Professionalization Versus Vocation

     I’ve been in something of a state recently: a creeping sense of desperation, a desire to reject the evidence of my senses that’s almost strong enough to overwhelm my reason. Perhaps the best short characterization of that state is “Make it all go away!” Nevertheless, I remain committed to reality, and to the best, most objective appraisal of reality a Certified Galactic Intellect can produce.

     There are a lot of folks out there who think they’re smarter than the rest of us. Their self-awarded airs license them to commit systematic deceptions of those whom they think they can exploit. They are chief among the reasons that I have said – and will continue to say – don’t trust anyone, including me. Do your own research. Apply your own criteria for validating the evidence presented to you. And try sincerely to keep your preferences for “the way things ought to be” from overwhelming your sense for the way things really are.

     “What has him going on this tack?” I hear you mutter. It’s fairly simple: Events recently reminded me about an ugly encounter with a wholly insincere cleric. As David Ackles once put it, he sings the hymns on Sunday but mocks them on Monday:

     I desperately wanted to disbelieve in this person. Yet there he was, cassock, clerical collar, and all. He became my model for a cleric in one of my novels:

     [B]ehind her, grinning broadly, was the gray-templed man in the cassock.
     “Ah! Miss Woolard!” He approached with his hand extended, but, on seeing that he would receive no reciprocation, let it fall to his side. The sense of falsity still throbbed beneath his saturnine good looks and urbane manner. Moira’s jaw set into an unpleasantly firm line. The lawyer from New York City excused herself and scurried away.
     “We’ve missed you these past few, ah, sessions.” The man smiled unpleasantly at Andrew. The confidence in his eyes made Andrew wonder what had occurred since their first, aborted encounter.
     “Have you, Arthur?” Moira’s eyes had turned dark. “Have you found no one else to gift with your theories?”
     The cassocked man chuckled. “No one as responsive as yourself, dear girl.” He offered his hand to Andrew. “I’m sorry, we’ve not been introduced. The Reverend Arthur Connolly, Church of England, London born but late of Belfast parish.”
     Andrew took the proffered hand uncertainly. “Andrew MacLachlan, Onteora County, New York.”
     “A colonial! Of course.” Connolly’s eyes gleamed. “Moira’s always had a strong attraction for the rougher sort. It was what sent her to us.”
     Moira’s hiss of indrawn breath stopped conversation for many feet around them.
     “It’d not hurt you to show a bit of respect, Arthur. Andrew is what you claimed to be but never were.”
     The unpleasant smile grew broader. “And what is that, dear girl? I never claimed to be but what I was: the parson of my congregation, duly appointed by the archbishop.” He looked Andrew up and down. “The young frequently hold strange notions about what qualifies a man for the cloth.” His smirk was a silent but articulate dismissal of any fitness Andrew might have possessed.
     Andrew’s blood rose. A detached part of him mused over why a reaction that had developed to improve the survival prospects of a living body would afflict him here, in the land of the dead.
     That doesn’t make it any less.
     “And what are your views, Reverend?” Andrew’s voice rang surprisingly loud. He hadn’t intended to shout, but as his words died away it seemed to him that no other sound could be heard in the hall.
     Moira’s hand tightened on his arm.
     Some of the self-satisfied humor bled from the not-priest’s visage. “He has to want it, Mr. MacLachlan. That and nothing more.”
     “Nothing, Reverend? There are no aptitudes, no skills, no special knowledge required to be a man of God?”
     Connolly laughed hollowly, as a debater might do in dismissing an opponent’s sally. “A man of the cloth needn’t be a man of God, my good fellow. He merely has to meet his congregation’s needs.”
     “But Reverend, what needs could they have that would not require a man of God? Other than the kind a grocer could satisfy.”
     Connolly’s smirking smile spasmed, revealing the snarl beneath. The thrust had hit home.
     “Absolution and orders, my good man. The merchandise all churches keep in stock. Sit up straight, do as you’re told, put your pence in the plate and your trust in the divine plan, and we will lift the guilt from your shoulders as necessary. But above all, you must do as you’re told. And we reserve the right to change the rules with no explanation.”
     “How interesting.” Andrew forced back the urge to flee and met the mocking gaze with all the steel he could pour into his own. “A churchman who views his church as an instrument of pacification and control.”
     “All churches, Mr. MacLachlan,” Connolly said. “Each and every one, from the earliest of the pagan faiths to the greatest of the bodies of Christendom. Go into one and all and hear what is said there. Only the details vary. The core is always the same: Do as you’re told and keep your questions to yourself.”
     Connolly swooped at the buffet table, plucked up a raspberry danish and took a monstrous bite. “And why,” he said through his sweet, “should one think otherwise? Did you ever visit Belfast, Mr. MacLachlan? A sane man wouldn’t, I suppose. Did you know that in that lovely little city, we have more murders per week than you have in New York? Did you know that violence is my city’s leading cause of death?” He jammed the remainder of his pastry into his mouth, chewed and swallowed.
     “Your point being what, Reverend?”
     “Marketing, my good man!” Connolly’s voice boomed as he entered his peroration. “Horror and religion are the best of partners. The Irish kill each other in numbers beyond imagination, yet they are the most devout of Christ’s people. The guilt from the one drives them into the arms of the other. And the other provides them with the rationale to go on with the one. Have you never seen the connection before?”

     [From The Sledgehammer Concerto]

     My fictional cleric Arthur Connolly is representative of a significant number of others like him. Rather than embracing the proper functions of a Christian cleric – i.e., promulgating the Gospels, administering the Sacraments, and assisting his parishioners in understanding God’s will – they treat their office as just another job, with no requirement for personal commitment to its meaning and traditions. This is the sort of thing that comes from the transformation of an office that was once seen as a religious vocation into a career choice. Sad to say, there’s a fair amount of it out there.

     It’s been said that among highly placed British families – the nobility, mostly – it was a common practice to send “the idiot of the family” – i.e., the sibling with the poorest prospects of a secular life – into the clergy. It’s also common for young women in Third World countries to go into the convent as a refuge against abuse. Such things occur even in the First World: among the friendless, the despised, and the very poor. Faith, and the hope and comfort it can bring to the believer, take terrible damage from such “vocations.”

     Here in the United States, clerics and clerical life aren’t as esteemed as they once were. There are several reasons for this, but the arrant insincerity of some clerics – the money focus; the seeming hedonism; the casual departures from Christ’s teachings – is surely one of them. This is what comes of treating an office once deemed a sacred calling as just one more profession.

     The phenomenon isn’t confined to parish priests and ministers. Cases can be found among bishops and cardinals as well. The burgeoning tide of self-absorption and insincerity in society at large practically guaranteed that it would threaten that stratum whose function is to defend us against such things. The tragedy is not in the temptation but in the weakness of the resistance.

     If you pray, include among your intentions an increase of vocations. True men of God, willing to devote their lives and energies to Christ’s message of salvation, are more precious than they’ve been in centuries. One such priest, the late Father Charles Papa, told me that the shortage of such men is why North America is now considered mission territory.

     In part, I pray in repentance for having recoiled from my own vocation, many years ago. Make of that what you will. Now it’s back to my unmanageable mess of a novel-under-construction. Do please have a nice day.