Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Opinions in inexhaustible supply

One of the things one learns quickly in the parish setting is that people have lots of opinions and they will find ways of making them known one way or another. Some few will come out and state them, some will form committees to investigate things with preconceived outcomes in mind, some will send anonymous letters to priests or their bishops, and some will turn council meetings into soapbox sessions for these pet positions.

A good priest learns how to respond to such things with love, patience, and a firm divider between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. I, for one, won't even read an anonymous letter. It will go unanswered and most probably into the trash. That's not a secret position, but a very public one. The poison-pen is all rights and no responsibilities, all questioning and no willingness to be questioned, all opinion and no mercy. At the same time I've listened to quite long coffee hour conversation on how a parishioner is sure he has found proof-positive that the end times are just around the corner or that some change to the church appointments is "uncanonical." You can respond to and counsel on the parousia or the placement of poinsettias on the solea quite easily after you have mastered the measured glance and the ability to truly listen without always becoming emotionally drawn into another person's animated opinion on a topic. You also learn that no matter how innocuous or vanilla a pastor you are, someone is going to "take this matter all the way up to the top" and you are going to be called by your bishop to account for some matter you quite possibly don't even remember happening. "Let me talk to your manager" might as well have been on our Bill of Rights at the nation's founding so it's to be expected.

Where the priest in particular runs into trouble is the Internet. Those moments in church life where a priest comes into contact with the wider world are bordered by time and space. There is an occasion and place in which face-to-face conversations can occur, for answering letters, and to sit on committees. But there seems to be limitless time for the Internet to spout opinions without cease at all hours in your direction. Both pastorally and from the blog I receive the occasional indignant email or message. Years at both have taught me how to spot the missive that wants to have honest dialogue and the letter that wants to instruct me about how wrong I am... at great length. You get a sense that "This person has an inexhaustible supply of opinions and will keep responding at all hours with the same measure of self-assured fervor as this first message until his keyboard catches on fire." Nothing fruitful comes of these uphill dialogues. The priest is the nail and the originator of the communiques is the hammer with a job to do.

All this to say that dipping ones toe into the Internet from any position of authority (pastoral, scholarly, athletic, scientific, etc.) is almost an invitation for people with all the time in the world on their hands to take you to task. Just because they want to jump down the rabbit hole with you, doesn't mean you have to follow them. My advice is not to. Your time and energy are finite resources and such people will find someone else to latch onto rather quickly. That's my hard-learned advice. Take it as one man's opinion. I promise not to send you an email at 2 AM.


  1. What's your email father, or even better your telephone #?

    I have been pouring over the obscure apocrypha and prophecies of Mayan Orthodoxy and have discovered how the end times are going to occur and I need to tell you what you and your family should do... ;)

  2. Great advice Father, and even for those of us who like to leave comments here. I often need to be reminded that just because there is someone on the internet who is wrong, doesn't mean I need to be the one to respond. Easier said than done some days, ha.

  3. My late confessor told Fr. Schmemman's advice to deal with the anonymous letter under the door: tear it up.