Thursday, 14 April 2011

Auntie Seraphic & the Woosterish Cleric

The email was complex, so I will boil it down:

Dear Auntie Seraphic,

You should advise clerics on how to advise young women.

A Woosterish Cleric

Dear Woosterish Cleric,

I enjoyed your reference to P.G.Woodhouse's Bertie Wooster who, although a lifelong bachelor, was roped into speaking at a girls' school. I am also flattered to have been asked by a cleric to address clerics. I have never before seen myself in the light of a St. Catherine of Siena. Au contraire. Unbidden to my mind comes the memory of a carful of seminarians careening around the streets of a German city in the aftermath of Deutschland vs Sweden yelling "Wir fahren nach Berlin! Toll! Super! Prima!" And who was that red-haired woman wedged in the back seat chummily between beer-drinking seminarians both Polish and German? (Oh, look--badgers!)

Anyway, not all seminarians are so lucky to have been trained up in close proximity to foreign students and beer, so it is understandable that many good young priests are shy of young women. They hear many frightful stories, many of which are true, although rarely true of teenage girls, especially the cradle Catholics, who wouldn't flirt with a priest any more than they would flirt with a seven-year-old. The idea would simply disgust and horrify them. Really, the gals to watch out for are your own age, especially if unhappily married or chronically unhappy, period. That said, the 90 year old priest who told you women would chase a broom with a Roman collar on it was wrong, and my friends and I would like a word with him.

What a very North American beginning. In general, men in North America are not afraid of women, and when they are, they hide it by making aggressive and sarcastic remarks. In Britain men hide their fear of women by running away from them and taking refuge in philology and beer.

Priests don't have the option of running away, however. Take a deep breath and consider that although you had no idea what to say to girls when you were 14, you are no longer 14 but over 25. And although 14 year old girls were indeed smarter than you when you were 14, they are not smarter than you, aged 25+. Also, you are no longer just you, you are Father Somebody, with a strong accent on the Father. They don't see you (or just you), they see the collar; take some comfort from that. They also think you are OLD, old like teachers and the Pope; take some comfort from that, too.

As we were all told in "Introduction to Ministry", your job as a counsellor is not to advise but to LISTEN. And if you don't understand what you are hearing, you repeat back to the speaker what you think she has said, or ask her to clarify what she has said.

After she has said her piece, you start asking the questions that you think she should ask herself. Very often young women know in their heart of hearts the painful answer to their questions, but they want to ignore it.

Girl: And so when Maureen broke up with him, he came to my house, and we fooled around and stuff, and then the next day he was back with Maureen, and I keep calling him and he doesn't call back.

You: Maureen broke up with him, he came to your house, you fooled around and stuff, and the next day he was back with Maureen.

Girl (crying): Yeah. And I'm so mad because I keep calling and calling and he doesn't answer his phone.

You: How do you know he was back with Maureen?

Girl: Maureen told me herself.

You: Does she know he fooled around with you?

Girl: I don't know. I hope not. Maybe. Oh, maybe she does.

You: Do you think he might have told her?

Girl: Maybe.

You: Why do you think he would fool around with you when he was just going to end up with Maureen again?

Girl: I don't know. Because he's an arse?

You: Whatever he is, do you think he's good boyfriend material?

Girl: No! He's an ARSE. But I'm in love with him.

You: Why?

Girl: Oh, you wouldn't understand.

You: Well, I'd like to understand. Although the person who really has to understand is you.

Girl: Eh? What do you mean?

Et cetera. Anyway, this is the technique I learned for helping distraught people to come to their own conclusions. If young women come to you with pointed questions, then you give (or elicit from) them the straight answers you have learned from studying theology and apologetics day and night.

Girl: How come women can't be priests?

You: Er, do you wish you could be a priest?

Girl: Me? No! But I want to know how come women can't be priests.

You (secretly relieved): How come men can't be mothers?

Girl: Come on, I'm serious.

You: So am I. You tell me. How come men can't be mothers?

Girl: That's totally different. That's about biology!

You: So you're saying gender is just about biology.

Girl: Yeah.

You: You're saying there are no psychological differences between men and women.

Girl: Well, no, um. There are, obviously, but I don't see what that has to do with the priesthood.

You: Well, I'll tell you. But first, do you think there are spiritual differences between men and women?

Girl: Uh... No. How can there be?

You: Well, Thomas Aquinas says the soul is the form of the body, so if you have a female body, you have a female soul.

Girl: No way! I didn't know that.

Carry on, soldier.

The key, I think, is understanding when the young woman you're talking to is in the grip of emotion and when she is wrestling with an intellectual problem. In general, if she's talking about people, feelings, fooling around, she's in the grip of emotion. If she brings up a theological point, reason is her starting point.

That said, if she brings up a controversy, she may be be operating from reason, BUT do not surprised if reason crumbles and you're left with fury because she was really in the grip of emotion the whole time. That is why it is a good idea to gently check and make sure there is no intensely personal reason why she has brought up the controversy. You probably don't need me to tell you that in a classroom discussion, if a girl starts getting upset, the best thing you can do is say, "Why don't you come and see me after class?"

Another word of advice that comes to mind is to never assume anything about a young woman you don't know. She might be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, or she might have only the foggiest notion of the facts of life. I know you are trained to quell curiosity, but if you really are confused by something, ask for clarification. Ask carefully.

Girl: And then we, you know.

You (secretly dreading worst): You...

Girl: You know.

You: You... Actually, I don't know.

Girl: We kissed!

You (secretly mostly relieved): What kind of a kiss?

Girl: On the cheek.

You (secretly entirely relieved): A nice affectionate gesture.

I hope this is helpful.

Grace and peace,

P.S. Never give fashion or beauty advice beyond "it is kind to be modest". An elderly priest once told me my hair looked better one way than another, and I felt very, very creeped out.

Update: If any women have advice for priests in advising women, feel free to post it in the com box.

Update 2: A kindly cleric sent in these thoughts by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman about his adventures in Ireland:

5. And the fifth chapter will narrate his misadventure at Waterford—-how he went to the Ursuline convent there and the Acting Superior determined he should see all the young ladies of the school, to the number of seventy, all dressed in blue, with medals on,—-some blue, some green, some red—-and how he found he had to make them a speech and how he puzzled and fussed himself what on earth he should say impromptu to a parcel of school-girls; and how, in his distress, he did make what he considered his best speech; and how, when it was ended, the Mother school-mistress did not know he had made it, or even begun it, and still asked for his speech. And how he would not, because he could not, make a second speech; and how, to make it up, he asked for a holiday for the girls; and how the Mother school-mistress flatly refused him, by reason (as he verily believes) because she would not recognise and accept his speech, and wanted another, and thought she had dressed up her girls for nothing; and how he nevertheless drank her raspberry vinegar, which much resembles a nun's anger, being a sweet acid, and how he thought to himself, it being his birthday, that he was full old to be forgiven if he could not at a moment act the spiritual jack pudding to a girls' school.


The Sojourner said...

If you are hearing the confession of a young woman who thinks that she has committed the sin of despair, and what she outlines sounds an awful lot like clinical depression to you, gently suggest that she might not actually be sinning and should think about getting help.

She will probably not listen right away, but a year later she will think upon the faceless voice with intense affection.

(On a somewhat related note, NEVER give homilies in which you imply that the cause of clinical depression is selfishness and the cure is volunteering. Because six months later people will still get angry when they think about that homily.)

SJH said...

One additional suggestion might be for clerics to seek out their local orthodox nuns and get to know them so as to be able to refer women to them for certain kinds of spiritual guidance.

Ginger said...

I wish I could share my priest with the whole world, because everyone needs someone like him.

I've known him since I was in 8th grade, his first year in the priesthood, and over the years, he's been a science teacher, a mentor, confessor, a friend and ultimately, a Father figure in the truest sense of the word.

I wish I could articulate exactly what makes him so special, but I think the bottom line is that he will not only be a priest, who should advise and preach and lecture and quote scripture. But he'll also be a friend. I'm so grateful that he's not one of those who are afraid of women. Because, trust me, we know you're a priest. We (NCGs, anyway) automatically keep you in the category of our fathers, brothers and uncles, who, no matter how wonderful, charming or handsome are just not ever, ever, ever going to be in our sights.

I think it's important for priests to be human and vulnerable and willing to show that they, too, have interests and weaknesses and likes and dislikes beyond just religion. Then telling him your problems feels more like asking a friend for advice over coffee, and your friend just happens to be blessed with special graces from the Holy Ghost and special knowledge on scripture and Catholic teachings. Awesome!

Ginger said...

Also, when I've gone to him about theological/intellectual issues, he seems to take a true, genuine, enthusiastic interest. And then if he doesn't know, he tells me to go ask the Bishop and then find him again and tell him, "Because now you've made me curious!"

You know what it is? I think I just realized it-- This priest LOVES being a priest. He loves helping people and giving advice and talking about God with this joy that just shines off him. I think the best thing a priest can do is emanate the fact that you LOVE everything about what you're doing.

Lena said...

This reminds me that I need to speak with my priest.

Once a priest complimented me an my beautiful maid of honor dress (I was the only attendant), and I thought the compliment didn't count because it came from a priest.

Now that I think about it, the maid of honor dress was very modest. It was a fancy pink suit, and I was standing up for my aunt.

You know what. I thought it was a beautiful, and I felt beautiful when I put it on that morning. My gosh, was it conservative. Oh well.

Athanasius lover said...

I agree with everything The Sojourner said. Also, if anyone (I am sure this applies to males, too) confesses suicidal thoughts, please don't give her a lecture on how selfish suicide is and then tell her that she would be happier if she were less self-centered. She wouldn't be confessing suicidal impulses if she thought it was a good idea. Instead, ask her if she is getting help, and show compassion. The sacrament of confession is a great opportunity for people in a very dark place to experience the compassion of Jesus in a very real way. In general, I don't think the confessional is usually an appropriate place for a lecture.

I have heard it said that women like to share their problems because they want to talk about them, but men want to fix the problems. So it would probably be a good idea to listen and primarily be there for a woman, instead of immediately trying to find solutions to every problem. There is a time and a place for trying to fix things, and if you have solutions you should be willing to suggest them, but that probably shouldn't be your first reaction. For example, if you are ministering on a college campus and someone is having trouble with her roommate, it might be helpful to briefly express that you understand how difficult it can be to have a bad roommate relationship before you move right in to helping her find solutions. That way, she will feel heard.

Also, NCGs can get crushes on priests, just as priests can get crushes even after they've vowed to be celibate. As much as we women try to put priests in the same category as family members, sometimes a woman can end up being attracted to a kind, compassionate priest, especially if she is going through a difficult time and not many other people are showing her compassion. (For the same reason, people sometimes get crushes on their therapists.) This does not mean that you should not be kind and compassionate to women, or that you should assume that every woman who comes to you for help is attracted to you. A good Catholic woman, even if she were attracted to a priest, would never dream of acting on that attraction.

AveLady said...

Along similar lines, be patient with the scrupulous. I know this is not a solely feminine difficulty, but I suspect it's more common among women. While all that internal quibbling does sometimes require a sharp "snap out of it!", that can't be your cure-all approach.

Scrupulosity is a lot more complex than "boohoo, I'm scared of God because I think He's a big meanie," but fear and the resultant confusion are always at the root of it. The last thing a frightened, confused girl needs is to get an irritated "oh great, another one of YOUR type" response when she's desperately seeking some reassurance. The worst part of scruples is being trapped in one's own head, where everything is blown out of proportion. You, the priest, are the one person really qualified to help that person get some perspective. A girl is particularly likely to notice and respond badly to irritation and frustration in your manner, and she'll probably be less willing to seek and accept help next time.

Catherine said...

The priest who is dearest to my heart has been a wonderful father to me. What I love most about him is:

-When I talk to him, he makes me feel like I'm the most important thing in the world. He treats me, my problems, and my experiences with the utmost respect, even when I myself try to shrug things off as "not a big deal."
-He's not afraid to affirm me - even when I'm not strong enough to affirm myself. Priests, do not hesitate to tell women that they are good. Most of us need to hear it.
-He has a true priest's heart, a true father's heart - he's not afraid to show me that my pain causes him pain, because I'm his spiritual daughter. Priests, if you feel fatherly affection for a woman - which I certainly hope you do - don't be afraid to let her know that. Remind her that she is your daughter and that you, as her father, care about her soul.
-He's brutally honest but extremely gentle - like Our Lord, I suppose. Priests, never lie to a woman or sugarcoat the truth - we are stronger than you would think - but also don't get all squeamish if there are tears.

Once, a different priest (who I also love dearly) told me that he hates it when women cry in front of him because it makes him uncomfortable. Now when I talk to him, that's all I can think about. Priests, please never say this out loud, even if you may feel that way.

Seraphic said...

Yep, women cry. Get used to it. When I'm sad or mad I cry. I am the biggest (only?) adult weeper in my family.

Crying is a healthy expression to grief, and it's not those who cry who have a problem. It's the perma-smiling zombies. After seeing the twin towers FALL, I burst into tears in public, and a perma-smiling zombie asked me if I was okay. Of course I wasn't okay: I had just seen thousands of Americans (et al.) die, live, on TV. As had she. Maybe she was in shock.

Anonymous said...

Dear Auntie Seraphic,

This is brilliant and very helpful. I am forwarding the link now to several seminarian friends for their edification and instruction. Thank you. :)



Christine said...

I really agree with what the other lovely ladies have said. Great points!

Also, I'd reiterate a point that Seraphic unusually makes, which is to encourage priests to occasionally (annually) make a homily about the single life, NOT necessarily in relation to a religious vocation. Women (and men) need affirmation that it's ok to be single and living for God in our CURRENT vocation.