Friday, October 01, 2021

Ask a simple question

He was the newest member of the faculty at the seminary, and the only Jesuit.  Faculty were as intimidated by him as students, and he seemed to be amused by that.  I was one of the new class of seminarians, and the first from the Archdiocese of Washington in 25 years.  That seemed to intimidate the faculty, too, as if I had more significance than being just a seminarian, like maybe a spy or something.  

We new seminarians were still in orientation, before class even started, learning the practices, culture, and expectations of the seminary.  Each seminarian had to choose two faculty members to be his personal formation team: a spiritual director for the internal forum, that aspect of formation that is off-limits to evaluators with a privacy akin to that of the confessional; and a faculty advisor, the external forum member who handled academics, apostolic work, the personal and social aspects of seminary – pretty much everything else.  

Since he and I were both outsiders, it seemed the sensible thing for me to do to ask him to be my faculty advisor, so I scheduled a meeting with him to see if he would take me on.  He was not getting many other inquiries.  It was something like a job interview, with him asking the questions to see if he would accept me.  One of them is still as clear as if we spoke last month:  Are you ideological?  he asked me.  

Dividing everybody in the Church into ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ is not a new phenomenon, and seminaries are hardly immune to the syndrome.  Not only that, but a bunch of men uprooted from their lives and entering a place and a process that exists explicitly to form them will be trying to fit in and find friends, as well as identify people who share their priorities, whom they can trust, and whom they will allow to lead them.  Everybody was sizing everybody up and making these important decisions, but that does not necessitate dividing everybody into left and right, much less them and us. 

Are you ideological?  The question gave me pause, as I did indeed have some expectations and priorities according to which I was making my decisions.  But no, I realized;  I am not guided by ideology.  So I answered: No, I am idealistic.  We talked a bit more, and he was my advisor for my year in that seminary.  It was a fruitful relationship.

This exchange has come back to me lately, as everything and everyone seems to be embracing or assigned an ideology.   It is hard to avoid, as this is the running ‘narrative’ (a word that does not mean only what it used to mean) imposed to explain everything and describe everybody.  But it is a bad fit, dividing everybody into left and right, into ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.  It is especially destructive in the household of the Church, where there can be no them and us.  Sure, politics is what happens whenever people are involved in numbers exceeding one.   But politics is not the big story among the members of Christ’s Body on earth.  

Everything good comes from God and leads to God.  The Church is a divine institution filled with human beings, NOT a human institution.  God’s Word is eternal, and took flesh to dwell among us.  By Baptism we are made members of that body, and by Holy Communion united in that flesh.  Jesus’s words will not pass away, and He will not leave us orphans.  

Almost thirty years after I was asked, I know my answer was honest and accurate, and I am still an idealist.  It gets me into trouble because my expectations for everybody and everything in the Church, including my flawed fragile self, are so high; the ideal, in fact.  But the Faith also makes me a realist who knows that every person is a sinner and everything man-made is flawed and starts to crumble as soon as it is made.  

These two aspects of human existence, ideal and real, are not incompatible, but complimentary.   Human nature craves the ideal, but stumbles over reality, requiring it to request repair and restoration.  Divine nature, the ideal we crave, rather than remain distant and unattainable, pours out perfection as response to the request.   This is no ‘narrative’ but the Narrator’s own Story of Salvation.  This unchanging truth is now and forever our only hope, and in hope we were saved.  (Rom 8:24)

Honesty and situational awareness would make us acknowledge the forces both personal and social that surround us are working, for their own purposes, to ideologize us.  They are not from God, nor do they love us.   Am I ideological?  might be a good question to ask yourself as you come before the Lord.  I think most of us would wish to answer No.  The first and most frequent step in the direction of making that answer true is to turn our eyes toward the soul who stands before us, and see someone who, like us, is not ideological and does not wish to be. 

Monsignor Smith