A few days ago I ran into a University of Portland administrator whose two sons currently are students here. He and I have a good relationship and speak openly and comfortably with each other. So after we exchanged a quick greeting, he casually said (now I’m slightly paraphrasing, since this is a Catholic vocation blog!), “Father, I hear you’re a real hard guy in the classroom. Now, when you’re in the dorms or just around campus, everybody says there isn’t a nicer, friendlier priest at UP. But you’ve got the reputation for being tough in class!”
I chuckled when he shared this assessment, because I know that, like all reputations, mine is a mixture of reality and hyperbole. I have a pretty strong suspicion that I am tougher, but not by much, than the typical UP professor; and I have certain knowledge that I am friendly, but not much friendlier, than the typical Holy Cross priest or brother.
But regardless of the reputation’s validity, I began to reflect that maybe this combination of toughness in public settings and gentleness in more personal ones isn’t actually such a bad reputation for a minister in the Church. In the classroom, my first responsibility is, in a sense, to the mathematics itself: to its subject matter, its truth claims, its standards of thought and proof, its values of logic and creativity. A tradition has been handed on to me, and I’m trying to pass it on to my students. That kind of work, I think, requires discipline, focus, and a kind of uncompromising integrity that may come off as toughness.
And the same must be true for the public work of the Church’s ministers. In our preaching, in our writing, our first responsibility is to God and to the Church itself: to its vision, its doctrines, its moral principles, its values regarding God and the human person. The Tradition has been handed on to us, and we are called to pass that on to God’s people. And while we priests and religious must always be pastoral and charitable in these public ministries, still, at times, our mission demands us to take hard stands, to make some people uncomfortable, to risk being unpopular – in short, to be tough.
But outside the classroom, when I’m dealing one-on-one with a student from one of my courses or a resident in my hall, my demeanor necessarily changes, because my first responsibility shifts to the person in front of me. I certainly don’t scrap my academic ideals or integrity or my responsibility to mathematics. But I become less worried about passing on an abstract tradition and more concerned about helping this young human being navigate through life and life’s challenges, only one of which is my mathematics course.
And even more so, as priests and religious, our responsibilities shift when we minister directly to living, breathing members of God’s people. For if we really believe that we stand in persona Christi, then we, like Christ, must function as their “advocate before the Father” (1 John 2:1). In the confessional, I am less worried about defending our Tradition, and more concerned about using our Tradition to defend the precious soul in front of me against an onslaught of sin or doubt, brokenness or despair. I cannot imagine a moment when I feel less called by God to be tough on His behalf.
I have heard the claim that Catholic priests are among the least likely people to be chosen for a courtroom jury (just one more perk of the vocation), and the explanation offered fascinates me. Defense attorneys supposedly fear that we will be too tough, with our clear sense of justice, morality, and right and wrong. And prosecuting attorneys supposedly fear that we will be too soft, with our belief in forgiveness and our trust in the possibility of redemption, even for the worst of sinners. Not a bad reputation to have, if you ask me.
Fr. Charlie McCoy, C.S.C., is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Portland. He is a monthly contributor to the Spes Unica blog, reflecting on the work of Holy Cross in education. Learn more about the work of Holy Cross priests and brothers in the field of education to bring hope to the Church and world.