Compliments, not Competition

Priests too often look at each other as foes, not teammates


“How much was your Christmas collection?” one priest asks the second priest. The poorer parish always is trumped by the richer parish. Then the one-upmanship begins: “How many baptisms does your parish celebrate?” “I had 10 people come into the Church at the Easter Vigil. How many new Catholics did you have?” The competition and jealousy among priests certainly raises its ugly head now and then.

We do get it honestly, as even our God, in whose image we are made, is jealous, as we are reminded in the Third Commandment: “For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God” (Ex 20:5).

Soon after God created humanity, the serpent appealed to the jealous streak and competitive side that stirs within us, tempting humanity to be like God. Our first parents passed it on to their offspring, as jealousy takes over Cain, who kills Abel. The generations are filled with it. Sarai was jealous of her maid, Hagar. The 11 brothers of Joseph were jealous of the youngest brother and sold him into slavery. This short list is just from the first book of the Scriptures. It could almost read like a genealogy from one generation to the next — down to the present generation.

Priests do place themselves in a mode that sees them competing against other priests. Add to that the feeling of jealousy when clerical favors are bestowed upon a select few. Priests will find fault in the best of priests. These are not our finer moments. Any organization that has a fraternal character — police and fire departments, law firms, etc. — seems to be a fertile field for such behavior: “Why did he get the promotion to captain?” “How did she ever get to be partner so quickly?” With that type of comment comes the sordid speculation: How did he get to be monsignor? Whom does he know?

Priests might participate in the behavior, but typically they will not admit they are jealous or competitive. While it might not be rampant in our lives, it certainly finds its way in now and then. Remember, we come from a long heritage. Even James and John fell into the trap, wanting a favor from Jesus, with the two competing against the other 10.

Whenever two or three are gathered, there is a competitive tendency. Have you ever watched a conference table full of clerics (or any group, really). Half the table is jockeying for position, with too much interrupting and screaming body language going on. It is as if there is some contest as to who can say the most or gather up most of the attention. Competition occurs whenever the goal in mind cannot be shared. Parish life is not about award-winning performances whereby only one person can walk onto the stage to receive the Oscar for Best Whatever.

The differences among priests always will be there. One parish always will have more money at Christmas than the next. Some parishes do great at recruiting for RCIA, while the next parish is grateful that at least one person was baptized at the Easter Vigil. If we always measure ourselves against the other person, everyone loses. The key to shake off the competitive and jealous streaks within us is not to look at the contrast as either/or but, instead, as both/and. Don’t look at their 12 newly baptized people and your three and see a difference of nine; rather look at their parish’s 12 and your parish’s three and see 15 newly baptized, each admiring what the other has accomplished. See parish life as a shared goal where all are winners — each parish doing what it can; everybody wearing the gold medal when all are doing what they can.

Turn the jealousy you might have for a priest into admiration of what and who he is. Admire in such a way that you want what he has, then add that quality to your toolbox. Instead of feeling jealous, feel admiration, then plagiarize (but give him due credit to his face). Let him know you admire him or what he has created. Be thankful that there are priests like him in the Church who can do what he does and be what he is. We are not all the same, nor should we be. One priest I know who comes to mind is Father Andrew. He has a Pied Piper quality about himself that can rally the troops around a project. He does so not in a cultish way or with a look-at-me attitude, but just in a humble yet energizing way. He pulls out the best in a congregation, and they find enthusiasm being Church once again. The enthusiasm he exudes creates a new passion in the congregation. He can ask people to show up for events, and there is standing-room only. I wish I could say the same. Though I don’t have that kind of charism, I wish I did.
I respect priests who think outside of the box and stretch the paradigm of what it means to be Church and to bring that new prototype to life. It is not easy to be a priest in a presbyterate that does not want the new paradigm even to exist. Too many priests feel threatened when another is successful in the new paradigm. The Church is big enough to embrace and include many models of being Church. Bernini’s colonnade outstretching from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome symbolizes the wideness in that universal embrace. There is a place for God’s people who are at peace and comfortable in the box, and a place for those who are seeking something different outside of the box.

It is disappointing to hear priests speak ill of a fellow priest who successfully has managed to build up a vibrant and exciting parish while doing things a different way (and doing it within the rules of the Church, of course). Again, instead of competing by being critical, just be thankful that some Catholics found a place where they feel comfortable and are worshipping — maybe even returning to the Faith for the first time in years. Or better yet, steal a line from the parish mission statement and incorporate what might expand some of the ministry in your own parish. There is enough work and ministry for everyone; ministering will never be exhausted, as there are an infinite number of people to whom to minister.

As an aggregate or cohort of priests, there is a lot to admire in all the generations of priests, even the ones before and after me. Each generation of priests has something to offer to the Church. Those who were born in the 1940s and early ’50s and were formed in the ’60s have witnessed often — and continue to witness — to the social arm of the Church. Born during or soon after World War II, they saw and experienced a social revolution against war and discrimination. The social character of the Church is greatly expressed in what these priests continue to witness. They created a great legacy with much to be admired. There is much to be admired in the generation just after my own. Their alertness to the spiritual character of the Church is laudable. The attentiveness to devotional prayer, be it a daily Holy Hour or quiet time, is commendable. Their formation instilled in them those moments in Scripture where Jesus escaped and went off alone to be in prayer. Christ, who certainly disrupted the status quo and thought outside of the box, took the time to be alone to reconnect, to re-energize with God. Each generation compliments, not competes, with the charism they offer.

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Airports have signs that say, “If you see something, say something.” Let that be a mantra for each of us the next time we see a brother priest say or do something that is admirable. Tell him.

FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management.