemental-about-everything-layman and to the baptistry frog (thats how we call here in France the usual old ladies very involved in the parish, ruling everything), bullying younger (and orthodox) clergy and acolytes is far too common.
    + Pax et Bonum

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    1. Merci pour votre gentilesse! I know a little about the wide variety of church situations in France, and it must have been crazy there at times! Your support for younger clergy will be very important – we all need encouragement. May God bless your ministry!

      Pax et bonum.

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  7. Yes, this all this sounds pretty typical of what many othodox priests and religious have to suffer. When I was in your shoes (although my bully was a priest), I opted for turning the other cheek and saying nothing (it would not have even entered my head to start a blog!). But the pressure of putting up with snearing comments every day nearly killed me and so I ended up leaving everythng and running to find freedom. Having escaped the bully, I eventually changed tack, got married and am very happy. The beautiful smile of our baby daughter is the best medicine I know for life’s difficulties!

    If you already know that the truth will set you free, it is love (and I mean divine love!) that will enable you to get things in perpsective and not overreact. We are are all gifted for forgetting what is essential and wasting too much time and energy on trivial matters and trivial people. Life is very simple really, and people who write such strange emails as the one you’ve received probably really need to check in with a decent psychiatrist!

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    1. Well hello! I well remember the situation you endured, and it is a timely reminder to me to ensure that I am not letting clerical bullies off the hook. They do exist, though in less numbers than before, and since we are so used now to an embattled clergy it is hard for some to conceive of priests, monks, religious being bullies at all. But they exist indeed. In your case, given the outcome of your coping strategy, it may have been part of a bigger plan, though that should not be read as my saying God actively planned that episode in your life: he allowed it for a greater good.

      Congratulations on your little girl, another of God’s gifts not just to you but to the Church.

      Pax!

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      1. Yes, I wouldn’t advocate leaving the priesthood or religious life as a direct solution for anything. And it is often preferable to find a way of honouring one’s first commitment to God. But life is sometimes far more complicated than that!

        I think you’ve chosen a better strategy than me in terms of being able to remain faithful to your vocation. By going public, you expurge your suffering, benefit from the support of faithful Catholics and show your bully for what he (and it no doubt is a he!) is: a sad little man whose narrow mind has no meaningful occupation. And you show the courage to proclaim the authentic teaching of the Church, which may or may not suit our selfish little agendas but which is one of the real signs of a priestly vocation.

        Keep up the great work! Your blog is great and should be added to more frequently. And eastward facing Mass is of course an entirely legitimate expression of the eucharistic mystery (as is Mass facing the people, I might add!).

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  8. I am horrified by what I have read and will include you by name in the Prayer for Priests which I say each morning. I have been the subject of bullying in different forms for many years and while forgiving is comparatively easy, forgetting isn’t, especially if the unpleasantness is ongoing. And how should we deal with it? Make allowances and offer it up, or is that letting an evil prevail? Tackle the person concerned face-to-face? Ideal, perhaps but not always possible or practical, especially if our only meetings are on special occasions which we would not wish to spoil for others. And what if the bullying is denied (because it rarely occurs, quite deliberately, before witnesses). Why can’t people just be kind to one another, accept that we have different views and try to understand the other person’s point of view, even if it isn’t the same as ours.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences; it has given me courage to cope with my own difficulties and helped to put them in perspective.

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    1. The questions you raise about how to deal with bullying are spot on. Turning the other cheek is eminently and supremely Christian but it is not always achievable without significant, perhaps excessive, cost. Denial by onlookers, all to common, or at least the unwillingness to address what they see, compounds and facilitates the bullying. Sometimes the witness has immense power not only to bring some sort of halt to the bullying but to empower the victim to take positive steps. All very easy in the abstract of course! I shall keep your particular burdens in my prayers. Pax.

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  9. FR Hugh just sent you an email. that has link with on here so if you want to share it all bar what happened to me feel free i had the God urge to did it it is his fault hahahahah GOD can handle it

    Thanks for the royal wave at Vespers tonight hahahah

    Blessing to you

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  10. Dear Fr Hugh

    We had words before but we ironed them out:) can’t even remember exactly what it was about now but even though painful and embarrassing because of misunderstand (on my part) I think some good came out of it.

    Your post on facing East was really beautiful and if I was a young person thinking of entering a religious life I would be far more attracted to your blog both in its content and it’s appearance than I would be to the main DA website! Sorry but it’s very dated, whereas your blog looks state-of-the-art and is solid Catholic.

    Father – there is a war going on and it’s being waged from within even more than from the open attacks from outside the Church. We’ve got to be firm and patient, all of us, both religious and laity, because the truth is that we’ve all been part of the last 40+ years of turmoil and so far not everyone has woken up and smelt the incense. It was only tonight I saw a story about Archbishop Fulton Sheen which makes a lot of sense relating to the types of people who want to tear the Church apart today as much as then – more often than not they are just not facing up to their own (dare I say the word!) sins, and just picking a fight with the Church instead:

    “Fulton Sheen: “It’s always a moral problem.”
    Archbishop Fulton Sheen once told a story of a man he met on one of his many plane trips. As the archbishop settled down in his seat in the hopes of taking a nap, a man sat down next to him. The man saw the archbishop in his priestly attire and introduced himself as an ex-Catholic who used to be an usher at a local parish. The man immediately began tearing into the Church, attacking her doctrines, disciplines and culture with every attack that modernists typically throw at the Catholic faith. Bishop Sheen sat there quietly, listening to the man’s many complaints and occasionally interjecting a question. Silently, he was praying the entire time for a way to get through to this man.

    After several minutes of the long tirade, by a supernatural intuition, Fulton Sheen asked the man, “So tell me, how much did you steal?” The man was silent and began trembling; finally he broke down and admitted that when he was an usher he had stolen thousands of dollars from the collection plate at his parish. Archbishop Sheen said that he knew that there must have been something more substantial behind all of the petty gripes this man had been putting forward.

    I do not know whether or not this man was reconciled to the Church, but Bishop Sheen’s story brings out an excellent point: those who oppose the Church, or Christianity in general, seldom do so for intellectual reasons. Now, I know there are those who say it is because of intellectual reasons, but this is not usually the real case. Perhaps I am being biased because I am in fact a Catholic and an amateur theologian, but to me, it is not a difficult task upon study of the history and tenets of our faith to see their obvious truth. It is easy to say that from the inside, but the fact remains that anyone can come to a sincere faith in Christ and His Church by an honest appraisal of the evidence. But it is obvious that not everybody does. Why is this?

    Behind every supposed “intellectual” or “scientific” objection of the atheist or anti-Catholic lies a moral objection. If one were to admit the theological truths of the faith, then one would have to bind themselves to the moral precepts of the faith that they profess intellectually. It is simple; the man’s conscience condemned him for stealing and, rather than confess to sin, it was easier to come up with intellectual reasons to place himself outside of the Church. The agnostic ( in the Latin: ignoramus) does not disbelieve God because he really cannot make up his mind; he disbelieves because belief would imply an abjuration of sin and a bending of the knees and heart to submit to Christ and His Church, which the agnostic has already pre-decided that he is not willing to do. Therefore, he creates an intellectual front to justify his moral behavior, which is based on his feelings that stem from pride and attachment to pleasure.

    As a former salesman, I was taught as a sales tool that “People make decisions emotionally and then justify them rationally.” This is ever so true in the most important decision a person can make, that of what to do with Christ and His Church. After all, the original problem of the Reformation was not that Luther intellectually disbelieved the Church’s doctrines, but that he would not submit to the moral authority of the Pope to correct a theologian. Only after he was excommunicated (1521) did he start to develop his doctrines of sola fide, sola scriptura and all the rest. So, next time somebody is attacking the Church, like Bishop Sheen listen and take objections seriously, but be congnizant that the real problem is probably much deeper than they are letting on.”
    link here

    Please accept my condolences about the death of your parents, Father. May they rest in the Peace of Christ.

    And know that you are loved by many, those who know you and those who have never met you but are being spiritually nourished by your postings here.

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