April 29, 2015
Complaining Doesn’t Stop at Church Door
One of the many things I enjoy about this Easter season is the readings at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles.
St. Luke, the inspired author, tells us about the first days of the Church. Here we see the essentials of the Church, present in those opening years, still with us now: belief in Jesus as the Son of God, our Savior, risen from the dead; prayer together, especially on Sunday; the sacraments, particularly Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, and Holy Orders; preaching God’s Word bravely to all, even at the cost of persecution; missionary expansion; the authority of the apostles; and charity, especially to the sick and poor.
A couple weeks ago, I was preaching on our daily reading from Acts, a selection from chapter 6. I spoke about the essentials of the Church, as I outlined above. In the discussion after Mass, one of the folks—humorously, but, at the same time, with a serious point—mentioned another characteristic of the Church that was evident in this passage: complaining!
She went on to explain that, in the reading, one group in the earliest days of the Church griped because they felt neglected in the distribution of help to their people in need. Complaining seems to be a constant in the life of the Church up until now, she concluded!
I’m afraid she had a point.
Cardinal Francis George, one of the most perceptive commentators on the life of the Church, once observed publicly in Rome, as the College of Cardinals was meeting, that we cardinals from around the world often whined about Rome and the Curia. Fair enough, he concluded, as long as we cardinals admitted that, back home, our priests were probably griping about us! That, too, Cardinal George continued, was understandable, as long as our priests realized their parishioners were probably complaining about them!
“Tutti si lamentono!”—“Everybody’s griping!”—exclaimed an Italian cardinal.
A cycle, a culture, of complaining! I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Every family does it, and the Church is our spiritual family.
It can get to us, though, can’t it? Constructive criticism is good, welcome, helpful. Continual whining is not.
This great Archdiocese of New York is hardly exempt. Recently, within the span of an hour, one person complained to me about the merger of his parish, and, a little while later, another griped that we should have merged a lot more. Then came a protest from one of our many wonderful teachers that salaries needed to be raised, followed by another from a parent complaining that any raise in teachers’ salaries would hurt our schools, since tuition would have to go up, and children would leave.
Our priests have to put up with a lot of criticism. It fascinates me when I receive a letter praising a priest from a parishioner, then one from another member cutting him down for the same thing!
In some ways, we have a big mess in the Church, with a lot of divided opinions and ideas, a lot of reasons to lament. Pope Francis characteristically surprises us when he actually rejoices in this mess! The Holy Father believes that the Holy Spirit can bring unity and a sense of direction out of complaining, disagreement, confusion, and division. A mess can be an invitation to discern a direction from the Holy Spirit!
Someone just blasted the Church for being “too nice, too welcoming to gays,” and, not long afterwards, another shout came that we were too harsh and non-accepting to them.
Then came the complaint that we were spending $170 million for necessary repairs on St. Patrick’s Cathedral, followed by one angry call that we “had let it get in such bad shape, and had not acted a long time ago.”
Full disclosure here: I do my share of griping, too. But I usually find that it gets me nowhere. And I’m consoled knowing that this belly-aching seems to have been part of the Church from day one, as is obvious from the Acts of the Apostles.
Not long ago a letter came in criticizing me for our policy of having our priests, when they turn eighty, step down from administration—while, if they want, still remaining active in a parish—then another came in blaming me for not moving sooner to ask a priest in declining health to retire.
It seems a “pastime” of the Church from the start...
The goal is not to cease raising concerns, even grievances, but to do it charitably and civilly, never questioning the motives or dedication to the Church of the person who prompts our complaint!
Experts in communication tell us that not to complain can be unhealthy, and allow matters to get worse. The same experts advise that to complain constantly, in a bitter, judgmental way, is also toxic.
Married couples, families, and friends realize this. We in the community of the Church do, too.
A man who did more than his share of viciously attacking the Church, Saul, said it best. Writing as Paul, he urged: “I urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace...” (Ephesians 4)
No complaints about that counsel!