Tuesday, July 05, 2011

On Idols and the Cult of Personality

We often warn our children about the dangers of taking sports stars, musicians, and actors as role models because of the chances that they will prove to be bad role models, but do we ever think about the people who we take as role models. Role models are an essential part of the human existance. We all need someone to look up to, to emulate, to show us what greatness and success looks like and the Christian life is no different. That is why we have the saints. We are called to look at their lives as an inspiration, to learn from them, and to discover the areas of their lives that we can emulate. Then there are the living examples of the faith who we look up. They can come from any walk of life, but they are most often priests or religious. These are the people who teach us, they often are those who have brought us to the faith. They inspire us. We can always count on them for advice and we trust their teaching. All that is good, but there is a line between having a role model who we look at realistically and turning that person into an idol and building a cult of personality around him.

The cult of personality is something that the Church has had to deal with since the beginning:
St. Paul wrote: For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by Chloe's people, that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I give thanks (to God) that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say you were baptized in my name. (1 Cor 1:11-15)
There have even been people like Simon Magus who tried to build a cult of personality around themselves (Acts 8:9-24).

I was blessed by my childhood experiences. Blessed because I was raised with priests and prelates in my family and because I had close relationships with many other priests and bishops throughout my life. These relationships allowed me see to the pedestals that these men were often placed on and also allowed me to see their own personal struggles. When I look back on my experiences I stand is awe of the openess with which they let me into their lives. As a result, my idealism was destroyed when I was very young. Once when I was 16, someone asked me if I was nervous working with so many bishops and cardinals and I responded by saying, "Why? They are no different from anyone other priest. They just have much more responsibility".

Over the years, at least half of the priests who I have worked with have left the priesthood for various reasons. Even the priest who first reached out of me when I was a young teenager left the priesthood after a decade of misery in a vocation that was never his to begin with. Thankfully, he is now happily married in the Church and is a wonderful father to his children. One priest left because he became burned out, two chose to respond to homosexual lust, one completely lost his faith, one grew disallusioned with the Church, and one left after a tumultious affair with a member of the parish staff. Each of these left varying degrees of damage in their wake. The latter was the worst because he was a very talented priest who had a large "following" who he was able to convince of his innocence. Because of this, he was able to lead the congregation to do heinous things which nearly resulted in schism.

Of course, these were the dramatic things. There were also much lesser things. One priest with whom I worked was physically, emotionally and verbally abused by one of his immediate family members. Another suffered from severe clinical depression. Still another had left the priesthood before and after he returned he struggled to hold onto his priesthood and guarded it with everything he could muster.

The blessing of this experience was that I saw how truly human and flawed people in positions of power are and I learned to not be swept away by popular acclaim. I learned that pedestals are uncomfortable places for the individual and that the persons on them will fall sooner or later with tragic results to all involved. Still, I was shocked by many of the events even though when I look back the signs were everywhere.

This has left me rather cynical. I have seen the faults of those who are looked upon with honor and respect. I have met stars and presidents and I am not impressed by the rich and famous. In fact, the only person who has really ever left me speechless was the Pope himself. On the bright side, it makes conversations with these people rather easy.

So, why am I telling you all this? Really, it's because I know how easy it is to look at someone else, particularly someone with power and prestige, and think that they have it "all sewn up". It becomes worse when we are dealing with people of faith because the fall of our faith role models can damage our own faith if we have given an inordinate amount of respect to that individual. Remember, we belong to Christ! Not Father so and so, or bishop so and so, or Mr so and so. We are all sinners and we all fall short. However, we are each striving for the common goal: the heavenly beatitude but we cannot do it by ourselves.

This doesn't mean that we can't have people who we look up to and admire, so long as we don't make idols out of them. The vast majority of the priests and bishops I have met are very good and faithful men who have edified my faith and I admire them greatly. Still, we must remember that no matter who we are, we are all in the same boat. We are in the Barque of Peter and Jesus is at the helm. He must be our captain and we must keep our eyes on Him and trust in Him as our boat is tossed around in the storm. He is the Way and the Truth and the Life (John 14:6) but there are others who despite their own journey can lead us to Him just as we can lead others to Him. (One humbling experience in my own life was learning that my faith had touched a bishop.)We should take the saints as our role models and accept the living teachers who are provided to us, but we must always be careful to remember that these teachers are sinners like us who are striving for the crown of sainthood just as we are. Pray for them fervently because the principal difference because them and us is that Satan is gunning for these men in order to destroy them and our faith in the process.

Yes, when and if we come to discover the faults and sins of of those whom we admire it can be a crushing blow, but remember your own sins and the mercy and forgiveness you seek for yourself and be merciful and forgiving of others. Always remember that if you are considered a pious Catholic, there are likely plenty of people who are putting you on a pedestal too and taking your actions as representative of the entire Church. It's a heavy and unfair burden, but one that you too likely carry. I know that I do and I also know that I have been far from the ideal candidate for the task.

No comments: