"I have often regretted the words I have spoken, but I have never regretted my silence.” Venerable Arsenius the Great on the subject of discretion.
So often, as a parish priest, I was the author of my own difficulties because I was not master of my own speech, lacking the wise discretion that only comes with age and experience. The letter of James emphatically warns of the power of the tongue (3:1-10):
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”
Perhaps we will never fully master our speech in this life but with God’s help, moderation may prevail. Oscar Wilde once remarked concerning a friend: “He knew the precise psychological moment when to say … nothing.” Silence can speak volumes.
In our time social media must be regarded with the same vigilance as verbal speech – Facebook posts, texts, Instagram, Twitter, emails and blogs all of the power to do great damage, instantly passed around to the entire community.
Regarding discourse with parishioners, here are five suggested subjects where discretion may be beneficially employed. Most are obvious occasions to priests of experience.
Unfortunately, today’s political atmosphere is quite toxic, with people’s opinions often expressed in anger, judgment and distortion. The priest must rise above this tumultuous ocean. Remember the wise teaching of the Psalms: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the sons of men in whom there is no salvation” (Psalm 146:3). The politically opinionated priest becomes an obstacle to God for parishioners who may strongly disagree with him. Rise above the fray. Parishioners and the country needs the priest to do this. Of course, the priest has a prophetic role to play in preaching, teaching and modeling behavior. However, the present environment requires careful discretion. Perhaps turning off MSNBC or Fox News would bring more peace. Industries and demagogues benefit from stirring up rage.
2. Other Parishioners
This is obvious. One of two things and perhaps both follow this unfortunate indiscretion: 1) It is repeated to the parishioner or 2) the parishioner spoken to leaves the conversation believing that if the priest will speak ill of THAT parishioner to me, then he may very well speak ill of me to others. Both damage the priest’s community standing.
3. Off-color Jokes
Integrity and moral standing is pretty much all that’s left of sacerdotal power or influence these days. Stooping to crass, racist, misogynistic or sexual humor further erodes the ability of the priest to shape his parish community. Secondarily, when the priest publicly enters this dark world, immediately parishioners feel that they have license to tell their own off-color jokes which may be far, far more objectionable.
4. Salary and Benefits
There is a proper place to discuss this – with the parish council chairperson, the compensation committee or even the entire parish council. Complaining to general parishioners is definitely counter productive. The priest might actually be making more than the parishioner, appear ungrateful, grasping, mercenary, etc.
5. Youthful Indiscretions
Quoting Oscar Wilde yet again may prove useful: “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” There is a reason why survey after survey shows that for the majority of respondents, the most favorite story from the bible is the Prodigal Son. Why? Because this is everyone’s story. Yet parishioners want to believe that from the earliest age, a priest was called by God to service. Though the priest knows that repentance is essential to salvation – it’s our response to God’s unconditional and limitless love for us – still, describing vivid and lurid youthful experiences once again diminishes the moral standing of the priest.