Subprime Speaks to the Priesthood

It should take no great leap of imagination to anticipate the symbolic importance young men assigned to these cold facts. The hard seller was the stud who could talk a girl home before she'd finished her Long Island iced tea. His softer counterpart was the poor sap who treated her to dinner and a movie, only to be written off as too nice by half.

If, during a team-builder evening, one of us managed to hold the attention of a young woman for longer than thirty seconds, someone would inevitably shout, "CLOSE THE DEAL, MAN!" Once a manager told us in confidence of an apparently successful colleague, "Shane couldn't close a door." It wasn't the stuff of Barlett's Quotations, by any means, but the naked contempt in his voice made us howl like chimps. It fairly blared the implication: homeboy needs game, possibly Viagra.

Am I making this stuff up? I wish. Sometimes truth is cheesier than fiction.

Linking self-efficacy with both sex and money, this symbolism took on a life of its own. Over time, it hardened into a locker-room version of the Calvinist work ethic. The sense that success signified election to studhood corroded all our noblest impulses. The satisfaction of a job well done turned into the thrill of victory. Team spirit mutated into boozy tribalism. Ambition became avarice. Living from one commission check to the next, we blew our money leasing luxury sedans and drinking at overpriced bars simply to advertise our certainty that the checks would keep coming. Confessing to cracks in our pipeline would have been like conceding that, okay, our girlfriend might be sleeping with her massage therapist after all.

Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that the young priests are in the business of fleecing homeowners, or anyone else. But subprime does, I think, have a lesson for the priesthood. It's this: once you polarize hard and soft, once you internalize those polarities as good and bad, then your whole value structure will become distorted, and your self will follow. Once you start conceiving missions that can only be accomplished with a stiff arm and a strut—that's when you run the risk of becoming someone you don't recognize, and couldn't possibly like.

To further illustrate the point, it might be helpful to cite the case of another priest I know. He served in my parish for a number of years, but I'm blanking on the quality of his handshake, since he was more of a hugger. (Lest anyone panic, let me point out he had a baritone voice to match Sinatra's.) Once he found himself kidnapped, along with a number of brother priests, while attending a conference in Brazil. Brazilian kidnappers are as skilled and ruthless at their trade as New York lawyers are at theirs. At a certain point, my priest friend began to fear that his captors would execute all hands.

As we listened, slack-jawed—not a rolled eye in the house—he explained in his homily how he'd seriously considered tackling the gunman standing guard, so that his confreres might escape with their skins. He did not suggest that this sort of dash came naturally to him. In fact, he conceded the improbability of it.

The act he was contemplating was as dreadful to him as it was altruistic.

Fortunately—and rather surprisingly—everything turned out fine. The kidnappers allowed themselves to be bought off with whatever money the priests were carrying. But the story felt so powerfully real that I stayed after Mass to tell Father, "You'd have looked great on a stained-glass window, but I much prefer you here with us."

The big lug blushed like a damsel.

This guy probably couldn't close a door, either. But he sure could open them.

3/14/2011 4:00:00 AM