I’ve been thinking a lot about priests lately. In truth, I often do, as some of my best friends happen to wear Roman collars. I see them on their low days, and I see them in moments of true total self-surrender. Of course, you know why I’d be thinking about them even more lately. For priests who seek holiness in loving service to God’s people — striving to see God in every person they encounter — these are grueling times. And a few conversations I’ve had lately have reminded me that the good and holy among them, while still human beings, can have a lot of wisdom to offer — if they are true pray-ers. I know some of them, thanks be to God. And they help me see more clearly.
One of the priests I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is on the other side of the veil between here and eternity. Father Arne Panula was most recently director of the Catholic Information Center (CIC) in Washington, D.C., a hub for many things truly Catholic. I still have a vivid memory of seeing him after he had a very close call in his battle with cancer. Back from the brink, he had taken Amtrak from D.C. for a dinner in New York. He seemed as close as an encounter with resurrection as one can get, and he was wearing a radiance that could have only been of God.
It was clear that the end was still coming for him soon, and that the rest of us there needed to see him as a message from God to be careful about falling into rabbit holes, getting caught up in the things of the world, falling into endless distraction, and being ruled by our emotions. The added time he got was also enough time for my friend Mary Eberstadt to sit down with him and ask him every question she ever wanted to, for his final record.
At the CIC, he was a revered spiritual director, accompanying people in discerning God’s will for them. Her transcripts of their conversations will be published next month under the title “The Last Homily.” Parts of it read as if he’s directing us through this current moment in the Church. It’s a reminder that the Christian call is the same whatever the season — a call to truly live God’s will — and that our role in being the solution has everything to do with living well, as Father Arne did.
Eberstadt asked him about what he tells young people about charity. His answer wasn’t initially about putting money in a collection basket or giving to the man on the corner (though he gets to the man on your commute home soon thereafter). Instead he addressed “the most corrosive impediments to charity: anger, vindictiveness, suspicion.” “Understand that you are a tempting target for the devil.”
Given darkness in our midst, this grabbed my attention.
“Diabolo,” Father Arne said, “means literally ‘scatterer.’”
And that is how evil operates: by putting obstacles between individuals and true community. His first weapon is lust. The sexual appetite is all-powerful, because it engenders a powerful good: the propagation of humanity itself. When the sexual appetite is turned to selfish self-indulgence, it destroys not only individuals, but a whole culture. When lust doesn’t work for the devil, or even if it does, he goes after charity. Once more: suspicion, vindictiveness, anger, and other such feelings are inimical to charity, because they divide people from one another. In all cases, I encourage spiritual jujitsu. When you begin to feel any of these divisive emotions, be self-aware, and immediately say a prayer for whoever is the object of your anger or resentment. This sets your spiritual house in order, and keeps you closer to community, and less scattered.
He explained: “The first line of thought I’d advance about charity is the necessity of getting one’s spiritual, interior life framed correctly, the better to give the right sort of material help.”
About scandal in the Church, he said: “Any priest who says Mass every day, or the Liturgy of the Hours . . . isn’t fertile territory for the evil seeds that led to the scandals.”
Perhaps now more than ever, for priests and Catholics of all states in life, this is a moment to choose to not get caught up in confusion, which is legion at the moment in the Church and many other places. Adopt practices of virtue, stick with them, increase their role in your life. See them as the part of the solution, because they are.
Father Arne had such a serene yet commanding nature about him. And it would draw you not to him but to the God he served. When you think of priests, every time you hear a news mention of the Catholic Church these days, consider saying a prayer that they might have what he had: Christ — radiating Him to others by the way he prayed, smiled, talked, and lived. You’ll see Him by his love.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.