This Sister friend of mine referred to Cardinal Wuerl as a “persona.” What is a persona? A persona is a role, a stereotype, a well defined public identity. Cardinal Wuerl, she implied, was always just that—His Eminence, Donald, Cardinal Wuerl. There is no “Don” inside the His Eminence, Donald, Cardinal Wuerl. There is only the six-hundred dollar black suit, the clerical vest over the white-shirt with cufflinks and pontiff collar, the perfectly shined black shoes and black over-the-calf men’s stockings. Inside there is a ghostly shadow of what could have been a human being. Everything this spectre does is exactly what a Cardinal should do. At night, his secretary removes his battery for charging, rolls him into a closet, and turns out light. We should pity people who are personae (plural of persona for you Latin lovers). What profiteth a man should he gain the whole world and lose his soul in the process?
Let me say again, from what I hear from Washington Catholics—clergy and laity alike—they are well enough satisfied with the Cardinal as their Archbishop. He is not a bad man in any sense, just an empty sort of cardboard man. He is a man who has allowed himself to be defined not by grace but by the Institution to which he is sincerely devoted. Alas, His Eminence is not the only persona in the Church. The hierarchy is filled with them. These days being an empty cassock is almost a requirement, at least in the United States, for Episcopal Ordination (what we used to refer to as Consecration of a Bishop, not ordination in the Episcopal Church).
Twenty years ago Father George Aschenbrenner, the famous Jesuit author and Spiritual Director, gave a day of recollection at the Pontifical North American College. It was his swansong at that institution. I don’t know if it was his swansong because of the talk he gave or, knowing he was leaving, he decided to “go for the gold.” Now I was not there for Father Aschenbrenner’s talk. I was living in Rome at the time and the talk was a sensation in the city when word got out. As it was reported in a hundred cafes and several hundred seminary and monastery dining halls, Father Aschenbrener said that the biggest problem in the North American Church was clericalism and the reason for clericalism was psycho-sexual immaturity of so many of the clergy. What does that mean?
And this is the problem. You never get to know who you are. You are a priest, first and foremost. There is nothing else about you that is important. You conform yourself to the model of “priest.” And why is this bad? Mostly because it is dangerous. You are a powder keg that could explode at any moment because you, yourself, the safety-guard of your anger, your ambition, your sexual desires, your greed, your sloth, whatever else are components of each and every human person—you don’t know yourself well enough to know not only what your are capable of but what your hidden agendas are. You only know the parts of your soul (your psyche) that fit the clerical persona, and those areas which can be problematic: you live in denial.
I have seen this lack of authentic self-knowledge in far too many priests. One moment Father is walking up and down in his cassock and biretta saying his office and the next he is slugging the deacon, or fondling some kid, or passed out drunk on the rectory floor. Catholic Tradition says that grace builds on nature. Priestly ministry and identity must be rooted in the individual and proceed from within his innermost core. It cannot be something that the priest puts on—like his cassock or his vestments. We have too many empty cassocks walking around—and frightenly a disproportionately high number of them are purple. We need people to serve in the priesthood who know who they are and are comfortable with whom they are. We need people who have successful and happy peer relationships with a wide variety of people—not only other clergy but men and women of a variety of ages, economic status, and (very importantly) religious beliefs and disbeliefs. The clergy must be no refuge for people who suffer from arrested emotional development. It is a recipe for disaster as we have seen these past twenty years.