“The community of believers was of one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32)
Icon of St. Barnabas and ancient mosaic of the “Procession of Early Christian Martyrs”
It has become commonplace today to spread about the faults of priests. One develops a thick skin, and moves on. Still, it is difficult to remove oneself completely from a polluted environment. So the voices of public opinion supply a constant background buzz, like the interference that once upon a time affected adversely the quality of radio reception before the days of the Internet and highspeed connections. Perhaps, some version of this bothersome static has accompanied the disciples from the beginning. No wonder God inspired Joseph to donate land to the first Catholic community. They in turn named him Barnabas, “son of encouragement” (Ac 4:36). We all need a Barnabas.
There is a sin to which priests easily fall victim that does not draw the attention of the news media. Call it the anti-Barnabas vice: the sinful disposition that makes encouragement impossible because this vice raises suspicions about all that is good. Still, one infrequently hears people complain that priests display a cynical attitude. Indeed, cynicism can easily pass for a virtue. The priest is progressive. He is liberated. He is nobody’s fool. Some may even find the cynical priest amusing.
Truth to tell, cynicism erodes the good of a priestly vocation as quickly as do the two runners-up in the field, drink and sex. Cynicism, in fact, proves more dangerous than these. There are therapeutic programs for those who drink too much, or who betray their promise of chaste celibacy. There is no program that promises a cure for cynics. For example, there is no clinic that treats priests who are persuaded that everything the bishop does stinks. No treatment for priests who snicker under their breath when the highest ideals of Christian living are explained, especially when those ideals run counter to the cultural imperatives: cynics treat human life expediently; they abet sexual relativism in practice and identity; they speak the truth when convenient. Even so, there are no psychological remedies on the market for priests who are cynical about the very things that priests are ordained to teach and to govern: protect human life; keep sex within marriage; don’t betray your intellect by lying. So, Jesus confronts Nicodemus: “If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (Jn 3:12). How then can the cynic believe in the Real Presence, the Virgin Birth, and the communion of saints?
These words that Christ addresses to Nicodemus reveal what is corrosive about clerical cynicism. The clerical sins that we hear about everyday render a man unworthy of his priestly dignity. Cynicism runs deeper. The cynical cleric loses all sense of “heavenly things,” including his own identity, the mystery of his priesthood. Cynicism leaves the priest hollow. Without at times realizing it, the cynical priest alienates himself from himself. Chuckles he may produce. Love and encouragement, he cannot. No Barnabas he.
Does this mean that salvation escapes the cynical priest? Of course not. The priest who finds it difficult to see the good around him; the priest who catches himself thinking only negative thoughts; the priest who prefers chuckles to encouragement; they need only to consider the example of the first Christians. These early Christians, we are told, were of “one heart and mind” (Ac 4:32). What caused this communion of spirits? The resurrection of the Lord Jesus. About this event, only unbelievers remain cynical.