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Growing in holiness is the only competition worth winning

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AckermanCatholic grade schools are famous for a seemingly endless array of fundraisers.

Growing up, our parochial school offered Easter candy sales every spring to help pay for capital improvements. We would have an assembly where a local candy company would come and make a pitch for us to be chocolate hucksters. To sweeten the pot (pun intended), we were offered incentives and prizes that could be won based on our business prowess. In the third grade, the top prize was a 24-inch color television with a moveable cart.

My best friend and I were enthralled and made it our life’s work to get that television. Our plotting, planning and scheming would have made Willie Wonka proud. We had visions of playing video games on it after school or watching cartoons while not having to share the remote. However, we realized quickly that there was only one television and two of us.

What began as a joint venture soon turned into a business rivalry akin to Pepsi and Coke, Hertz and Avis, or Apple and Microsoft. We were determined to outsell one another and sought out anyone with a pulse to buy candy — relatives, strangers, Mass-goers on Sunday, even our venerable pastor, Msgr. Kraus.

However, it was to no avail. We were beaten by a second grader who had an unfair advantage — she would twirl a baton while selling and was adorable. I still think we deserved that television, even though we would have had to sell eight times the TV’s value to win it! However, our fault was that we no longer cared about helping the school or each other, only the television mattered.

I offer this tale because it is very easy to lose sight of what is important in ministry and make it a competition among parishes and clergy. We may even fight our own expectations and ambitions.

I knew of two neighboring parishes where the clergy would “spy” on the other to see how they decorated and arranged liturgical items. If one had wreaths on the church for Christmas, the other would put wreaths in the exact same locations only larger and with more bows. If one bought a statue of the Blessed Virgin, the other would find a bigger one and make sure it was more prominently displayed.

I wish I could say that the motivation was entirely spiritual and devotional, but the devil was in the details as the egos of both priests were clearly at the forefront. The competition, I am told, came to head when both tried to have penance services at the same time and competed for confessors. The vicar for clergy had to step in and calm the waters.

Now, there is indeed something funny about seeing priests compete like children for accolades, but it is also sad. St. Paul offers some words on this situation in his letter to the Philippians. He writes, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others” (Phil 2:3-4). If we can be humble and allow our own ego to die, then perhaps we can truly fulfill the promises made at ordination to be servant priests willing to sacrifice ourselves for Christ.

In the seminary, I had a very wise formator who used to harp on me about grades, although not for the reason you would think. “Try and do your best academically,” he would quip. “But challenge yourself and your brothers to grow in holiness for that is the only competition that is worth winning.”

Even then, competition can become a dangerous word if we allow our wants and desires to drive the bus. Perhaps at moments we desire holiness but still are not ready to embrace what that entails to our pride. I am reminded of young St. Augustine’s famous line, which had been directed at the Lord, from his “Confessions”: “Give me chastity and continency, only not yet.”

However, if we keep our eyes affixed on Christ then we will not worry if another pastor is a better homilist, or if another parish offers a great program, since all is for Christ. We may actually even rejoice over a juvenile baton twirler with a 24-inch television set. 

FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the parochial vicar at Resurrection Parish, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School in Pittsburgh.

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