Today’s post is from guest blogger Vernon Smith, a professional archivist and a longtime volunteer for New Ways Ministry. He lives with Thom, his partner of 23 years, in suburban Maryland. A previous post by him can be found here.
Over the last year and half, the media has focused attention on large, growing divisions in American society. Even in the American Catholic world, divisions both between and within the hierarchy and laity can sometimes become pronounced. For example, the cycle of action and reaction to same-sex marriage continues at all levels in the Catholic Church. Among the worst responses have been when LGBT people are fired from Catholic jobs. Church officials proclaim “scandal,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that their own actions and communications are exceedingly cruel and scandalous.
The cycle of outrage continues with the recent news that a second U.S. diocese – Madison, Wisconsin, under the leadership of Bishop Robert Morlino – has determined that funerals should be denied to people in same gender civil marriages. Morlino joins Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois who gave similar directions to his diocesan personnel last summer, prompting quite a backlash.
More and more news of firings and ostracism make me more and more angry. And at times, I feel lesser for feeling this way. Don’t get me wrong: anger at injustice and prejudice is appropriate and necessary. It can be an important spark to responsible, social action. But with all of the evidence of an increasingly Angry America around us, I can feel at a loss as to how to rise above it, and how to break the negative cycle.
When Bishop Paprocki made his unpastoral pronouncements last summer, like many, I was very upset. My spouse commented, “Geeze. It’s like he’s playing Catholic Monopoly with us. When you die, don’t pass Go, don’t collect $200.00, and go straight to Hell.” That summed it up pretty well to us.
So, I wrote to the bishop. I bent over backwards to make my tone and message very respectful, while conveying serious disagreement with his instructions to his priests. I tried to write something that I hoped could be heard and considered, something that could not be condescendingly disregarded as “a rant from another crazy person.”
After several days, I received a response that was cold, dismissive, and judgmental. When I wrote back a brief message, I immediately received the exact same response as the one sent to answer my first email. Paprocki had prepared a standard reply that would be automatically sent to all who wrote him about the topic. I had thoughtfully sent a message of respectful disagreement to him, only to receive back an insulting auto-reply about repentance. It made my blood boil.
When sharing the response with Sister Jeannine Gramick at New Ways Ministry, she suggested that I write a blog post about the experience. I told her that what I wanted to write was not fit to print. I could have gone on a rant like no other.
But to write a blog post in such a state would only further the negativity. I would only be venting and contributing to the cycle of social media vitriol that does little except inflame and infuriate. Moreover, the attention around Paprocki was already pretty heated. His statements had touched a nerve in so many, and I was genuinely concerned about adding words to the fray that would only stoke an outright sense of hatred towards the man. No, I could not do that. Enough had already been said, and he had clearly been called out by so many. I held my tongue and reflected privately upon my own response to the experience. Besides, to be honest, I realized I was part of the problem.
I had to pause and think: why did I react so angrily to the man? Obviously, his words were insulting and condescending, diminishing my status as a human being. But it was even more basic than that. I remember an old college psych textbook which noted that anger is simply the flipside to fear. It included a photo of the facial expressions of a person expressing anger, and another photo of the same person expressing fear. The two photos were identical. So, why would I fear the Bishop of Springfield, IL? It’s not like I am a member of his diocese. His pronouncements don’t directly affect my life in Maryland one bit. Heck, I don’t even know the man.
Hmmm . . . ohhh . . . “I don’t even know the man.” Of course . . .
It is easy to fear or even hate a complete stranger whose actions and motivations we don’t understand. How many times in my life have I heard the seemingly trite phrase, “Fear of the unknown?” Own it. Understand it. And let it go.
And, of course, the Bishop of Springfield does not know me one iota. But he sure seems afraid of me and my kind. I pray that one day he can own it, understand it, and let it go.
So, how can we do that together?
This makes me think of a recent gathering at New Ways Ministry, when we started reminiscing about our friend, Jim. He passed away eight years ago in October. Jim was one of a group of us who volunteer one night a week at New Ways to help get bulk mailings out. He was a wonderful guy. A fellow volunteer aptly called him “a true Christian.” He was a diehard, faithful volunteer of New Ways Ministry, and he would do almost anything for Sister Jeannine. Also, for at least 15 years, he led the AIDS Committee for Dignity/Washington. During the same period, he almost single-handedly ran a food program for Damien Ministries in Washington, DC as a volunteer. For years, Jim and I rode together almost every week to Volunteer Night at New Ways. He became one of my best and most cherished friends.
What was interesting about our friendship, however, was that when it came to politics, we could not be further from each other in viewpoints. In fact, he held political views that were far different than the large majority of those progressives who tend to associate with New Ways Ministry. I remember saying political things playfully, tauntingly, just to get a reaction out of him. (And believe me, he would react!) But what was so special about him was that he never, ever, let something like politics get in the way of his relationships with people. He may have scrapped and held firm to his views like the rest of us, but he would let divisions go and embrace the people around him, regardless of how differently we viewed the world. He would never hurt those around him . . . more importantly, he loved them as is.
Reminiscing about Jim reminds me of the direction we need in an unfortunately angry American Catholic world. Fear can be conquered by knowledge of and relationships with one another. Jim and I ate a lot of pizza together on Volunteer nights. And we came to love, respect, and trust each other a great deal. The differences ultimately did not matter.
Let’s keep it simple. Bishop Paprocki and Bishop Morlino, the next time you are in DC, you are invited to dinner with us at the New Ways house. We promise: no blogs, no media coverage, no public anything. Just come over and have dinner. We don’t know each other, but we really need to.
–Vernon Smith, New Ways Ministry Volunteer, November 10, 2017