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Priest Charming

Priest Charming

   The twins treated us to "Shrek 2" Sunday afternoon.  The bad guy in the film is a mincing egocentric named Prince Charming.  Therefore, I was ill-prepared Monday afternoon while reading Andrew Greeley's latest report on the Roman Catholic Church, The Catholic Revolution,1 to discover that his primary recommendation for priestly authority in the 21st Century is to get some CHARM.  He puts it this way:

For weal or woe... the old methods of control [of the church] were destabilized by the Council [Vatican II] and no longer operate and will never operate again.  Control is finished.  There seems no alternative to charm that reveals Charm.2

    I looked up "charm" in the dictionary to see its derivation.  I thought it might be the Greek word "charisma."  I mean, take away the "i," the "s," and and "a" and you have it.  The dictionary insists "charm" comes from the Old French "carmen," meaning song.  Ah well, you can't have it your way all the time.  Just, please, don't think Greeley means Shrek's Prince Charming kind of charm.  Think of the positive attraction of a certain Galilean prophet, affirming, loving, caring, giving you to know that you do, after all, really matter.  Greeley capitalizes Charm in the same way we capitalize Grace, to hint at a divine incursion into human affairs.

    That's what priests and bishops and popes need in the present age, not rules and their firm enforcement, charm. 

    Now you may wonder just why I would be reading about the Catholic Church... again!  Why this fascination, Protestant Pastor Howard?  Probably it has much to do with my childhood in not-so-Yankee Connecticut, in Stamford, where most of my classmates traced their ancestry to Italy or Ireland or Poland (which made for great football teams).  They went to confession.  I didn't.  They went to Mass.  I went to church.  They couldn't eat meat on Fridays.  I could.  They hung religious medals around their necks.  I eschewed all jewelry.

    That is, my early years were permeated with an awareness of a Catholic sensibility which I didn't share.  Then I went to live in Brooklyn for nearly eighteen years.  If I thought Stamford was awash in Catholicity, my corner of the Borough of Churches, Sunset Park, was a veritable sea of such piety and practice.  More to the point and much to my surprise, in the wake of Vatican II, I became the toast of the neighborhood and the borough, as Roman Catholics looked for a way to make ecumenism a local reality.  And there I was, Protestant Pastor Howard, feted at every turn in their pulpits. 

     I am, you see, a very interested outsider.

    Not just because I am curious (I am!), but because, I note from fifty years' experience of ecclesiastical trends, that there is a "concomitant variability"3 between what goes on in Catholic Churches and what goes on in Protestant Churches.  Why, all of a sudden, did Protestant churches introduce the passing of the peace?  Why, after generations of pooh-poohing ritualism, do so many Methodist Churches now offer ashes on the first Wednesday of Lent?  Fifty years ago preachers, most of them in the mainline Protestant denominations, wouldn't be heard dead using a lectionary to determine the Scripture Readings on which their sermons were based.  Now it's de rigueur.  If Catholics think their church has become more Protestant, many Protestants surely think their churches have become more Catholic.

    And Greeley writes... well... so charmingly.  He is the more authoritative because he backs up his sociological data with colorful observations and illustrations.  Like this explanation of the appeal of the Catholic sensibility:

It sees the Ultimate lurking in Everyday, in the bits and pieces of everyday life.  God discloses Himself in water, food, and drink, sexual love, birth, death, the touch of a friendly hand, the pale glow of the  sun on a frozen lake, the sight of a familiar face long unseen, a Puccini aria, reconciliation after a quarrel, in all the beautiful events and people and places of human life. 4

    The challenge of the priesthood in the aftermath of the Catholic Revolution is not, as the hierarchy seems to think, to restore discipline; but to woo the world  inside and outside the church with the beautiful stories, a veritable "rainforest" full of them, that has been and still is the appeal of the Catholic sacramental view of life. 

    The challenge for the Protestant pastorate, I would insist, is parallel: to take the old, old story and make it ever new, charming hearts and minds with Good News appealingly presented.  Sure, march for social justice.  Go ahead, use the insights of Freud and Jung in the office of pastoral counseling.  Create super presentations with PowerPoint.  Yeah, yeah, yeah!  But, remember, that at the heart of it all is our story, a loving one, about God and his children, all of them, the forgiveness given, the grace, the amazing grace, given to be shared. 

    Long ago, twenty-eight years to be exact, I wrote: "[The] venerable tradition of 'telling it like it is' for God's sake can be immensely effective if the would-be prophet also possesses a giant share of charm."5  I would enlarge that conviction now to state that more than would-be prophets need a giant share of charm.  Everyone ordained, whatever the Christian denomination, needs it, is called to get it, by the One who when among us was Charm Himself.  


1. The Catholic Revolution, New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council, Andrew Greeley, University of California Press, 2004. Greeley's thesis is: (1) Vatican II started a genuine revolution in the Roman Catholic Church, a revolution that was pretty much exhausted by 1972; (2) the most lasting consequence of the "revolution" has been the laity's pervasive attitude toward hierarchical authority in the church, that individual conscience matters more than what the pope, bishop, or parish priest dictates; and (3) the reason there have been no mass defections from the Roman Catholic Church is that Catholics like being Catholic, heirs to the stories and traditions of two thousand years, starting with a baby in a manger.  The watershed event, forever altering the Catholic attitude toward ecclesiastical authority, seems to be the papal encyclical, "Of Human Life," by Pope Paul VI on, among several sexual issues, birth control.

2. Op cit., p. 178.

3. A fancy pseudo-scientific category I learned fifty years ago as a psychology major.  It means simply that things change together, but a cause and effect relationship should not be assumed.

4. Op cit., p.134.  I might quarrel with the designation of this "sacramental" view of life as Catholic (with a capital "C").  It is surely catholic (with a lower case "c") and helps explain why I, when asked how I would describe myself as a Christian, respond: "Reformed, Catholic, and Evangelical."

5. See on this website: Book: The Effective Pastor, Chapter 5, "The Quixotic Strategy," the second paragraph.

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