Over the past three and half years, I have been the recipient of more than a few conversations regarding sensitive material. With increasing occurrence, I find people “wanting to talk,” telling me very private information. Close friends and complete strangers alike have apparently felt comfortable enough to tell me their tragedies, embarrassing stories, questions of faith, and confounding moral dilemmas, without any intrusion on my part.
Why is this, I wonder?
In one sense, I see it as a sign of the speaker’s trust in me, his/her recognition of my character and maturity, and an attempt to be more vulnerable for the sake of fostering our relationship. I see myself as someone willing and able to have an intimate conversation, and people feel comfortable engaging me in a safe environment.
But that’s clearly only one, small part of the story. While I have obviously matured to some degree since entering the friars, I am generally the same person as I was before. Rather, I feel that it is much less who I am as a person as it is what I am as a person. I am a friar minor. I am a seminarian. I am someone who has devoted his life to God and serving God’s people. Most of all, I am someone who is expected to be trained in dealing with difficult matters and required to keep much of what I hear to myself. It is this, the title/position that I bear, that compels people to share their lives with me. Who I am as a person may account for the conversations I have had with close friends, but it certainly doesn’t account for the (non-immediate) family members and complete strangers that have all of the sudden begun offering intimate details about themselves in recent years. There is something much more than me here.
For the most part I welcome it all. It is a great privilege, and frankly, one of the main reasons I became a friar, to have the opportunity to enter into people’s lives so deeply. Being a friar, wearing my habit, gives people a very public and openly accessible opportunity to speak in ways that they would not normally feel comfortable. While some may find it exhausting to engage in these conversations in public, I actively welcome them.
For me, the thing that is much more exhausting is processing and holding onto what I have been told after the fact. While my experience has been nothing compared with someone hearing confessions on a regular basis, I have still heard some tough stuff to handle, situations that shake my sensibilities, shatter my preconceived notions about a person, or just leave me feeling very upset. In my very limited experience, I find that there are two issues to remain aware of.
The first is related to my post Growing in Solidarity. As one becomes awakened to a situation and person, one either chooses to remain distant or is moved towards a state of empathy, even solidarity. A major challenge for me is realizing that the latter is not necessarily the better option. If doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, counselors, police officers, and case workers took on the emotion and status of everyone they served, they would be overwhelmed and useless in a week. One simply cannot emotionally invest him/herself in every person and situation they meet. The toughest thing I think young people in each of these professions face, myself as a seminarian included, is knowing how to keep clear boundaries; we must balance our desire to be deeply invested in the lives we serve while remembering that the problems we hear are not our own. Some of them may be. Like I said in that post, some people or issues will inevitably move us, and as Christians, we are compelled to be converted by them. But not everything can have this effect. At times, being a good minister means being fully present in the moment but with a short memory.
For those moments that absolutely rock us, those situations that move us to the core or upset the way we once viewed the world, this presents another problem: processing the issue with another. For situations with complete strangers outside of the context of confession, the fraternity is an excellent outlet for advice. It’s the whole reason we choose to live in fraternity in the first place. We are in this together and we look to those who have lived this life to guide the new brothers along the way. But what if the situation relates to a well-known parishioner? What if it is a highly sensitive matter to the fraternity? What if it is about another brother? The reason that people invite us into their lives so willingly is that they trust us not to make their story open knowledge. To share a story with a wise brother, even if it is solely for professional advice, still spreads information that was held in confidence. However helpful, it is not always appropriate to go to our brothers for help.
What do we do then? For me, as in all cases of gossip, the first place I have to take anything is prayer. Throughout our lives, ministerial or personal, each of us hears things that we “just have to tell someone.” A lot of times, it is better that we don’t. Taking this to prayer has been an excellent way to release the burden of knowing something I cannot tell and a great way to come to peace with whatever it may be. As I develop my relationship with the triune God, I find that I can bring whatever it may be, trashy or deathly serious, and process it with someone who will not be scandalized by the information or in any way changed in relationship with the person about which I speak. And do you know what? God understands. God understands more than anyone I could possibly speak with, and, if I am right to listen, will help me process the situation and my own feelings better as well.
Ultimately, strictly “offering it up to God” as they say may not be the final solution every time, as serious situations require serious measures. But that doesn’t negate the importance of prayer nor does it diminish the expectation of secrecy many have when they open up. In fact, it is for these very reasons that people open up to us in the first place: they know that we will take their lives with us to prayer and that we will not share their story unless it is in their best interest. Thus, when I look at it this way, it’s very easy to answer the title question: a good minister never has to be the sole possessor of precious information, carrying the burden alone, but knows that God and God’s people are always there to guide along the way.