By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

As I sat in a half-filled church on Christmas Day – on Christmas Day, mind you – I asked myself: Why?

Why commit ourselves to excellence?

My question was in the context of why anyone involved in Catholic ministry should make or renew a vow to excellence in the face of all the discouraging signs abounding.

  • All the empty pews are discouraging – but even more so because they do not surprise me. I’ve been in a great many churches these past several months and nearly all of them had room for at least twice as many people as they held.
  • The church news is discouraging – especially that clustered around the issue of clergy sexual abuse. Yes, I know most of the reports are of sins committed long ago, the bulk of them by people who have gone on to their particular judgments and can’t harm anyone anymore. But each new report – even of old abuse – disheartens and demoralizes, like the subtle but growing toll taken by round after round of body punches.
  • The state of world affairs is discouraging – as wars drag on and conflicts flare up, as wildfires ravage homes and lives here and abroad, as refugees on our border and the borders of most countries in Europe wait in near hopeless deprivation, parents hoping against hope for their stateless children to avoid starvation.

Who isn’t tempted to look around and ask: Why bother? What good do any of our efforts achieve?

In a more prayerful moment, on the brink of despair we might even ask: My God, my God, why have you abandoned us?

I can’t help but wonder about our clergy, most of them looking out over row after row of empty pews, as they share the Gospel and then present, with whatever enthusiasm they can muster, their hand-crafted homilies.

As they sit alone in their rectories after the diminishing crowds have dispersed, how do they energize themselves and their ministries? How do they find the resolve to face a new day, to affirm and encourage their faithful people, to deal with the complaints, often bitter, from others?

What incentive?

I have often wondered what incentive there is for a priest to commit to excellence day in and day out. Will it bring him a raise? A bigger house? A nicer car? Lots of acclaim? A host of atta boys? Better meals or better health?

It’s not really all that different for lay ministers, either, who generally toil for low pay and status, often with little or no encouragement from their clerical overseers, who have burdens of their own.

Come to think of it, many parents feel ignored, spited or abandoned. (I think now of how many times I was ungrateful to my selfless parents struggling to provide everything we did have.) What mother – or father, of that matter – has not felt the pain reflected in the face of Mary as she holds her lifeless son in Michelangelo’s Pieta?

Even small things can cause big hurts.

Grandparents have more perspective. But sometimes that just makes the pain and despair that much greater.

Kids get discouraged too. It hurts to lose a friend, especially to a false rumor or a parent’s transfer. It hurts to be betrayed. It hurts to see your peers tout their Christmas goodies when you have nothing to compare, not even after weeks of begging and pleading and maybe even a prayer or two.

No, life is not fair.

Why keep trying? Why keep caring? Why bother? What’s the use?

The lure of giving up

In the face of disappointment the lure of just giving up can loom large.

Maybe if you love less or not at all. Maybe if you pull back and curl up in self-protective isolation. Maybe if you can convince yourself that you just don’t care at all – about any of it … or any of them – maybe then the pain and disappointment will go away.

If you take that bait, you won’t be the first.

If you just snack on it for just a short time, waiting for your batteries recharge, it’s not a bad short-term strategy. It will work like junk food. A little of it can ease your hunger pains while you set about finding and preparing healthier fare.

But beware the danger of making this a new way of life. A good and meaningful life cannot be lived at a pity party.

Giving up never really makes anything better – and in the time you devote to it you may lose your best opportunity to actually improve things.

A toil of caring

Still, there’s no denying that caring and trying take a toll – even when the outcome is rewarding. When it’s not – and let’s be real, often it isn’t – a bad outcome becomes a huge cross to lug around while our physical and mental energies drain away.

Somewhere in the process we can lose hope.

In this new year, I hope you guard against that. I hope you try really, really hard to hold on to some hope – ideally great hope. Me too. I hope we all do. As St. Paul reminds us: “For in hope we were saved. (Romans 8:24)

A model in hard times

Recall that in a dreadful time and terrible predicament, Anne Frank put pen to paper and shed a ray of light to illuminate our path across the ages.

She wrote in her diary: “It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

A Christian might flesh that out: I still believe in a good God who creates people who are really good at heart.

Such a God -- and such people – deserve my best.

In spite of everything – or what passes for everything some days – we must persist in our commitment to excellence. We must commit, or recommit, to be the very best versions of ourselves in the new year. Despite the circumstances. Despite the outcomes. We can persist. We can prevail.

But it will probably require prayer -- lots of prayer.

2020: A year of vision

Ah, 2020. Let’s call it the Year of Vision. Because that’s what we all need: 2020 vision … or better. (Yes, better is possible.)

The Lord, giver of all life, deserves our best. He wants our best. He needs our best. So does the universe. And so do our neighbors.

As Robert Fulghum has written:

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”

So whatever resolutions you have made this year, please add this one: I resolve to do my best in every circumstance. In response to the incredible gift of life, I am committed to excellence in every way every day throughout the year, so help me God.

A prayer for all of us

Whether or not you find yourself in the new year without much energy or hope, without a vision, without a commitment to commit excellence, please join me in praying as St. Paul prayed for the Christians in Thessalonica:

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through his grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word. (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17)   

We can be our best. We can do our best.

Of course, it will be easier the more of us are being and doing it. So help me please.

And I will be and do my best for you and for the God, who in His boundless grace, made us.

Happy New Year!

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