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Say it to my face

30 November, 1999

Paul Andrews SJ discusses what it means to deal with disagreements as a Christian.

In his half-century of priesthood Father Peter had changed. He had been educated in the 1950s to offer Mass with his back to the congregation, and to observe a strict pattern of bows, gestures and tones of voice. Apart from the (nvariably male) servers, lay people had no place at the altar.

When the Second Vatican Council brought in liturgical changes, he welcomed them with joy. Peter was a people person. He found himself looking at the congregation, watching their faces as he spoke, bringing them more and more into the action of the Mass. He prepared the liturgies with imagination, and his parishioners, especially the children, responded.

The worship was not charismatic, but it was lively, with more music, more movement, and much more participation than before. Peter knew that not everyone liked the changes. Some preferred to be left to their own devotions during the Mass. They found the kiss of peace an effort, and anything beyond that a distraction. They hankered for the old, silent Mass, and wondered what had happened to all the rubrics.

One day Peter received a summons from the Cardinal who ruled the diocese. This was unusual, and Peter sensed that he might be in trouble. But he knew and liked the Cardinal, and when they met, he felt that the other man was a little embarrassed.

As they sat down together, the Cardinal produced a sheet of paper: `Father Peter, I just want to pass on some things that people have been saying about you.’ He read out a list of criticisms of Peter’s liturgical practices, together with references to regulations that had come out from the Vatican, which they alleged that Peter was breaking. Peter listened respectfully, without interrupting until the list was ended. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I’ve taken those in.’ And he reached into his pocket for a sheet of paper: ‘Now may I read out some of the things that people have been saying about you?’ The Cardinal smiled: ‘Good on you, Peter. Leave me the list and have a drink.’

The point of the story is not the boldness (or rudeness?) of Peter, or the rights or wrongs of different sorts of liturgy. The point is that both men realized how wrong and unchristian it is to badmouth somebody behind their back.

The parishioners who complained of Peter had not approached him about their complaints, but instead ran to Big Daddy, the highest authority in the diocese. The gossips who badmouthed the Cardinal had said nothing to his face but were ready to run him down behind his back.

You would not put up with that as a pupil in school. Nobody wanted to be called a sneak or a snitch, or someone who told tales to Teacher. It was considered the lowest form of life. Yet we find adults who think they are God-fearing and virtuous when they are reporting to a higher superior about some breach of rules – the sort of people who ran to the Cardinal about Peter. They have forgotten the Jesus of the Gospels. Jesus was on the side of love, not law and order.

As Christians we need to be able to look with love on those who do things we disapprove of. In other words, if we are concerned about someone, the first step is to confront the other personally, in humble and sincere love. This is asking a lot: courage and coolness in face of somebody who may react to your remarks with anger. It also means believing the best of those we criticize, and trying to see what motivates them.

The Gospel is clear about the proper way to tackle things you disapprove of. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel (18:15) Jesus puts it this way: If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the community; and if he refuses to listen even to the community, let him be to you as an outcast.

Only if the personal approach does not work should we bring others into the picture. And only if that does not work should we bring in the authority of the whole community. Informing on people, running them in to authorities, is not a Christian action unless other approaches have failed.

Yes, there is a place for whistle-blowers. There are times when we have to fight what we see as wrongdoing or corruption. This can be dangerous if it is done openly. In a totalitarian society, raising your voice in protest can cost you dearly. We have seen recently the canonization of Franz Jägerstätter, who was executed by the Nazis because he refused to serve in the armies of the Third Reich.

We are thinking here about what happens between Christians. If they see something they think is wrong, what do they do? What happens in the Church – in parishes or schools? Some people’s first instinct is to report to the person ‘in charge’. Jesus would say: No, talk first to the person you have a problem with. Telling tales secretly to those in authority can easily lead to an atmosphere of gossip and slander in the Church.

Obviously the Church authorities, whether in the Vatican or in the person of bishops, religious superiors or school principals, have a serious responsibility in this situation. They have to uphold the openness of the Gospel, and discourage anything that looks like tale-bearing, which can be so destructive of the Christian community. When somebody complains to them about X, their first response should be: What did X say when you talked to him about this’? It is not an easy job to face down what is wrong while preserving the honesty and charity to which Jesus calls us.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (September 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.