Thursday, September 18, 2008

St. Paul's "all things for all people" doesn't mean "jack of all trades, master of none".

Modern science has come a long way because it developed two very important ways of looking at life: focus on the particular and specialization. Focusing on the particular has freed it from the chains of the medieval penchant for vague and general conclusions with little interest in careful observation and thoroughness in testing. This has allowed science to develop an arm that has entered the life of so many human beings today—technology. Specialization on the other hand has allowed it to study particular objects with a focus so fierce, scientists get to know them in their smallest detail. This results in a tremendous power of control and mastery over many things.

Because of specialization and particularity of focus, progress, development, and knowledge of the natural world have become synonymous with science itself. This has not only given science its tremendous respectability and made its success the envy of every other intellectual enterprise, it has also assured it of continued success and progress for generations to come.

Of course, there is also much that is undesirable to these ways of modern science. And we hear a lot about it, mostly from religious folks who decry its lack of ‘humanity’, it’s often disregard for what is ‘valuable’ and ‘sacred’ in life. We must also not fail to mention that the particularity and specialization which are science’s strengths are also its weak points, since they prevent it from seeing “the larger picture”, as well as the “meaning”, and “significance” of things (although we must add that these are really not its primary concern). Be that as it may, the fact remains that there is much that we can learn from the scientific way.

One of the things I found most disconcerting as a seminarian, and most counter-productive to formation when I got assigned to seminary, was the idea that one had to be good in everything. Don’t get me wrong, the church is absolutely right to insist that its future priests be “the best they can be” and develop as many talents as possible and be good in as many areas of ministry there are. Still one can also have too much of a good thing, and forcing oneself to be good in something one obviously doesn’t have a knack for is just as bad as insisting a priest who has no gift for working with young people, be assigned to work with them.

This doesn’t mean of course that students must ‘pigeon-holed’ in seminary, figuring out where one is good at and insisting he there without the possibility of exploring other possible areas of skill and talent. Part of the adventure of seminary life is precisely discovering as many gifts we have and realizing these as ways of preparing ourselves for the work of ministry in the future. The point therefore is not to close oneself to the possibility that there may be other areas that one can be good at, it is rather realizing that eventually, we shall have to settle on which of these areas we really wish to be good at, to be “experts” or “masters”.

Adrian Van Kaam, in his book “Religion and Personality”, says that the mature individual is one who realizes that while there are many areas of specialization and expertise he may choose to go into, there is really just one or two that he can finally opt to be truly good at in life. Part of growing up as a person is realizing that paths do need to be closed, not all roads need to be taken—simply because they can’t, and finally, that choice is really important, because it is what makes us realize what shape we would really like our life to have. Being good at a lot of things is important, especially for one preparing to be a priest one day. But being good at a lot of things must never preclude our being “extremely good” at one or two things, i.e., being a “master” of a particular domain of human interest or in our case, a specific area of ministry.
Are you interested in psychology, counseling, sociology, the natural sciences, philosophy, theology, human relations, management and administration, diplomacy, education, research? Are you interested in dogmatic or pastoral theology, liturgy, scriptures, homiletics and preaching, canon law, church history, music, art, moral theology? One can be many things as a priest and part of seminary formation involves allowing the student to discover his “area of interest”, which can later be transformed into his “area of expertise”. It represents a recognition of the human drive and desire not only for self-fulfillment but also for excellence, not for one’s sake simply, but especially for the sake of the church.

We must be, as St. Paul says, “all things to all people”. There is no denying that. But within that larger goal, it is not only possible, but very much advisable, that we find smaller goals or areas in which we can fulfill that deep-seated human longing to give the best of ourselves, to spend ourselves as much as we can in order to allow our spirit to burst free and join in the creative Spirit of God that continues to transform and renew the world by drawing upon the best in each human being. It is in this way that we can become true “instruments” in God’s hands.

It would be a sad day for the church if its pastors, especially one of its future ones—yourself—were to misunderstand Paul’s words and turn yourself into some kind of “jack of all trades, master of none”. It’s a sure recipe for spreading yourself out too thinly and then experiencing stress, disappointment, frustration, and burnout. It is also one of the chief culprits behind some priests’ inability to delegate some authority and responsibility to subordinates and lay people. Thinking that “the whole world rests on their shoulders” and living still in that worldview which says “Father knows all”, some of us become “micromanagers”, forgetting the all-important principle of subsidiarity in the church. [My old spiritual director used to constantly remind me: “You’re not meant to save the world. Jesus already did that two thousand years ago”. I believe he’s right.]

A priest who is a “jack of all trades, master of none” will have very little appreciation for the expertise of others, whether fellow-priests or laypeople. He will have a tendency to downplay the strengths of those around him or worse, feel such self-doubt that he will quash and stifle any possible leadership potential that may arise among his parishioners for instance. This could very well arise from feelings of fear and bitterness as the jack-of-all-trades priest sees others in the church taking on responsibilities that used to belong to priests alone. And since at one point practically everything did belong to the domain of the priest, he will more and more see the growing expertise especially of laypeople as an “encroachment” upon his traditionally held bailiwicks.

‘Letting-go’ and having confidence that others can be just as good, perhaps even better than himself at executing important tasks, is probably the biggest hurdle a jack-of-all-trades priest will have to face. Trust in God’s Spirit always at work in the world—in himself and others—is the most important virtue he needs to develop.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)