In Praise of Bland Clergymen1
February 14, 2014 by lucieromarin
You know the sort: he rarely smiles; his sermons, though largely inoffensive, are uninspiring recitals of points of catechism we already know, and are delivered in a monotone or in an artificial Preaching Voice; he never rescues anyone from anything and his idea of pastoral care seems limited to turning up to Mass once a week and hearing confessions. He must have some kind of personality somewhere, but you’re blowed if you can work out what it is, because he always has the same facial expression and never says anything funny or impressive. He is, in a word, bland.
Cholerics are quick to judge, but they don’t always judge well, and I’ve been too quick to judge those men who are both ordained and bland.
First, there are some vices that have nothing to do with the ability or inability to captivate an audience or expound principles. I’ve heard bland men preach for too long, and I’ve heard charming men preach for too long. It’s not always true that boring men talk too much and interesting men know when to stop. Often, in fact, its the other way around.
Second, that a man impresses you with his compelling or forceful personality doesn’t necessarily mean he’s giving you good pastoral care. An interesting man can be a celebrity, a bully, or a wannabe cult-leader just as easily as he can be a father, a brother or a hero. It’s easy to mistake a deep impression for a good impression, and good advice doesn’t turn into better advice just because the speaker is charming. It’s plenty nice to feel your soul bathe in the rays of another’s charm, but this is personality, not priestly virtue.
It’s time to give the bland men their due. They don’t turn religion into a drug. They don’t impose rules, practices or duties above or beyond those of other communities, so they’ll not force the peculiar and unnatural loyalty that says, “Well, Father Amazing says we ought to…” Bare-minimum catechism-preaching can signify a lack of intellect or laziness – but it can also signify the kind of respect that doesn’t think you need a faith other than the universal one. And no one ever got scruples from a poorly-delivered sermon, so even if they do seem to imply that you’re destined for a long hot purgatory, you’ll never actually feel pressured by it. It’s true that they’ll miss opportunities for pastoral care, but at the same time, they’ll never train their flock into an unhealthy degree of dependence upon their advice. Part of the reason they don’t want to give us this pastoral care is because a) they really think that we can solve most of our problems ourselves, and, b) they don’t want you to see the priest as a substitute for a doctor, a psychologist or the police.
I’ve seen that where a bland priest’s community shrivels and dies, it’s not really because of the blandness, but because of some genuine defect which is mistakenly equated with that blandness. It is possible for a community to grow around a man of no appreciable personality – I’ve seen it happen. Why? How? Because, where he’s also punctual, basically courteous, and limits his sermons to ten minutes, the bland priest is so darned restful. His spirituality isn’t a heady mix of wisecracks, testosterone and apocalypse, so no one gets drugged, and going to Mass doesn’t feel like the Last Stand, which can be exciting for a while, but is also not requirement of the faith!