Dealing with Detractors, The Anchor, January 8, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
January 8, 2010

One of the most difficult things for any of us to deal with is criticism. It’s hard enough when we’re criticized justly and constructively. When the criticism is unmerited, off-base, intended to injure, or worst of all a calumny, it is infinitely harder to endure.

One of the most important things a priest in particular has to learn is how to respond in a holy way to the barrage of criticism that will accompany his priesthood. Every priest knows, in some way, that if Jesus himself were repeatedly criticized and calumniated, if all the prophets suffered disdain and rejection, and if even Mother Teresa’s charity toward the poorest of the poor in our own day was attacked, there’s no way he’ll be spared. But no matter how great a priest’s preparation might be, when the criticism begins, it’s always jarring.

The criticism takes many forms. Some of it is unquestionably deserved, and, when given, takes the form of the fraternal correction that everyone needs to overcome moral and character defects (Mt 18:15-18). Some of it is just as obviously undeserved, such as when a newly ordained priest is pilloried for the sins of priests in previous generations, new pastors are disparaged because they do not imitate — or change — everything their predecessors did, or preachers are faulted because they cannot give homilies as eloquent as Fulton J. Sheen and as succinct or developed as the particular listener desires.

The patron of priests, St. John Vianney, learned what it was like to suffer criticism in his early years in Ars. His reaction to these contradictions constitutes a primer not just for priests but for all Catholics in how to respond to conflicts, criticism and even calumny in a Christian way.

Some of the antagonism the patron saint of priests received came from the anti-clericalist “free-thinkers,” but most of it came from those Catholics who really did not want a holy pastor. Those walking in darkness abhorred the light he was radiating and began to act toward him as the Book of Wisdom had predicted more than 2,400 years earlier: “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. … To us, he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us, because his life is not like other men’s, and his ways are different” (Wis 2:12-15).

Among his biggest critics were the patrons of the taverns, the partisans of the raunchy dances called the vogues, and those who were not able to receive absolution because they refused to give up the occasions of their sins. Since he was a faithful priest, he also became a proxy punching bag for all those who had a problem with any Catholic teaching or practice.

The opprobrium began with insults. They began to call him names — like “ingrat,” which refers to someone disagreeable and wearisome. Others vilified him to his face. One man came to the rectory and bombarded him with vile insults for fifteen minutes. Vianney listened patiently without responding. When the man had finished, the saint accompanied him to the door and embraced him. Immediately after bidding him adieu, however, his flesh gave evidence of just how much his forbearance had cost him: his entire body began to break out with pimples. He used to say that he had a temper as “quick as gunpowder,” and it was nothing short of heroic self-restraint for him to take so many abuses and respond with love.

For 18 months another man used to stand outside the rectory each night and excoriate Vianney for as long as his voice could shout.

To such detractors, Vianney would occasionally respond, “My friend, you know me well!” This was more than a means to disarm them; the saint knew that even if the particular things for which they were faulting him were totally unfounded, there was so much more for which he could be faulted that the deprecators did not know.

Normally, however, his strategy was to remain silent, as Christ himself did before the Sanhedrin. He once confided to a priest friend, who himself was experiencing similar opposition: “Do as I did: I let them say all they wished and in this way, they ended up by holding their tongues.”

When verbal insults failed to get him to leave Ars or at least stop his crusade to convert the populace, Vianney’s denigrators began to resort to violence. One day a man approached and savagely slapped him in the face. Stung, the Curé took a moment to gain his composure. He then turned to the man, smiled, and said, “My friend, the other cheek is jealous.”

Most difficult to endure were the calumny and character assassination. Some young men, disappointed that their former dance partners had been converted by the priest, began to spread rumors that the reason behind his emaciation and pallor was because he had a sexually transmitted disease caught through a hidden life of sordid debauchery. As ludicrous as the accusation was, they thought that if they repeated it enough it would eventually stick. They composed beer songs mocking him for these supposed sins, plastered posters around town and even on the rectory door labeling him a pervert, and wrote anonymous letters to the bishop accusing him of almost every degeneracy possible.

When a young woman living in a house close to the rectory became pregnant, these young men started the rumor that the pastor himself was the father. His front door was splashed repeatedly with filth and many of the people of the village began to treat him as a guilty hypocrite. His new bishop, having received so many anonymous letters and not knowing the Curé well at the time, felt obliged to send a priest to investigate the charges. The allegations were unsurprisingly determined to be total fabrications.

St. John Vianney’s response to all of this suffering was to abandon himself into God’s hands. He did not care in particular that his own good name was being besmirched — if God didn’t need his reputation, who was he to think he did? — but he was sickened by the attacks on the honor of the priesthood. In a weak moment, he considered leaving Ars for the spiritual health of the people who were being scandalized, until he was convinced that by doing so, he would be give plausibility to the notorious rumors.

The mayor, who knew him to be innocent, pressed him to make a defense and expose the slanderers. Vianney responded, rather, “We must pray for them.” He forgave his accusers and never revealed their names, even though he knew who they were. When one of the calumniators hit hard times, Vianney brought the family money.  Eventually, the force of the evidence of his holiness and confidence in God began to bring sanity and truth back to Ars.

Toward the end of his life, he summed up all that he had suffered, admitting, “If on my arrival at Ars, I had foreseen all that I was to suffer there, I should have died on the spot.” He confessed that he had expected that eventually “a time would come when people would rout me out of Ars with sticks, when the Bishop would suspend me and I would end my days in prison.”

As hard as it was, however, he counted all of this suffering a “grace.” He converted the pain into prayer. “Never have I been so happy,” he divulged at the end of his life, “as in moments when I was being persecuted and calumniated. At such times God would flood me with consolation. God granted me everything I asked him.”

Jesus taught that it’s easy to love those who love us. What distinguishes his followers, however, is that we love even our enemies and pray for our persecutors. In the way he dealt with his critics, St. John Vianney proved himself to be a Christian not just in name but in fact.