The Saintly Guide to Facing Unpopularity

Do not wonder, brethren, that the world hates you.

1 John 3:13

The Curé d’Ars & Unpopularity

In 1818, St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, was sent to the remote French town of Ars, whose residents were largely indifferent to the Faith. By means of prolonged prayer, frequent fasting, powerful preaching, and saintly example, St. John set into motion the spiritual transformation of his parish. During his forty years there, he became known throughout France as a holy, insightful confessor, seemingly able to read minds and remind penitents of sins they had forgotten, and people came from many miles away to confess to him (requiring him to spend up to sixteen hours a day in the confessional). Late in his life, John was worn out from his unending efforts to save souls, and three times he tried to leave the parish for a monastery, but the people would not allow it.

John was extremely popular and beloved, but not everyone appreciated him. Some of the neighboring priests were jealous of his success and accused him of being overly zealous, ignorant, and perhaps even deranged. (To this the bishop replied, “I wish, gentlemen, that all my clergy had a touch of the same madness.”)

There were also several women in the parish who approached St. John soon after his arrival there and asked him to begin saying Mass each week for “a special intention.” This went on for fourteen years; finally the saint’s curiosity got the better of him, and he asked the women what sort of intention it was that hadn’t been granted after all that time. The women replied, “We’ve been praying that you’d be sent to a different parish.”

 

It’s impossible to be universally popular and appreciated; even someone as successful and beloved as St. John Vianney had his own experience of unpopularity. Human affections are, by their very nature, fickle and unpredictable. People can be attracted to or dislike someone for the most trivial reasons. Adding a religious element further complicates the picture: because religion can be such a controversial subject, those who take their Faith seriously are always at risk of being misunderstood and treated with contempt. Jesus frequently warned His followers that, because they were not of this world, they would be hated and persecuted.

Facing Anger and Derision

Christians and others who seek to live out their moral values will frequently provoke anger and criticism. The world never rewards those whose actions call into question its values and beliefs or who proclaim a message it doesn’t want to hear. Unpopularity is sometimes a milder form of this opposition, and not surprisingly, many of the saints experienced it.

This article is from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems.

St. John of Kanty eventually became as beloved by his parishioners as was St. John Vianney, but at first he was quite unpopular. This fifteenth-century Polish priest had been quite successful as a preacher and university professor, but the jealousy of his rivals led to his being assigned to a parish in the poor, unimportant town of Olkusz. He wasn’t welcome there, and he himself doubted his qualifications to be a pastor; however, John worked very hard and, after a number of years, became much loved by his parishioners.

In the sixth century, the great monk St. Benedict found that unpopularity could be dangerous. As a young man, he decided to live as a hermit; soon afterward, some monks sought him out and asked him to serve as their leader. This arrangement didn’t work out, though. The monks were upset by Benedict’s high standards, and they expressed their displeasure in a rather unmistakable way: they attempted to poison him.

(Taking the hint, Benedict went elsewhere, but he remained committed to the idea of monks’ working, living, and praying together.)

Unpopularity can have a number of causes, such as a person’s seeming strange or different. This happened to St. Joseph of Cupertino when he was a young man; his unhappy childhood caused him to become withdrawn and absentminded, and he tended to wander aimlessly through his village with his mouth agape and a blank expression on his face. Although lazy, Joseph had a strong temper, which added to his unpopularity. Only after several failures and setbacks did he find his calling as a Franciscan priest, and eventually he became renowned for the many alleged miracles associated with him.

Unpopularity can also result from failure. Pope St. Gregory VII strongly upheld the authority of the Church against Emperor Henry IV of Germany. At first it seemed as if Gregory would prevail, but Henry went back on his word and besieged and conquered Rome in 1084. The city was recaptured on Gregory’s behalf by a Catholic prince from Normandy, but the cost in human life and property damage was so great that the furious Roman citizens forced the Pope to flee. The following year Gregory died in Salerno, having remarked, “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity; that is why I die in exile.”

We can also suffer unpopularity because of our honest efforts to serve God and oppose wickedness. This was the experience of the great fourth-century defender of the Faith St. Athanasius. He almost singlehandedly preserved the Church from the heresy of Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ. Because many bishops and important laypeople (including some emperors) favored Arianism, Athanasius frequently found himself under attack and was exiled for many of his forty-six years as bishop. The same thing happened to St. Eusebius of Vercelli, who experienced much abuse from the Arians when he was exiled, and to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who, ironically, was falsely accused of Arianism himself. These three fourth-century bishops helped preserve the true Faith of the Church; their immediate reward was to be vilified, condemned, and punished. Only toward the end of their lives was their contribution recognized and applauded by their contemporaries.

Christ commanded us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Matt. 5:44), and this command includes our loving response to those with whom we’re unpopular. According to St. Alphonsus Liguori, “The saints bear no malice against those who mistreat them, but love them all the more; and the Lord, as a reward for their patience, heightens their inner peace.” While the saints loved everyone, they were completely indifferent to human approval. St. John Vianney reminds us, “You cannot please both God and the world at the same time. They are utterly opposed to each other in their thoughts, their desires, and their actions.” This being the case, we must choose Christ, and as Christians, we must renew this choice regularly — indeed, in every moral decision we make — even at the cost of unpopularity. The Cure d’Ars advises us, “Do not try to please everybody. Try to please God, the angels, and the saints — they are your public,” and he also offers us these blunt words: “If you are afraid of other people’s opinion, you should not have become a Christian.”

There’s a price to be paid for following Jesus; committed Christians must expect a certain amount of unpopularity. However, as St. Gerard Majella asks, “Who except God can give you peace? Has the world ever been able to satisfy the heart?” The measure of a successful life is not fame and popularity, nor is it the judgment of history (although, in the end, history will look with favor on all servants of Christ). The only judgment that matters is God’s. If we please Him, we’ll experience everlasting popularity in Heaven, and this goal is well worth whatever it costs us here and now.

For Further Reflection

“Finding no resting-place without, [the one who strives for righteousness] cleaves more intensely to God within. All his hope is fixed on his Creator, and amid all the ridicule and abuse, he invokes his interior witness alone. One who is afflicted in this way grows closer to God the more he turns away from human popularity.” — St. Gregory the Great

“The aversions that you experience, the ridicule, the scorn, the jokes, etc., should be received with great gratitude toward God. These serve as the pyre of love on which the victim of love is burned. Gently drive away all aversions, and show yourself cordial to everyone.” — St. Paul of the Cross

“We must practice patience and show our love for God by peacefully suffering the scorn we receive from others. As soon as souls give themselves completely to God, God Himself causes or permits others to despise and persecute them.” — St. Alphonsus Liguori

Something You Might Try

·When asked by his wife how he always remained so calm and patient when he was mocked or insulted, the fourteenth century nobleman St. Elzear answered, “I turn and look on Jesus, who was despised and rejected, and I see that the affronts to me are nothing compared with what He suffered for me; so God gives me strength to bear it all patiently.” This is a simple but effective method you can use, too. When you experience any form of unpopularity or derision, remind yourself of all that Jesus suffered for you, and consciously choose to unite your insignificant sufferings with His.

·Learn to rejoice in your unpopularity. According to Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, “The acceptance of the fullness of Truth will have the unfortunate quality of making you hated by the world. Forget for a moment the history of Christianity, and the fact that Christ existed. Suppose there appeared in this world today a man who claimed to be Divine Truth; and who did not say, ‘I will teach you Truth,’ but, ‘I am the Truth.’ Suppose he gave evidence by his works of the truth of his statement. Knowing ourselves as we do, with our tendency to relativism, to indifference, and to the fusing of right and wrong, how do you suppose we would react to that Divine Truth? With hatred, with obloquy, with defiance; with charges of intolerance, narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and crucifixion. That is what happened to Christ. That is what our Lord said would happen to those who accept His Truth.”

Archbishop Sheen’s insight suggests that if you’re unpopular, it may be because you’re doing something right, and if that’s the case, you should wear your unpopularity and nonconformity with the world’s values as a badge of honor. Indeed, a willingness to do what’s right without worrying about what others think can be a powerful form of evangelization, and so you can console yourself by remembering that your willingness to persevere even in the face of unpopularity can be a way of proclaiming the Gospel.

This article is from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems. It is available as a paperback or ebook from Sophia Institute Press.

Fr. Joseph M. Esper

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Fr. Joseph Esper studied at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1982. He has lectured at Marian conferences, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic, Pastoral Review, and other publications. From his experience as a parish priest, Fr. Esper offers today’s readers practical, encouraging, and inspiring wisdom.

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