Six years ago, while I was doing a holy hour in the adoration chapel, a young local businessman that I knew stopped by the chapel to say a prayer. When he saw me, he brought up an incident involving the pastor in his parish. He said that the incident upset him so much that he was going to circulate a complaint petition around to his fellow parishioners to sign, and then send the signed petition to the Bishop of Peoria. After I asked him some questions about the incident, I told him, “You’re not going to circulate a petition against the priest!”
I caught him off-guard with my order and he replied in a loud voice, “Yes I am. What he did was wrong and I’m not going to let him get away with it!” I raised my voice and said, “You’re not going to circulate the petition! You’re overreacting to what happened and you have no business creating problems for the priest. If you want to let him know how upset you are, you should be man enough to have a face-to-face conversation with him. You’re not going to get other people involved.”
I got aggressive with him because I knew he wasn’t bluffing and that he would follow through if I didn’t stop him. My order commanding him not to circulate the petition was a tactic I had learned in the 1980s from a mentor of mine. My name for the tactic is the “mental slam.”
When my brothers and I used to watch All-Star Wrestling, prior to the end of every wrestling match, one of the wrestlers would usually “body slam” his opponent. A body slam was a maneuver in which a wrestler would pick up and swing his opponent over his head and then slam the opponent down on the matt. A mental slam is similar to a body slam in that the person doing the slamming (mentally) whips his opponent around and slams him.
During the first 10 years of my law practice, I periodically sought out the advice of a very successful Catholic businessman. I usually followed his advice because he had a unique and creative way of coming up with solutions to problems.
There were a handful of occasions when he sensed that I wasn’t going to follow his advice. When he felt that I was about to make a big mistake, he got aggressive with me and ordered me to do what he said. If I resisted, he got more aggressive and argued with me as if my life depended on following his advice. If I continued to resist him, he challenged my manhood by telling me I wasn’t man enough to do the right thing. In other words, he slammed me around mentally until I gave in.
The odd thing was that when he treated me that way, I usually ended up doing exactly what he told me to do – not because I agreed with him, but because he was absolutely certain of what he was saying and he backed up his position with compelling reasons. At first, I didn’t realize what he was doing to me. It was only after he used the tactic on me 3 or 4 times that it became clear to me what was going on. I eventually named the tactic the “mental slam.”
Since learning the power of the mental slam, I have, on rare occasions, used it on other people. I have found that the mental slam is only effective when three conditions are met: (1) I have to be 100 percent certain I’m correct; (2) the person I’m using the tactic on has to trust me and have a high level of respect for me; and (3) I have to be able to back up what I’m saying with one or more compelling reasons as to why the person I’m talking to should do what I tell him to do.
In the case of the young businessman in the chapel, I made it clear to him that he needed to put himself in the shoes of the priest before making a decision as to whether he was going to create problems. I told him that he had no way of really understanding the life of a priest and the pressures associated with running a parish.
I explained to him that the Church tells us that when a priest receives Holy Orders, he takes on the sacramental role of representing Jesus Christ, who is the Bridegroom of His Bride, the Catholic Church. I then said, “You and I both have wives who love us. When we have issues or problems that come up, we can turn to our wives for support and guidance.
We can experience their love – mentally, emotionally, and physically. We can see them, hear them, and experience their touch. Although priests have their own support network and a special relationship with our Lord, they lack the emotional and physical support that those of us who are married have.”
I also talked about other things, such as: (1) the daily onslaught of complaints and problems that come up in a parish that must be handled in a prompt manner; (2) the juggling of multiple responsibilities, many of which were at one time handled by associate priests (before there was a shortage of priests); and (3) the constant scrutiny that a parish priest is under by hundreds (or thousands) of parishioners.
Ultimately, the young businessman who was full of self-righteous indignation when he walked into the chapel agreed with me that he had overreacted. He told me that he would drop the matter and refrain from discussing it with anyone else.
Last week I closed my article, Wolves At The Door, with the following:
The two priests I told you about earlier learned the hard way about the destructive power of the wolves at the door – wolves that lie in wait at the doors of every church ready to pounce on any priest who dares to tell them that they are committing a grave sin by practicing contraception. The wolves know they have the power to banish a priest to some rural parish if he “acts up” or “behaves inappropriately.” These wolves can be found in every Catholic parish and make up only about 5 percent of the parishioners. They’re bold, vicious, and powerful. In a parish of 300 families, 5 percent is 15 individuals. In a parish of 1,000 families, 5 percent is 50 individuals. Can you imagine a bishop receiving 50 calls and/or letters from parishioners complaining about their newly assigned priest?
There are devout Catholics who are upset and complain about the fact that our priests don’t talk enough (or at all) about contraception. What do you think? Should a priest subject himself to the wolves at the door by talking about contraception, or should he avoid irritating them?
Here’s my answer to the question: If I were a priest, I would meet with my bishop and tell him that I was planning on assigning certain themes to various months of the year. The theme for the month of January would be “Marriage and Christian Sexuality.” The topics for each of the 4 weeks in January would be: (1) The Sanctity of Marriage, (2) Contraception and Natural Family Planning, (3) Abortion and Euthanasia, and (4) Homosexuality. Each of the topics would be covered during weekend mass homilies (by me or a visiting priest), in an evening workshop that parishioners would be invited to attend, and during special events in the parish school.
Assuming I received the bishop’s approval, I would mail a letter to each of my parishioners at the end of November announcing that I had met with the bishop and received his enthusiastic support for the dedication of January as Marriage and Christian Sexuality Month. At the end of December, I would send an email to my parishioners that mirrored the language of the letter I mailed in November. I would also include a notice in the final church bulletin of the year reminding everyone that with the full support of the bishop, we were going to be dedicating the weeks in January to the selected topics. An announcement would also be made at all of the masses during the last weekend in December.
The strategy that I just outlined would, in effect, body slam and mentally slam the wolves in the parish. Each communication – mail, email, bulletin, announcement – would constitute a mental slam, reminding the wolves that any complaint to the bishop would be useless. They would realize that they would look like fools if they complained to the bishop or to their fellow parishioners. Like the wrestler in All-Star Wrestling, the wolves would (figuratively) end up on their backs with the wind knocked out of them.
After a successful conclusion of my January program, I would recruit other priests in the diocese to institute the same program in their parish for the following January. After a few years of expanding the January program to other parishes, I would ask the priests who were doing the program to join me in asking the bishop to make the program a diocese-wide program for all of the parishes.
The enemies of the Catholic Church are powerful and well-organized. We cannot expect them to simply roll over and give up. With prayer, planning, and organization we can neutralize them. But we need to get going in a big way or we’re going to be overwhelmed by their continuing multi-faceted attacks on us, our priests, and our church.