Catholic Sense 17

Responding to the Annoying

By David Mills

Her friend kept picking at her about confession, a reader wrote me recently. This friend, who must have been very annoying, demanded to knowhow she could tell some man about her sins and why she thought that he could do anything about them.

I have had this same experience, and many of you probably have as well. People you know, sometimes close relatives or very good friends, seem personally offended by something that as a Catholic you do as a matter of course. They act as if you kept insulting their nose or spitting on their living room floor or making fun of their grandparents.

And very often, nothing you can say seems to make any difference. The kindest, clearest, most compelling explanation goes in one ear and out the other. Eventually you will hear the same remarks again, maybe in almost exactly the same words, with the same annoyance, astonishment, or insistence in their voices.

Confession is one of the main subjects of their annoyance, but not the only way. I have had friends equally insulted by my belief in the presence of Our Lord in the elements at Mass and my confidence in the authority of the Church’s Magisterium, and especially by my believing that the pope was not just a man like any other.

It’s a little weird. It’s as if they were harrassing you about the color of your socks or your preferences in peanut butter, or calling you up every few days to ask why you like old movies. Or maybe better, it’s as if they were constantly questioning the way you were raising your children, when your children seemed to be turning out well. You’re not sure why they care, and why they think it all right to — in fact necessary — to cross that line between friendly interest and interfering in someone else’s life.

You may be more patient or more charitable than I am (the reader who wrote me apparently was), but while I can manage a polite answer the first two or three times, I soon start being tempted to answer this kind of person with a sarcastic, “So why do you care, Jack?”

It’s no skin off their nose if I go into a small room late on a Saturday morning and tell a man authorized for this kind of work what I’ve done wrong and get his response. They wouldn’t say anything at all if I went to a counsellor every week and told him the same things. So why do they care so much that I go to a priest in the hope of becoming a better man? What’s it to them?

As I say, I am tempted to give the sarcastic response or something ruder. I just want them to shut up. (This being in itself good evidence for the need to visit that small room with the man behind the screen.)

But I think that asking your inquisitor “Why do you care?”, said with concern and not annoyance, is actually the right thing to say to someone who keeps pestering you about the way you practice your faith. It is a way of expressing your care for him and at the same time may be the best way to make him stop annoying you.

He may have a reason. It may not be a good reason, but you now have a chance to answer it, which should stop him stop bothering you and may even let you talk with him in a fruitful way. But he may not have a reason, and being forced to admit that may embarrass him into stopping harassing you.

Or he may have a reason he doesn’t recognize himself, and you will be doing him a kindness by making him reflect on why he reacts to your faith the way he does. Sometimes — and this I’ve seen myself — the idea of saying his sins aloud and with another person listening really frightens him. He doesn’t want to hear it said out loud, even by himself.

If he sees this, then you can begin to show him that in confession (or in any other Catholic practice to which he objects), the loving Father offers his children what they really need and what they really want. And you can turn a persecutor into a friend.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the March 26, 2010 issue of the Pittsburgh Catholic.