Encouragement vs. Cynicism: An Easter Reflection

“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.

Rev. Romanus Cessario, OP About Rev. Romanus Cessario, OP

Rev. Romanus Cessario, OP was ordained a priest in May 1971 in New York. He is presently a professor of systematic theology at St. John's Seminary School of Theology in Brighton, Massachusetts, an associate editor of The Thomist, Redacteur, Pierre d'angle (since 1994), general editor of the Catholic Moral Thought Series for The Catholic University of America Press (since 1995), senior editor of MAGNIFICAT (since1998), visiting professor for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C., and also for the Australian campus, and East Melbourne, Victoria campus. He holds a BA (1967) and MA (1968) both in philosophy from St. Stephen's College, Dover Massachusetts, an STB (1970) and STL (1972) from the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C., STD (1980), Universite de Fribourg (Switzerland), and a LHD (2010) from The Institute for the Psychological Sciences, Alexandria, Virginia. He has been an instructor for the Department of Religious Studies, Providence College, Providence, Rhode Island (1972-1976), an administrative assistant to the president, Providence College, visiting professor at the Universite de Fribourg, Switzerland (1989-1990), a professor of systematic theology for the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception (Dominican House of Studies), Washington, D.C. (1980-1995) and contributing editor (1995-1998), senior writer (1998-2000), National Catholic Register, chairman of the theological faculty, pastoral provision (1997-2006), and editor for Moral Philosophy and Moral Theology Series, Fordham University Press (1993-2010).


  1. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Maybe it is too easy for us to blame our religious for what is described as ‘cynicism’ in their ranks. Yes, some undoubtably derives from a cooling of vocation and committment, a giving in to the temptations of this world, but doesn’t much of it reflect our own cynicism about, and falling away from, our own faith and the moral imperatives that should be driving the ‘faithful’? How easy for us to allow our faith committment to be submerged in our sexualized, violent and cynical society that we have allowed to be created right under our noses and, yes, participated in either actively or by passive acceptance. Look at the zeal with which we have all encouraged our sons, nephews, daughters, nieces to consider the priesthood or sisterhood. Kind of hard to find, isn’t it! How much commentary have we ourselves allowed to continue that denigrates the ordained and professed ministries. How often have we spoken out publically against church teachings on male and married priests, contraception, IVF, ‘some abortions’ while describing ourselves (smugly) as conservative or liberal catholics when we know that there are no such distinctions possible — either you are Catholic and support all the church’s teachings or you are a Protestant who protests church teachings. If WE are lukewarm Christ has told us …”He will vomit us out ofhis mouth”…; when we knock on His door He will say ….” I do not know you!”…. The ‘New Evangilazation’ is aimed smack dab at US!!! Not some others that are outside the fold. Why not tell a priest that he just gave a wonderfull and thoughtful homily? Why not tell him that you truely appreciate the committment he has made to the priesthood and to bringing the Sacraments to us — even at times that are terribly inconvenient for him? Why not tell him you are proud to have him in your parish, invite him to your home/to dinner to show appreciation, introduce him to your family as you would anyone you admire and respect. We must support our priests and encourage them– without them there are no Sacraments, no consecration, no Eucharist, no Body and Blood of Christ to enrich our bodies and souls, no forgiveness of sins, no last sacraments to usher us into the presence of God. Without them there is no Catholic Church. They are Christ among us– do we really want to treat Him that way?

  2. Ditto, Ted.
    Whenever I hear someone launch about ‘the bishops’ & complain about their lack of leadership etc, I have to speak up & say that there’s plenty of blame to go around, as my dad used to say. My role models are Margaret Clitherow & Anne Line & the long generations of women who preceed me who could’ve easily hidden behind the “well, if the hierarchy had just done their jobs…” Instead, these women stayed in the Church, followed her teachings & did what they could to keep the Faith alive in their little corner of the world. There won’t be any clergy for me to hide behind when I stand before the Lord.

  3. I too pray for the priestbut the reality is there are priests who display complacency and seldom teach the catechism of the church in their homily, or speak out about the proper role of a Catholic. I thank GOD for EWTN and Mother Angelica and Fr Pavone, Priests for Life, for their teachings on the Catholic faith. When over 55% of catholics support pro- abortion, and same-sex marriage advocates in politics, then the church has a big problem and needs change in its way of promoting good catholics. But above all, it needs all catholics to pray for the clergy, and its leaders, the Bishops, and the Holy Father, the POPE.


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