Dear Rev Know it all,
Can you make a suggestion as to a nice gift for a priest?
Jennifer “Jen” E. Russ
How honest do you want me to be? I am not sure about gifts for order priests, but for a diocesan (parish) priest, it is to be kept in mind that they are responsible for their own retirement at the age of 70, unless of course they keel over before then. So, cold hard cash is always an appreciated gift. I can’t say what would be good for religious order priests who, unlike diocesan priests, take a vow of poverty, and are supposed to hand over any gifts to their order. Retired diocesan priests hand over their money to pharmacists, doctors, care givers, the IRS, etc. (Yes, I pay personal taxes. Lots of ‘em. I am not a non-profit organization.)
I can tell you more easily what not to give: religious art! I have enough folkloric Guatemalan multicolored stoles to carpet the Vatican. I also have shelves full of books that I won’t get to read unless I survive until retirement, and rooms full of icons, statues and inspiring wall plaques. In fact, I am looking at one now that particularly irritates me. It is a small glass sign in a wooden stand that says “TRUTH” in big letters. I keep it on my desk where I have to look at it every day so it can make me feel rotten. I wish it said “NICE.” Nice is a lot better than truth. I like being liked, and speaking the truth always puts one at risk of not being perceived as NICE. No matter how polite one is about it, the truth is never what another really wants to hear. Husbands, how often have you lied to your wives when they ask that most dangerous of questions, “Does this outfit make my …um… ankles look fat?” “No, dearest, if anything your …um… ankles are as petite and graceful as the day we were wed.” I have no idea what women lie to men about. They must be very good at it, or maybe it’s just that I’m not married. Yes, truth does no one any good. I am not saying that I could tell the truth even if I might recklessly attempt to do so. The best I can hope for is to say what I perceive to be the truth, knowing that I am probably wrong, at least in some measure if not completely. So here goes….
I noticed a few weeks ago that I had my pastoral hand in your pocket seven times at each weekend Mass. There was the regular collection, after communion a special collection for a diocesan agency, two simultaneously running pledge drives, a collection for some natural disaster and a sale of things in the church vestibule for a truly good cause. I forget the seventh. I think it was some fundraising event to be held in a few weeks. This is crazy. What in the name of sweet heavenly glory is going on? We here in the diocese of Frostbite Falls need to ask ourselves some very honest questions, and I for one don’t want to do it. That @#$%& plaque is staring me in the face even as I write! The truth, or at least my limited perception of it, will do no one any good, least of all me who is responsible for keeping the cash rolling in so that we maintain the status quo until something finally happens to fix the mess or to end it.
Oh well, there’s that stupid plaque two feet from my head. Here goes: Have you ever heard of Ni Tuosheng? You may recognize the English version of his name, Watchman Nee. He wasn’t Catholic. In fact, I think he was rather anti-Catholic. He was a Chinese evangelical theologian born in 1903, arrested in 1952 after the communist revolution. He spent the rest of his 20 years in jail and eventually died of maltreatment, still under arrest in 1972. Before the revolution he worked to establish the faith Fuzhou Province and even after his arrest he continued to convert his prison guards. His last words were found written on a slip of paper hidden in his jail cell under his pillow: “Christ is the Son of God who died for the redemption of sinners and resurrected after three days. This is the greatest truth in the universe. I die because of my belief in Christ.”
Once he said, “Isn’t it interesting that money can be such a good tool for discernment.” I thought this rather disturbing until I had been in the business of religion for a while. To use the words money and discernment in the same sentence seemed wrong. Eventually I realized what he meant. If the work is God’s, there is always just enough to accomplish it. When I was in my second parish some kid named Louie had a very unrealistic idea. He participated in the Pentecostal-style youth group in the parish. It was a very poor Puerto Rican parish that barely managed to keep its head above water in a very poor and dangerous neighborhood. Louie, the dreamer, thought that the Holy Spirit wanted us to host a big rally to get all the gang members saved. We would find a big hall and have Christian Music groups and preaching and we would feed them all breakfast and lunch for the whole weekend. There was no budget. It never seemed to worry the kids that there was no source of income to fund such an undertaking. They scattered to the four winds, begged food donations, had the local shopkeepers put signs in their windows and somehow managed to reserve the local Catholic girls’ school gym rent free for a whole weekend.
The great event came and about a thousand young people showed up to hear the Gospel preached for two days, meals included. No budget. A thousand hungry kids. Breakfast and Lunch. They even gave the speakers small stipends and made a donation to the nuns who ran the school. This went on for a few years until local religious organizations decided to help. Youth ministries and professional youth ministers were happy to collaborate as long as they could take credit for the rallies in their official reports. The whole thing fizzled when there was something successful to argue about. But for two or three years, a thousand kids heard the Gospel preached and learned to pray at no expense to any diocesan organization. There was no money in it. Nobody made any money off of it. Didn’t have to be any money in it. God was in it. Isn’t it interesting that money can be such a good tool for discernment?
Next week: This was going to be a short article. No such luck.