Thoughts (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I love this photograph of Fr. Abram J. Ryan. Maybe it’s his hair, or perhaps it’s his stare. He has that look about him that says “I don’t care who you are, here comes the goods.” Last summer I shared his Song of the Mystic, and his background information, in this space. There’s a connection between him and me because (for a time) he was the pastor of the parish where I attend daily Mass. I bet he was a great preacher too.

I can imagine hearing him raise his voice at times, opening his eyes wide to make a point, sweeping his mane aside and raising his hands to heaven. And within a moment, dropping his voice fall into a whisper that leaves you on the edge of your seat hungering for the nectar he has teased from the readings. A priest who had seen war in both the heights of it’s glory and the depths of it’s desolation, and then applied what he saw to the Word. I bet it was something to behold.

But he was a poet, see, not just some hell fire and brimstone preacher. He was a mystic, a man of prayer. As well as a thinker and a doer. He was no poseur, as a poet either, as a reading of the following verses will make clear.

Thoughts, by Fr. Abram J. Ryan

By sound of name, and touch of hand,
Thro’ ears that hear, and eyes that see,
We know each other in this land,
How little must that knowledge be?


How souls are all the time alone,
No spirit can another reach;
They hide away in realms unknown,
Like waves that never touch a beach.


We never know each other here,
No soul can here another see –
To know, we need a light as clear
As that which fills eternity.


For here we walk by human light,
But there the light of God is ours,
Each day, on earth, is but a night;
Heaven alone hath clear-faced hours.


I call you thus — you call me thus –
Our mortal is the very bar
That parts forever each of us,
As skies, on high, part star from star.


A name is nothing but a name
For that which, else, would nameless be;
Until our souls, in rapture, claim
Full knowledge in eternity.

See what I mean? Maybe you have to be Irish, but…this guy is good!

Because Vincent de Paul Was Once A Muslim’s Slave

Life got you down? Things perhaps haven’t turned out as you planned? Do you think everyone else has got it so easy? Your neighbors, for example, or those fortunate people who come into a considerable sum of money?

And how about those saintly types? They are simply walking on air, those guys, living lives of complete and blessed beatitude, right? Hold up!

While in Heaven the saints enjoy the beatific vision, but while they were here on earth? They were slogging it out with the rest of us. And that even includes those who were fortunate enough to be blessed with an earthly inheritance.

Take St. Vincent de Paul for instance (today is his feast day). Following his being ordained a priest, in the year of Our Lord 1605, he received news that someone had left him an inheritance. Saints be praised! Come and see where this development led him.

Once Upon a Time, over four hundred years ago…

The young priest’s life flowed on peacefully for the next five years, and then a startling adventure befell him. An old friend of his died at Marseilles, and Vincent received news that he had been left in the will a sum of fifteen hundred livres, which in those days was a considerable deal of money. Vincent’s heart was full of gratitude. What could he not do now to help his poor people. And he began to plan all the things the legacy would buy till it struck him with a laugh that ten times the amount could hardly get him all he wanted. Besides, it was not yet in his possession, and with that reflection he set about his preparations for his journey to Marseilles.

He probably went the greater part of the way on foot, and it must have taken him about as long as it would take us to go to India. But he was a man who had his eyes about him, and the country which he passed through was alive with the history he had read. Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, and the scandal, now two hundred years old, of the two popes, would be brought to his mind by the very names of the towns where he rested and the rivers which he crossed, but at length they were all left behind, and Marseilles was reached.

His business was soon done, and with the money in his pocket he was ready to begin his long walk back to Toulouse, when he received an invitation from a friend of the lawyer’s to go in his vessel by sea to Narbonne, which would cut off a large corner(of his journey). He gladly accepted and went on board at once. But the ship was hardly out of sight of Marseilles when three African vessels, such as then haunted the Mediterranean, bore down upon them and opened fire.

The French were powerless to resist, and one and all refused to surrender, which so increased the fury of the Mohammedans that they killed three of the crew and wounded the rest. Vincent himself had an arm pierced by an arrow, and though it was not poisoned, it was many years before the pain it caused ceased to trouble him. The ‘Infidels’ boarded the ship, and, chaining their prisoners together, coasted about for another week, attacking wherever they thought they had a chance of success, and it was not until they had collected as much booty as the vessel could carry that they returned to Africa.

Vincent and his fellow-captives had all this while been cherishing the hope that, once landed on the coast of Tunis, the French authorities would hear of their misfortunes and come to their aid. But the Mohammedan captain had foreseen the possibility of this and took measures to prevent it by declaring that the prisoners had been taken on a Spanish ship. Heavy were their hearts when they learned what had befallen them, and Vincent needed all his faith and patience to keep the rest from despair.

The following day they were dressed as slaves and marched through the principal streets of Tunis five or six times in case anyone should wish to purchase them. Suffering from wounds though they were, they all felt that it was worth any pain to get out of the hold of the ship and to see life moving around them once more. But after awhile it became clear that the strength of many was failing, and the captain not wishing to damage his goods, ordered them back to the ship where they were given food and wine, so that any possible buyers who might appear next day should not expect them to die on their hands.

Early next morning several small boats could be seen putting out from the shore, and one by one the intending purchasers scrambled up the side of the vessel. They passed down the row of captives drawn up to receive them; pinched their sides to find if they had any flesh on their bones, felt their muscles, looked at their teeth, and finally made them run up and down to see if they were strong enough to work. If the blood of the poor wretches stirred under this treatment they dared not show it, and Vincent had so trained his thoughts that he hardly knew the humiliation to which he was subjected.

A master was soon found for him in a fisherman, who wanted a man to help him with his boat. The fisherman, as far as we know, treated his slave quite kindly; but when he discovered that directly the wind rose the young man became hopelessly ill, he repented of his bargain, and sold him as soon as he could to an old chemist, one of the many who had wasted his life in seeking the Philosopher’s Stone.

The chemist took a great fancy to the French priest and offered to leave him all his money and teach him the secrets of his science if he would abandon Christianity and become a follower of Mohammed, terms which, needless to say, Vincent refused with horror. Most people would speedily have seen the hopelessness of this undertaking, but the old chemist was very obstinate, and died at the end of a year without being able to flatter himself that he had made a convert of his Christian slave.

The chemist’s possessions passed to his nephew, and with them, of course, Father Vincent. The priest bore his captivity cheerfully, and did not vex his soul as to his future lot. The life of a slave had been sent him to bear, and he must bear it contentedly whatever happened; and so he did, and his patience and ready obedience gained him the favour of his masters.

Very soon he had a new one to serve, for not long after the chemist’s death he was sold to a man who had been born a Christian and a native of Savoy, but had adopted the religion of Mohammed for worldly advantages. There were many of these renegades in the Turkish service during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and nearly all of them were men of talent and rose high.

Vincent de Paul’s master had, after the Turkish manner, married three wives, and one of them, a Turk by birth and religion, hated the life of the town where she was shut up most of the day in the women’s apartments, and went, whenever she could, to her husband’s farm in the country, where Vincent was working. It was a barren place on a mountain side, where the sun beat even more fiercely than in Tunis; but at least she was able to wander in the early mornings and cool evenings about the garden, which had been made with much care and toil.

Here she met the slave, always busy—watering plants, trimming shrubs, sowing seeds, and generally singing to himself in an unknown tongue. He looked so different from the sad or sullen men she was used to see that she began to wonder who he was and where he came from, and one day she stopped to ask him how he happened to be there. By this time Vincent had learned enough Arabic to be able to talk, and in answer to her questions, told her of his boyhood in Gascony, and how he had come to be a priest.

“A priest! What is that?” she said.

And he explained, and little by little he taught her the doctrines and the customs of the Christian faith.

“Is that what you sing about?” she asked again. “I should like to hear some of your songs,” and Vincent chanted to her,

“By the waters of Babylon,” feeling, indeed, that he was “singing the Lord’s songs in a strange land.”

And day by day the Turkish woman went away, and thought over all she had heard, till one evening her husband rode over to see her, and she made up her mind to speak to him about something that puzzled her greatly.

“I have been talking to your white slave that works in the garden about his religion—the religion which was once yours. It seems full of good things and so is he. You need never watch him as you do the other men, and the overseer has not had to beat him once. Why, then, did you give up that religion for another? In that, my lord, you did not do well.”

The renegade was silent, but in his heart he wondered if, indeed, he had “done well” to sell his soul for that which had given him no peace. He, too, would talk to that Christian slave, and hear if he still might retrace his steps, though he knew that if he was discovered death awaited the Mohammedan who changed his faith.

But his eyes having been opened he could rest no more,and arranged that he and Vincent should disguise themselves and make for the coast, and sail in a small boat to France. As the boat was so tiny that the slightest gale of wind would capsize it, it seems strange that they did not steer to Sicily, and thence journey to Rome; but instead they directed their course towards France, and on June 28, 1607, they stepped on shore on one of those long, narrow spits of land which run out into the sea from the little walled town of Aigues-Mortes.

Vincent drew a long breath, as after two years captivity he trod on French soil again. But he knew how eager his companion was to feel himself once more a Christian, so they only waited one day to rest, and started early the next morning through the flowery fields to the old city of Avignon. Here he made confession of his faults to the Pope’s legate himself, and was admitted back into the Christian religion. The following year he went with Father Vincent to Rome, and entered a monastery of nursing brothers, who went about to the different hospitals attending the sick and poor.

It is very likely that it was Father Vincent’s influence that led him to take up this special work, to which we must now leave him, for on the priest’s return to Paris, he found a lodging in the Faubourg SaintGermain, close to the Hopital de la Charity—the constant object of his care for some months.

And did I mention that St. Vincent is an Incorruptible?

You can read the rest of St. Vincent de Paul’s story in The Book of Saints and Heroes by Leonora Lang on the YIMCatholic Bookshelf.

This was originally posted on November 12, 2010. Happy Feast of St. Vincent de Paul!

Hey Gen-X: Be Rebels…Slow Down…Have Kids…Stick it to the Man

It’s the Catholic thing to do. Or you can keep doing what you’ve been doing, as the survey below reports, and continue on the treadmill to oblivion.

Study Finds Gen-X Overlooked in the Workplace

A new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy finds that despite being the smallest generation (46 million), Generation X might be “the most critical generation of all” for employers.

Gen Xers are of an age (33 to 46 years old) that should put them at the prime of their lives and careers, stepping into leadership roles and starting families. However, a recent study, titled “The X Factor: Tapping into the Strengths of the 33- to 46-Year-Old Generation,” reveals that due to challenges and circumstances out of their control, Gen Xers are taking a different life path.

That’s it…we’ll get them to plead “it’s out of my control” and before they realize it, their “prime years” will be gone ( and be all ours). Bawahahahahahahahahahahaha!

The study found a large number of Gen Xers are choosing not to have children. Their extreme work schedules (nearly a third of high earning Gen Xers work 60+ hours a week), strong career ambition, the current economic challenges, as well as changing mores, and life choices are all factors that contribute to their high level of childlessness compared to other generations.

Looks like we got ‘em right where we want ‘em. Keep working harder kids…that’s the answer! Besides, no babies and no diapers equals no little league games, no soccer, no ballet recitals to attend. This way, you can just keep grinding away for Mammon and the man. 60 hour work weeks can become 70 hour work weeks.

Gen X, born between 1965 and 1978, might be called the “wrong place, wrong time” generation, says the Center for Work-Life Policy. They were hit by an economic triple whammy: college-related debt, multiple boom and bust cycles (including the 1987 stock market crash, occurring just as Gen X entered the work force), and the housing slump. As a result, Gen X is the first generation not to match their parents’ living standards.

And they just might not ever…if they stick to our evil plan. Snicker, snicker.

While these economic woes have impacted most generations, they have hit Gen X the hardest in their work lives, the study found. Due to their own financial concerns, Boomers (grrrrrrr) are not retiring and are choosing instead to work an average of nine years longer than anticipated. This delays Gen X’s career progression, resulting in their feeling stalled in their careers and dissatisfied with their rate of advancement.

Heh. And perhaps we can convince them that it is more important to save for retirement, and worship at the altar of the almighty $$$ than it is to tend to their souls. Cackle, cackle.

Go read the rest here. Like I say in the title, continue to play the game to the world’s music and Gen-X will go down in flames (and so will the “Millenials” and all of us). Go the other way, dare I say it, the Catholic way, and you won’t. And even if you still crash, you’ll have at least lived your life to the fullest.

For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?

Exactly! The girls can tell you,

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And the boys too,

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All together now,

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Catholic Blogger Goes Missing In Action…

And there are several reasons why:

Reason #10. It’s September 24th, which means it’s only 5 weeks until Halloween! Time for my youngest to get outfitted for the event. Let me present Jango Fett, the father of Boba Fett. Bounty hunting: it’s the growth family business of the future. Henchmen lackies of the world…UNITE!

Reason #12. My daughter is a homeless person this weekend, living in a cardboard box behind the parish hall (since last night) with other members of the parish youth group. Today they are helping out the homeless along with the good folks at Catholic Charities of East Tennessee. I built her the best box I could find, because I want the best even for my homeless daughter. We’ll pick her up tomorrow after the 8 o’clock Mass.

Reason #15. My son is studying for a massive Chemistry test that is due to hit on Tuesday. All weekend long we’ve been building the storm shelter of knowledge by studying and quizzing, and my horror days of high school chemistry class are being revisited. Truthfully, I’ve learned more about chemistry this weekend then I ever did in high school (yep, I never studied then). Orbital notationare you kidding me?

Warning: stormy Weathers’ in the forecast

Reason # 73. My dad, who lives about 2 hours from me, stopped through town for a visit while attending his 55th year high school reunion(?!). We visited, ate barbecue, and paid our respects to my grandparents at the cemetery. Sort of a reconnaissance mission for the All Souls Day vigil I’ve got planned.

Life is short, Fall is here, and it’s a beautiful day. Blogging can wait. If I tried to write anything today, it would probably be like this, but not sound nearly as good.

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A Message on Mortgage Debt from the World

Just a quick note to parish finance committees from Joe Six-Pack, Catholic layman (in the world, but not of the world). The chart above shows the interest rate on the 10-Year U.S. Treasury Note from 1962 until the present. See the dot on the chart in July 2001? That is just for your reference.  The 10 Year Treasury is a bench mark for mortgage rates. If at all possible, it’s probably a great time to refinance parish debt. Or your own mortgage if you can (and haven’t already).

That is all.

It’s Like Elizabeth Says…

I hope it comes on in my neck of the woods. New idea—I’m going to ask my public library to purchase it!

I got an email tonight from a woman who read this post and realized that the reality of the world “as it is” makes her unhappy.

Well, combating the world “as it is” requires us to teach and admonish, not with the tactics of the world, but “in wisdom made holy” through the love of Christ. If we do that correctly we will — like the early Christians — attract others, and thus assist the Holy Spirit in the turning of the world toward the light.

If we do it incorrectly, we will only repel those who are perhaps in the greatest need to come to know the love of Christ and his salvation. And then we will have to deal with a turned-off, tuned-out world whose heels are stubbornly dug-in to the darkness.

Worse, we will have to answer to Christ as to why we trusted the worldly way of confrontation — the way of anger and distrust and scored points and power — over His way, and the way of His saints, the way of patience, humility and love.

Bl. Pope John Paul II famously said that we Catholics must look at the world clearly and see it “as it is” before we can help to form it into something more perfect-in-Christ.

To do that, we to pray, certainly, and we need more than prayer, but we are not sure what that might be.

I believe this effort by Father Robert Barron’s Word on Fire — its instruction, it’s beauty, it’s passion and it’s profound humanity in exploring the Incarnational Christ and His church — may well be the precise and timely tool we need to learn how to respond to the world “as it is,” because it tells us things about ourselves, our church and our Savior that many of us do not even know, or have perhaps forgotten.

Go read the rest. We’re on a mission from God!

For Evelyn Waugh’s Prayer of a Convert

Psst…I finished reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena. I think it is fantastic and I enjoyed it immensely. Reading it makes we want to head with my family to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, bankrupting us in the process. St. Helena, as the empress dowager, never faced that particular financial aspect of her own journey to Palestine.

Careful, because if you read this book you too may feel compelled to do the same. As I was racing through the pages, I came upon a section that I call “the Prayer of the Convert.” It applies to those who were born into the Church as well, the cradle Catholics who wandered away from their faith and have been called back to it. Waugh was a convert like me, see, and so was St. Helena, who begs the intercession of the magi when she attends Mass on the eve of the Epiphany in the cave where Our Lady gave birth to Our Lord,

“This is my day,” she thought, “and these are my kind.”

Perhaps she apprehended that her fame, like theirs, would live in one historic act of devotion; that she too had emerged from a kind of ουτοπια or nameless realm and would vanish like them in the sinking nursery fire-light among the picture-books and the day’s toys.

“Like me,” she said to them, “you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way. For you the primordial discipline of the heavens was relaxed and a new defiant light blazed among the disconcerted stars.

“How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculations, where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!

“You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod. Deadly exchange of compliments in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!

“Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room at the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life there was room for you too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass.

“You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.

“Dear cousins, pray for me,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son. May he, too, before the end find kneeling-space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly. And pray for Lactantius and Marcias and the young poets of Trèves and for the souls of my wild, blind ancestors; for their sly foe Odysseus and for the great Longinus.

“For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”

Amen, brother Evelyn—Amen.

Sassetta’s Journey of the Magi

Gone Readin’ Helena by Evelyn Waugh

Why haven’t I been posting much lately? You can blame Fr. Steve Grunow, who suggested the book you see above to me a few days ago. I’ve never read anything by Evelyn Waugh, and I’m not ashamed to say that for most of my life I figured Evelyn was a lady, and I wasn’t much interested in what she had to say.

Yeah, yeah, I’ve got me a college degree and all, and after I became a Catholic and snooped around a bit I learned that Evelyn was a man, a Catholic, and he wrote some great novels that were turned into classics for Masterpiece Theater. Still, I was about as excited to read anything written by him as I was interested in say…watching paint dry, or grass grow. Yawn.

But then I found that neat book about the True Cross by Louis de Combes, and Fr. Steve suggested Waugh’s book. I checked the catalog at the library, noted a copy was on the shelf, and I strolled over there and picked it up pronto. I haven’t been able to put it down since. Here’s a taste:

“Chlorus, is it true what they are saying in Ratisbon: that you are going to be Caesar?”

“Who say that?”

“The governor’s wife, the widow of the banker, all the ladies.”

“It may be true. Aurelian and I have spoken of it before. After the battle, he spoke of it again. He has to go to Syria now, to tidy up trouble there. After that he will return to Rome for his triumph. Then we shall see.”

“Do you want it?”

“It’s not what I want, ostler; it’s what Aurelian wants that counts, he and the army and the empire. It is nothing to be shy of, just another, larger command—Gaul, the Rhine, Britain, possibly Spain. The empire’s too big for one man; that’s been proved. And we need a secure succession, a second-in-command who’s been trained to the job, knows the ropes, can step in straight away when the command falls vacant; not leave each army to declare for its own general and fight it out as they’ve done lately. Aurelian is going to talk to the senators about it when we go to Rome.”

See? Clear thinking like that is what I was just talking about a few days back. And does everything go according to plan? As if!

I’m not going to tell you anything more about the book but this: Helena has just embarked on her quest to find the True Cross and you can forget about me posting anything remotely intelligible until I finish this book. Color me gone!

For Thoughts On Fame by Hilaire Belloc



On Fame, from This And That and the Other

Fame is that repute among men which gives us pleasure. It needs much repetition, but also that repetition honorable. Of all things desired Fame least fulfills the desire for it; for if Fame is to be very great a man must be dead before it is more than a shoot; he therefore has not the enjoyment of it (as it would seem).

Again, Fame while a man lives is always tarnished by falsehood; for since few can observe him, and less know him, he must have Fame for work which he does not do and forego Fame for work which he knows deserves it.

Fame has no proper ending to it, when it is first begun, as have things belonging to other appetites, nor is any man satiated with it at any time. Upon the contrary, the hunger after it will lead a man forward madly always to some sort of disaster, whether of disappointment in the soul, or of open dishonor.

Fame is not to be despised or trodden under as a thing not to be sought, for no man is free of the desire of it, nor can any man believe that desire to be an imperfection in him unless he desire at the same time something greater than Fame, and even then there is a flavor of Fame certain to attach to his achievement in the greater thing. No one can say of Fame, “I contemn it;” as a man can say of titles, “I contemn them.” Nor can any man say of the love of Fame, “This is a thing I should cast from me as evil,” as a man may say of lust when it is inordinate, that is, out of place. Nor can any man say of Fame, “It is a little thing,” for if he says that he is less or more than a man.

The love of Fame is the mobile of all great work in which also man is in the image of God, who not only created but took pleasure in what he did and, as we know, is satisfied by praise thereof.

In what way, then, shall men treat Fame? How shall they seek it, or hope to use it if obtained? To these questions it is best answered that a man should have for Fame a natural appetite, not forced nor curiously entertained; it must be present in him if he would do noble things. Yet if he makes the Fame of those things, and not those things themselves his chief business, then not only will he pursue Fame to his hurt, but also Fame will miss him. Though he should not disregard it yet he must not pursue it to himself too much, but he will rightly make of it in difficult times a great consolation.

When Fame comes upon a man well before death then must he most particularly beware of it, for is it then most dangerous. Neither must he, having achieved it, relax effort nor (a much greater peril) think he has done his work because some Fame now attaches thereto.

Some say that after a man has died the spreading of his earthly Fame is still a pleasure to him among greater scenes: but this is doubtful. One thing is certain, Fame is enjoyable in good things accomplished; bitter, noisome and poisonous in all other things—whether it be the Fame of things thought to be accomplished but not accomplished, or Fame got by accident, or Fame for evil things concealed because they are evil.

The judgment of Fame is this: That many men having done great things of a good sort have not Fame. And that many men have Fame who have done but little things and most of them evil. The virtue of Fame is that it nourishes endeavor. The peril of Fame is that it leads men towards itself, and therefore into inanities and sheer loss. But Fame has a fruit, which is a sort of satisfaction coming from our communion with mankind.

The elderly Belloc

They that believe they deserve Fame though they lack it may be consoled in this: that soon they shall be concerned with much more lasting things, and things more immediate and more true: just as a man who misses some entertainment at a show will console himself if he knows that shortly he shall meet his love. They that have Fame may correct its extravagances by the same token: remembering that shortly they will be so occupied that this earthly Fame of theirs will seem a toy.

Old men know this well.

Bonus time! Thoughts on Fame by another British fellow. Sorry, but I can’t help myself. Note both artist’s names start with a “B.”

A Modest Proposal: Treat Priests Like Officers, Not Like Corporate CEO’s

“Soldier, shut up and soldier!”

That’s one of my favorite lines from Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers. You might remember that it was made into a campy, sci-fi cult movie back in the late 1990′s.

I remember it as a novel I read and enjoyed in high school (you know, instead of doing my homework) before I entered the Marines. Later, I would be amazed that it made the Marine Corps’ Professional Reading List.

Click on the link above and you’ll see Heinlein’s novel listed right there under the Captain / Chief Warrant Officer 4 heading along with a host of other great reads:

• First to Fight: An Inside View of the US Marine Corps by
LtGen Victor H. Krulak, USMC (Ret) (CMC 359.96)
• The Arab Mind by Raphael Patai (CMC 305.892)
• The Defense of Hill 781 by James McDonough (CMC 355.4)
• The General – by C.S. Forrester (CMC F)
• The Lions of Iwo Jima by Fred Haynes (CMC 940.54)
• Lost Victories by Erich Von Manstein (CMC 940.54)
• The Mask of Command by John Keegan (CMC 355.3)
• Passion of Command by Bryan McCoy (CMC 355)
• Sources of Power – by Gary Klein (CMC 658.4)
Starship Troopers – by Robert Heinlein (CMC F)
• The Tipping Point – by Malcom Gladwell (CMC 302)
• Victory at High Tide by Robert D. Heinl (CMC 951.9)
• We Were Soldiers Once and Young – by Harold G.Moore & Joseph L. Galloway (CMC 959.704)

Military thoughts, fact and fictional, from every clime and place. Guess what else? You’ll also find it listed under the lowly Lance Corporal rank heading too. The Marine Corps, see, doesn’t subscribe to the “master-slave” model of leadership development. Instead, she goes for what’s known as the “teacher-scholar” school of thought, sharing the wealth of knowledge across the entire rank spectrum. Both the officer and enlisted ranks are encouraged to further their professional knowledge for the good of the Corps.

Oh, that’s right. You thought Marines don’t read. Well evidently a number of priests don’t read either. Or at the very least, they don’t understand some basic leadership / followership traits that are just rudimentary stuff to anyone who has ever served in the military. It’s a funny thing, I know, to hear the Church referred to as the Church Militant, what with visions of military-like prowess and efficiency paraded before your mind’s eye.  And then you see that often the war for the salvation of souls seems to be run instead like a loose confederation lead by tribal chieftains rather than as a tight military operation with a clear focus and even clearer chain of command. By “tight” I mean “taut” as in “run like a taut ship.”

Lately it seems that there have been plenty of loose cannons rolling around the top decks, calling attention to themselves, putting themselves ahead of the mission of the Church, and generally wreaking havoc among the ships company, er, I mean the faithful. Blame this upset of good order and discipline on whatever you want. Everything from the “Smoke of Satan” to problems of “evil, corrupt bishops” and other excuses that run the gamut from A to Z show up in comboxes routinely these days.  But Joe Six-Pack, USMC has another suggestion for an explanation and it’s a very simple one: lack of discipline coupled with short-sightedness on how priests are assigned to roles within the Church.

Let’s discuss the latter of these reasons in detail, because the former one seems to be answered succinctly by the sentence that leads off this post. Keep in mind that I am a newbie Catholic who doesn’t know diddly-squat about how the Church actually runs her Officer Corps, er, I mean her “priestly assignment system.” But I can tell you that they don’t seem to run it in any way that makes sense from a military personnel development / mission accomplishment point of view. By that I mean priests (and I am probably wrong on this front, so those with Holy Orders feel free to correct me in the combox) don’t seem to be assigned like they generally are in the military where folks rotate into and out of line and staff positions routinely throughout the course of their careers. It’s an approach like climbing a staircase, or going up the rungs of a career ladder, where officers move in and out of line and staff positions throughout their career. Nobody stays in one place for too long.

Take the latest example of what is in the news now with Fr. Frank Pavone, the head of an organization called Priests for Life. The news of his recall back to the Amarillo Diocese is all over the wires. His bishop’s leaked letter to all his brother bishops, Fr. Pavone’s own statements, etc., etc., all played out in the court of public opinion for all us arm-chair generals and barristers to see. (Head over to New Advent for all the latest).

Wiser folks than I have been commenting on this latest example of “priests gone wild” and I haven’t up till now because I figured those involved would handle their differences quietly and professionally. Fat chance of that, or so it seems. So instead I got to thinking “what kind of rag-tag outfit is this anyway?” Staff officers on special assignment think they can call their own shots and do whatever they please while the line-officers prosecute the war and are flat out forgotten? And these priests circumvent their chains-of-command and chafe at the orders from their bishops too? That’s weird and dangerous. And it’s no way to run an army. I think the folks over at Global Security.Org have noticed this downward slide.

Within the last 12 months, we have witnessed the fall of Fr. Euteneuer, Fr. Corapi, and now this latest dustup with Fr. Pavone is unfolding right before our eyes. In each of these cases, the priest in charge of the (insert name of your favorite indispensable sloop of war here) was long at the helm of a staff command in an organization with an ancillary, nay, secondary (if not tertiary) mission in support of the specific mission of the Church. As a whole, what is that grand mission? Winning souls to Christ and His Church, and nourishing them sacramentally on their pilgrimage here on earth so that they move from the Church Militant into the arms of the Church Triumphant.

Over at Dr. Gerard Nadel’s blog, where he has lead the charge with sensible commentary on this latest cause célèbre, I commented that I’ve always wondered why our priests aren’t moved around more often among these high profile ministries, like officers in the military are. See, it helps them become well-rounded to be exposed and developed in new ways by these types of assignments. But in the military, they are never left there long enough to become homesteaded and then ensconced in them. The normal tenure is 3-4 years max, then they move on to another assignment or command, richer for the experience (in theory, anyway) and able to bring more to bear to the organization as a result.

A priest receives orders to head over to EWTN for an assignment in the limelight? Hey that’s grand. But slap a time limit on it, and it would be even better. Doesn’t that make sense? In that way, see, the heads of any of these organizations, be it Priests for Life, Human Life International, or a priest occupying a position in the the media spotlight , and heck I don’t know, even the heads of the various religious orders, would have clear career paths so that when it lands them in one of these assignments, it does so as stewards of an “office” and not like religious versions of Chief Executive Officers, with all the attendant cults of personality and troubles that this secular title implies. Lately the CEO/Media Superstar model of priestly leadership is showing it’s weaknesses.

If what I am suggesting seems impossible to change, perhaps that is because you don’t realize that this problem has been faced, and conquered, in various ways in the military since the time when Julius Caesar was conquering Gaul. But you don’t have to go back that far. Just look at the American experience of moving from a loose confederation of militias during the Revolutionary War to the transformation of a military that is a professional organization, with personnel policies that, though not perfect, have moved a long way from having, say, enough money and prestige to buy the rank of Colonel,  to actually earning that title by way of promotion via a selection board that has assessed your fitness to handle that rank and the responsibilities of command at that level. A difference, you must admit, that is like night is to day.

One of my favorite professors at UCLA wrote the definitive history about the modernization of the U.S. Navy’s officer personnel system from it’s roots in prize-money taking captaincies to a professional system of advancement. The book is expensive ($135!), and the subject (officer promotion and assignment policies…yawn!) esoteric, but given the seemingly non-stop episodes of priests being set up in positions that then lead to trouble, perhaps folks at the Vatican might want to pick up a few copies of this book. Think of it as “outside-the-box” reading of books written by laymen whose provenance is the study, and solving of, organizational problems of this nature.

The book’s title goes a long way to understanding the problems of homesteading and cronyism that faced the Navy before the system was fixed. It’s called Waiting for Dead Men’s Shoes: Origins and Development of the U.S. Navy’s Officer Personnel System, 1793-1941. Don’t take Joe Six-Pack’s word for it though, let the experts sing it’s praises:

“An excellent source of lessons to be learned.”—Naval History

“This lengthy, important, and almost unique book addresses U.S. Navy officer policy for the first two-thirds of the service’s history.”—The Journal of Military History

“Donald Chisholm has provided us with an important book. It is the first comprehensive history of the development of the U.S. Navy’s officer personnel system.”—Naval War College Review

“Extensively researched in primary sources and thoroughly documented, [Chisholm’s] book is a major contribution to organizational theory.”—Naval War College Review

“Chisholm has achieved what he set out to do in fine style. He has provided a comprehensive history of naval officer personnel management and at the same time has shed light on the creation, structure, and problem solving that resulted in the organization we see today. From now on it will be impossible to write usefully about the history of personnel management without reference to this book. It promises to be a standard authority.”—Naval War College Review

Waiting for Dead Men’s Shoes contains a wealth of descriptive detail on the general environment in which the personnel system developed and on the large cast of naval and political players involved. It is clearly organized, reads well, contains extensive citations, and includes an exhaustive bibliography. . . . it will stand as a definitive reference on the subject and will be used by many naval, administrative, and political historians for the rich material that it contains.”—The Journal of American History

And that’s about all I have to say about this issue. Until the way these, I don’t know if this is the right phrase to use, “plum assignments” are managed, the Church will most likely continue to be faced with embarrassing, mud flinging, headline grabbing turf battles between the well known heads of these ancillary organizations, and their bishops. Unchanged, this problem will continue to feed individual cults of personality with these individuals placed on pedestals by their admirers, facing all manner of temptations as a result.

It’s time to professionalize this approach. But that’s just this simple layman’s $.02.

UPDATE: How did the young Fr. Fulton Sheen handle this same situation? Take a look. (H/T Michelle Arnold of Catholic Answers).


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