Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Has Rolhesier got anything worthwhile to say?

Both Diogenes and Fr Powell have a pop at Fr Ronald Rolhesier for this article about the 'Struggle to Bless'. I mostly agree with Fr Powell's detection of a certain condescension in Fr Rolheiser's attitude, and the article seems to be characterised by a mushiness of approach and logic. However... and this is where I alienate most of my readership... I think that there's a certain validity to what Rolheiser is saying. I don't often read his articles, but sometimes stumble across them and it's usually an infuriating experience. I think that I would disagree with him on many things, but occasionally he manages to hit the bullseye and make some extremely perceptive points. More usually, there are some decent insights in the midst of some very squishy stuff. I think this is one of those 'mostly squishy' times. He seems to fudge the definition of blessing and needlessly confound its theological definition with the more mundane (but still important) human experience of giving one's blessing to another person or his efforts. And yes... I could have done without the calf...

However, I do think that Rolheiser is pointing towards the existence of a genuine difficulty. He writes:
At workshop recently, as we were discussing the tension that often exists today between younger and older clergy, a middle-aged priest said: "I'd like to bless the younger priests, but they don't want my blessing! They see me as a burnt-out middle-aged ideologue and everything in their attitude and body-language tells me that they simply want me to disappear and give them space!"
Now, Fr Powell points out the obvious irony:
The irony here, of course, is that Fr. Ideologue used to be the paranoid, belligerent, unappreciative teenager-priest who gleefully thumbed his nose at his elders, tossing out the ancient faith along with the beautiful vestments, the precious vessels, the transcendent language, and objective morality. And now that he is the Elder, he is deeply confused about why his "clerical children" seem so unappreciative of all his hard work to destroy the Church.
However, even taking into account the justifiable criticisms that young priests might have of their elders, it hardly seems wise or Christian for younger priests to reject or write-off their elders in the manner that Rolheiser seems to be describing. No matter how righteous the cause of young clerics, they still owe a duty of charity and civility to their elders in the presbyterate and they should not be too quick to presume that they have nothing to learn from those priests whom they might dismiss as ideological dinosaurs.
I'm not going to make any sweeping criticisms of young clergy - I don't have the knowledge or moral authority to do so. However, I will say that it is a temptation for the self-consciously orthodox young priest or seminarian to write-off older priests, to actively reject the wisdom of their experience and to become a more 'correct' but less personable and approachable priest than his elders. Rolheiser's description of the confusion of the middle-aged priest should spark an examination of conscience amongst the younger clergy.

Another thing that struck me about Rolheiser's article is what he actually suggests to the older generation of priests. He writes:
To bless a young person is to look at him or her and, without exploitation of any kind, give back to him or to her an appreciative gaze that says that his or her life and actions are a source of delight and joy for us rather than a threat and irritation.
But this can be very hard to do, especially inside of the same gender, when a young person's life can seem precisely a threat to our status, popularity, and security, and especially when that life, in ways benign and belligerent, tells us that our own time is past. It is not easy then to say: "In you a take delight!"
But that is when it is most important to say it! When the young people in our lives give us the impression that they neither want nor need our blessing is precisely the time when, ironically, they probably need it the most. Their very aloofness is partly a symptom of the lack of blessing in their lives and a plea for that blessing.
We need to give that blessing. When we bless the young, especially when it seems that they do not want our blessing, we help lift a congenital constriction off of their hearts, like a mother cow that has just given birth to a calf turning around and licking the glue-like constricting after-birth off of her young. [Ewwwwwwwww! Fr Rolheiser wins a prize for the ickiest simile used by a spiritual writer] And we need to do it too to lift a certain depression within our own hearts. God blesses. When we act like God we will get to feel like God --- and God is never depressed.
It is too much, of course, to expect Fr Rolheiser and his generational and ideological cadre of clergy to agree with everything that the younger generation of clergy is up to. However, he still argues that the older generation should find it within themselves to give their blessing to the younger clergy rather than to treat them as a threat. He argues that intergenerational resentment is unhealthy for both the younger and the older generation. It is an act of charity, a God-like act for the older generation to give their blessing, despite their misgivings. For the younger generation, receiving the blessing of the older generation is surely better than receiving their curse or their hostile indifference. Whilst there is an air of resentment and hostility between the generations, the young will be tempted to slide into that reactionary rejection of everything the older generation has to offer.

Yes... he's squishy and he's mushy... And don't even get me started on whether the question of God being depressed is valid theological discourse. but at the same time, I don't think that everything Rolheiser has to say should be dismissed too quickly.


Rev. Mr. BWJ said...

Well, I wouldn't give Rolheiser this much attention, so more power to you.

I think his use (and that middle-aged priest's use) of the word "blessing" is typically Protestant, at least as it is sometimes used in the United States, especially the southern United States. It means more or less the same thing as "affirm", but it doesn't carry with it the baggage of psychobabble. (Rather, it sounds... Protestant... which is why a lot of Catholics would not like to use the term.)

The extended quotation you provide beginning with "To bless a young person is to look at him..." just sounds so sickly sweet to me, and so unrealistic (is anyone so self-conscious of his relations with others that he thinks this way?), how can anyone not dismiss it out-of-hand?!?!? But I agree with your general assessment, and am impressed that you would take the time to engage his article. I wouldn't have.

Anonymous said...

Probably his blessing is accompanied by 1/2 hour of blather about cows giving birth or some such hippie-like nonsense. No wonder the younger priests view him with suspicion. Good grief. That's gross, not to discount irrelevant.