Everything I need to know about the real world, I learned from Fr. Mastroeni.
It was the first day of my freshman year, and I had been condemned — er, assigned — to this diminutive Italian priest’s Catholic Doctrine course. Theology 101. Older students looked at my class schedule and turned a little green. “You have him for Theology?” And then they’d collect themselves and clear their throats and say, “Oh, well. You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.”
He had skin like leather and black hair, spidery black eyebrows, and spiky black hairs that jutted out of his nose and ears. During classes he slurped black coffee from a travel mug, and his cassock rustled as he paced back and forth, back and forth while he lectured. On the coldest winter days he’d order the students at the back of the room to open the windows.
“Get some air moving in here!” he’d yell, and then grin as we huddled into our coats and breathed on our frozen fingers so we could take notes.
He threw around platitudes like candy at a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade.
“Throwing away your notes from class is like throwing away your heritage!”
“Living the spirit of poverty doesn’t mean buying lots of cheap stuff. It means making what you do buy count for a long time.” (He once lectured us for a good ten minutes on the art of buying the perfect pair of shoes.)
But perhaps his greatest lesson, repeated countless times over the course of that semester and the following, was this: “‘Niceness’ isn’t a virtue!” He would throw up his hands as he said it and stare at a spot on the ceiling while the words echoed around the basement classroom.
I was taken aback by this at first, but it sank in over time. In many ways, it’s still sinking in. Two weeks ago I hung up the phone at my desk and sat on my hands, which were shaking uncontrollably. I’d just received the angriest voicemail I’ve ever heard, from a man who does not know me and never will, calling me hateful and un-Christian because I had had the audacity to lay out the Christian opinion on the homosexual lifestyle in an op-ed. I thought, with a rueful laugh, “At least Fr. Mastroeni would be proud.”
There is no virtue in hiding behind “niceness” when you’re faced with the atrocity of sin. “Nice” wants everyone to get along, shuns confrontation, and looks the other way in the face of real ugliness. A prime example: abortion. A dear friend of mine spends her Saturday mornings outside a local abortion clinic, approaching women on their way into the facility and offering them literature and information on alternatives. Somehow she manages to do so with a smile, even when these same women respond with cruel words and ugly gestures. She is charitable and kind, but she is not nice. She looks evil in the face and calls it what it is. That’s virtue.
Or consider the raging gay marriage debate that will be picking up steam in the coming months. People tend to stand way back from this issue. Most of us know and love people who are gay. We recognize their struggles and, if we’re fair, we acknowledge that the way we Christians are asking them to live (celibate) goes beyond what most of us plan (or hope) to do in our lives. Even those of us who are single now can look forward to a happy, healthy marriage. What will that marriage offer? Stability, family, love, intimacy — those good, human things we’re all wired to yearn for. Most of us fear the possibility of ending up alone. Your heart should break for our brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction and all that they may have to give up in order to live virtue.
But the reality remains that gay marriage goes against the natural law, and it goes against God’s law. Let’s put it in simple terms: God made man and woman, and he made sex between a man and a woman to bring about children. That’s what marriage is for. We can’t blink at that because we’re uncomfortable with it. Instead, we need to be more fervent than ever in loving our gay friends and family members, and we need to look as a culture at the ways in which we define love and intimacy. Does a life without marriage have to mean a life lived alone? Why do we allow it to be that way, if so? We have set up sex as an end to be achieved, a good in and of itself. That thinking is screwed up. Love can be expressed in multiple, beautiful ways that are not sexual. Just look at the two holiest, most loving people who ever lived: Jesus and his mother. They were both celibate.
Over the last two years, a constant theme of this blog has been community. How can we create structures of community for those who, as Jesus says in the gospel, are unable to marry? (See Matthew 19:12.) That should be our challenge and our work, not hiding from the issue because we don’t want to hurt feelings. Niceness in this case gets nothing done, and there are souls on the line.
In short, niceness weighs the pros and cons and determines that it’s more important to be comfortable (and well-liked) than it is to fight to save souls.
Niceness isn’t a virtue.
Sometimes life isn’t comfortable or safe. We’ve made a virtue out of safety, and we’ve forgotten that the Christian life is a battle. There is a daily battle being waged for every individual soul, and it’s our responsibility to pitch in. Eternal lives are on the line.
I’m writing this as the world’s most confirmed coward. I can barely confront my roommates about minor areas of housekeeping, and I live in utter terror of being disliked. I have never dreamed of battles or glory, my one experience firing a gun made my knees knock for about an hour afterwards, and the very idea of “resisting to the point of shedding [my] blood” makes my hair stand on end.
Regardless of what I like or what makes me comfortable, though, there remains the stark reality that niceness can’t ever be a virtue because life simply isn’t nice. Be kind. Be loving. But resist the urge to succumb to easy, comfortable niceness in living the Christian life.
And thank God for good friends who provide love and support when the battle gets rough, for loving families who train us in the way we should go, and for wise teachers who give us the lessons that prepare us to face the realities of an often harsh and supremely not-nice world.