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The greatest sin among the clergy

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Years ago, I had a conversation with a bishop that I worked with on a pastoral project. In a candid moment, as he was talking about the hardworking priests of his diocese, he told me that he had to watch out how and when he honored them. He wasn’t as worried about the individual priest’s pride as much as he was worried about the envy of his other priests.

The story illustrates, however regrettable the observation might be, that the greatest sin among the clergy is envy, especially among themselves.

In our moral tradition, we make a distinction between envy and jealousy. The two are not synonymous, although they can interact and feed off each other.

Jealousy is a wayward desire to exclusively possess someone or something. Jealousy is closed in on itself and refuses to share possessions or engage in broader relationships with people beyond a singularly favored person or group.

Envy is grounded in a Luciferic resentment toward someone because of what they have, or have received. Envy seeks the downfall or destruction of the other person.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains envy as “the sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly” (No. 2539).

Since it is so severe, the Catechism follows our spiritual tradition and classifies envy as one of the seven capital, or deadly, sins: “Called ‘capital’ because they engender other sins, other vices. They are pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia” (No. 1866).

Envy causes a certain sadness or bewilderment in the soul because of the accomplishments or recognition of another. The soul grieves a false loss and seeks to remedy the pain by sinful speech or actions. An envious heart struggles to pray or see God’s providence. It’s self-focused and cannot grow in the interior life of God.

Envy kills genuine fraternal love and kindness. It squashes deference, honor and respect. Envy makes the apostolic call of St. Paul immensely difficult: “Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:9-10).

For this reason, envy becomes the cesspool of countless sins, including anger, hatred, division, gossip, detraction, calumny, self-pity, joy over the misfortune of others, entitlement, melancholy and even blasphemy.

Envy is a spiritual self-inflicted wound. It is born of pride. The Catechism observes: “Envy often comes from pride; the baptized person should train himself to live in humility” (No. 2540). And so, humility is the path out of the darkness of envy and into the freedom of virtue and holiness.

Humility can be nurtured by thinking and speaking well of others, especially when our fallen hearts want to say something else, something destructive or offensive. Thinking and speaking well of others allows us to rejoice when a brother is recognized or achieves some accomplishment since he is our brother. The success of one is the success of us all. We are one People of God, one family under God the Father.

When my brother accomplishes something, I accomplish it with him, unless I have separated myself from him by envious thoughts and actions.

St. Paul tells us, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).

Such a practice can be a true dose of humility. We should never think poorly of ourselves in such a way that our dignity is diminished, but we can think of others as greater than ourselves. We can rejoice in the successes of others and accept the call to humility as a path to peace and joy.

It is a humble heart that is a grateful heart. A humble heart is a fraternal heart. It is an ecclesial heart. A humble heart is a priestly heart.

St. Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 1:4).

Yes, we are called to embrace the call of humility, rejoice over others and give thanks for the accomplishments, successes, achievements and recognitions of our brothers. In this way, we share in the success of our brothers and actively contribute to the building up of the entire body.

FATHER JEFFREY KIRBY, STD, is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Indian Land, South Carolina, and the host of the daily devotional “Morning Offering with Father Kirby.”

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