The Modern Priest as Bridge Builder

After more than a decade in the Holy Land, Fr. Michael McGarry returns to the U.S. as president of the Paulist Fathers

BH: What suggestions do you have for people to take action in this situation?

On the roof of Tantur.
On the roof of Tantur.

MM: Well, I always told people, when they came to Tantur, that there’s no substitute for going there. That’s the first thing you do and there’s almost always — if you go to the West Bank and Israel proper, you talk to secular and religious Jews, you talk to secular and religious Palestinians and so forth — that you realize that it’s much more complicated than you thought. I also used to tell the story about the American fact-finding mission, they’d come and stay for a week and they visited four or five very well-spoken people each day and they have so much information that they’ll write a book. But if they stay for a month, and still keep a breakneck schedule and try to meet as many people as possible, after a month they might have enough material to write an article. But if they stay for a year, they might have enough material to return home and write nothing. The longer you’re there, the less you know. There’s no shortcut to understanding a complicated situation. So when you ask me what to do, I’d say read two books. Don’t read one book. I was always asked, and maybe you were going to ask me, what’s the one book to read. If you read one book, you’ll have no idea what’s going on, because you’ll only get one perspective. Read two books: the Palestinian perspective, Edward Said (Palestinian author) is very good; Israeli perspective, [Sir] Martin Gilbert or Tom Friedman, very good resources. But then if you hear two narratives about the same events, then you realize that part of the problem is two narratives, and so there’s no shortcut to learning more.

BH: So amidst all of this confusion, where does your faith come in? How does this test or challenge your faith, or where does your faith shake out in all of this?

MM: Coming back to the U.S., I’m challenged very much by the temptation all the time to confuse some particular spokespeople or agencies in the Church as the church of Jesus Christ. I’m not one to pit the so-called institution church against the church of Jesus Christ, but I don’t want to identify one with the other either. And we believe in the triune God — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — who has gathered us into community, and we celebrate that in our diversity as well as in our unity, and so I’m challenged by getting into those culture wars myself where I want to shout louder and have more points to score on my opponent than the other, and play the “gotcha” game, which I am happy to do on occasion, but I realize that’s pretty fruitless. I’m really buoyed up, however, by seeing people with courage, with faithfulness, with imagination, with humility going forward, trying to raise their kids without being on drugs, trying to care for their aging mother and father in a world that says comfort is more important than faithfulness, by seeing a teenager work as a volunteer by tutoring somebody younger than him or herself. It’s when I see somebody living his or her faith out on the streets; that’s what lifts me up and says, “this is what it’s all about.”

“The longer you’re there [in the Middle East], the less you know. There’s no shortcut to understanding a complicated situation. So when you ask me what to do, I’d say read two books. Don’t read one book.”

Of course, there’s no substitute to being grounded first in the scriptures, secondly in prayer, and thirdly in the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. Because the other two you can do by yourself. And that’s the danger of Christianity, the kind of individualistic, “I’ll put it all together myself and get my own Christianity out of it.” It’s when I rub shoulders with people who are smarter than me and dumber than me and older than me and younger than me, men and women, gay and straight, divorced, faithful, married, and so forth — if all these people are desperately trying to be faithful to Jesus Christ — and realize, “I’m as human as the next one.” That’s what grounds me, to be quite honest.

BH: One thing I think the Paulists, traditionally, have been very good at is building bridges between the Church and culture. How is that possible now?

MM: Building bridges is very, very important. At the same time, you don’t compromise your values. So that makes it very, very difficult. It’s important and it’s difficult. It’s important because the gospel is important. There’s nothing more important than the gospel of Jesus Christ. And how to make this understandable, appealing, without selling it out to the North American culture is absolutely essential, but absolutely treacherous. That’s why it’s difficult. It’s so easy to water it down, to make it just feel good — to make Christianity one other way of kind of realizing your own potential and establishing your own self-esteem. This is not a latté that we’re offering to people. I remember seeing one time on television this pastor in a church who was being interviewed by 60 Minutes, and the interviewer noticed there was no cross in this church, and the pastor said, “Well, you know, when people come to church, they really come to be comforted, they come with their burdens, they come with their pain; they don’t need the cross — that’s a real downer.” Well, I think that Christianity without a cross is not Christianity. But how do you do it in ways that show that this is about life, it’s not about death, this is about lifting people up and yet giving them the burden of loving. The burden of loving is a difficult thing to carry but there’s no greater way of living than loving.

BH: Now that you’ve taken over as President of the Paulists how do you answer the question “Can a priest be a modern man?” now in the 21st century?

MM: Well I would say, an effective Paulist priest cannot but be a modern man. If one wants to be effective as a Paulist priest today, it has to be as a bridge builder. I love that metaphor that you use. I think it’s the right one and that you’re right on target. And so to be a modern priest who is going to be effective requires being modern. Does that mean that everyone has to be on email? No. Does that mean that everyone has to be on Facebook or anything else? No. But if we’re not there, if we’re not present somewhere where the people are, are we going to be effective? No. We might be talking to ourselves. Not every priest has to do that, but certainly every priest has to be able to talk to the modern world in a way that people can understand. And that might be, paradoxically enough, with something as traditional as a holy hour or a rosary or a procession or someone who is on Facebook.

The big danger of course is that we allow the medium that we use to affect the message that we use. And I’ve been very influenced by a man of my generation, Marshall McLuhan, who wrote the very important book, The Medium is the Message. There is a problem, I feel, that a priest becoming so modern that he makes the gospel simply a marionette or a puppet of the medium he is using, whether it be the internet, television or radio. And that’s the danger and that’s the challenge, and that’s why Busted Halo is so extraordinary, if I may toot your horn for you. It seems to me that it takes up the challenge of using the medium without allowing the medium to determine the message. And I think that’s very, very difficult. I think there are a lot of evangelical and Catholic sites that have been so fascinated by technology — and I love technology, I’m not putting myself above that but, rather, recognizing the potential dangers of it. And I think people sometimes don’t realize that these are tools but they’re not the end. I think the danger can be if the medium dictates too much of the content.

“It’s when I rub shoulders with people who are smarter than me and dumber than me and older than me and younger than me, men and women, gay and straight, divorced, faithful, married, and so forth — if all these people are desperately trying to be faithful to Jesus Christ — and realize, ‘I’m as human as the next one,’ that’s what grounds me.”

BH: It sounds like you believe that the Paulists have a clear and relevant mission for the 21st century.

MM: I think the Paulist mission of bringing the message of Jesus Christ to our country in all its beautiful diversity is exciting today. Whether that be Latino, Vietnamese, African American, white European-based — all the marvelous ways that God has created us. To be quite honest, Bill, one of the questions that I am baffled by is why we don’t get many more candidates each year? I’m not talking 500, I’m not talking 100, I’m not talking 50. I’m talking 25. Because I think the Paulist mission is the most relevant thing going, and I don’t see why that’s not so exciting to somebody that we’re having people beat the doors down.

BH: We talk to a lot of “spiritual but not religious” people. What would you say to a 25 year old or 35 year old that is struggling with their faith in this time and place?

MM: Well, you know, if I had the silver bullet — to draw on a cliché — I would sell it to you for a lot of money. I need to listen more, to be quite honest. I’m coming back after 11 years of living overseas. I love the Middle East, I love Israel, Palestine, and I love my country and I’m glad to be back and I’m trying to get my “sea legs,” so to speak. And I need to listen. I need to listen to people who are 25 years old, and they’ll tell me right off the bat why what I have to peddle (to use a gross expression) isn’t going to sell. And then I’m going to come back to them too, I’m not going to be simply a listener, but I think that Jesus Christ is as relevant today, if not more so than ever before, and they’re going to have to tell me how I’m going to have to speak about Jesus Christ in a way that a 25 year old American can hear it; in a way that will be persuasive. But also, I need to hear from them, so it’s going to be a dialogue.

I always tell people that dialogue means two things: you’ve got something to say — we Paulists believe that dearly — and we’ve got something to learn. We oftentimes haven’t done that as well.