The Christian Gentleman

By Fr. Carter Griffin


George Washington was thirteen years old when he was given the task of copying out, by hand, a small book entitled 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Some Washington biographers say that this assignment was one of the most powerful influences in his early life.

The rules are not of equal seriousness. “If you deliver anything witty and pleasant,” one rule instructs, “abstain from laughing thereat yourself.” Another: “If you cough, sneeze, sign, or yawn, do it not loud but privately; and speak not in your yawning, but put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside.” And another: “Make no show of taking great delight in your feed. Feed not with greediness.” I am thinking of having that one printed and hung up in the seminary refectory.

Some of the rules are more solemn. “When a man does all he can, though it succeed not well, blame not him that did it.” And one rule is so famous it is sometimes attributed (mistakenly) to Washington himself: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Why bring up this little book from Washington’s childhood? Because the rules he was copying by hand were originally written by French Jesuits in 1595. George Washington, the quintessential American, a true gentleman if ever there were one, was formed in part by Catholic priests.

The intention of these Jesuits in forming gentlemen went beyond courtly manners and table etiquette; they aspired to form young men whose natural grace prepared them for the super-natural grace of charity. Refined manners, these Jesuits thought, belong in the life of every believer. They are especially suitable in the life of a priest.

Everyone, after all, has a claim on a celibate priest. Everyone has a right to expect us to love them, to be there for them, because of who we are as spiritual fathers. We belong to those we serve. We are interested in every soul. That means that we treat everyone with respect and affection, no matter their age, wealth, social position, beauty, or if they happen to like us or not. As fathers, we have a special love for the weak, the sick, the poor, the suffering, for children and for sinners. Our hearts are open to all.

St. John Paul II wrote in Pastores Dabo Vobis that a priest is called to be a “man of communion.” A priest, he said, should be “affable, hospitable, sincere in his words and heart, prudent and discreet, generous and ready to serve, capable of opening himself to clear and brotherly relationships and of encouraging the same in others, and quick to understand, forgive and console.” A priest, in other words, must be a Christian gentleman. Look at those adjectives: affable, hospitable, generous, forgiving, consoling. Now think of the opposites: grouchy, indifferent, deceptive, selfish, cold, and belligerent. Which kind of priest do you want to be?

The word “gentleman” might sound a bit quaint and old-fashioned, but that is not how I intend it. What I mean by gentleman is someone who, in the words of John Paul, is a “bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ.” That covers a lot of ground. A Christian gentleman is comfortable with himself and in the world. He exhibits sincerity and honesty. He can have a conversation with someone who disagrees with him without raising his voice. He has learned how to be “all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:22). He is positive and cheerful, not negative and cynical. He is responsible and punctual, loath to keep people waiting. He instinctively protects the underdog. He is open minded and fair, ready to make excuses for others and assuming the best about their intentions. He has a sense of humor and displays good sportsmanship.

In the writings of St. Thomas, the virtue of “affability” probably comes closest to capturing the idea. Importantly, “affability” falls under the cardinal virtue of justice. Putting good manners in the context of justice reminds us that when we speak about
the qualities of a Christian gentleman, we are presuming other, weightier virtues. Being a gentleman does not mean a soft, genteel, bourgeois way of life. It is Christian manhood at its best, akin to the notion of “chivalry,” channeling the strength of masculine energy into goodness, love, respect, and protecting the vulnerable.

Father Carter Griffin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. A graduate of Princeton University and a former line officer in the United States Navy, he obtained his doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. After serving at St. Peter’s parish on Capitol Hill, in 2011 he was assigned to the newly-established St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, DC, where he now serves as Rector. He is the author of Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest and Cross-Examined: Catholic Responses to the World’s Questions, published by Emmaus Road Publishing.

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Forming Fathers: Seminary Wisdom for Every Priest seeks to remind priests of the lessons so greatly needed to fulfill their calling faithfully. Originally delivered by Fr. Carter Griffin as talks to seminarians, this series of short, inspiring vignettes can help rekindle a priest’s first love and awaken the aspirations that brought him into the seminary in the first place. Much of what is contained in these pages is also applicable to Catholic laymen, themselves called to the virtues of Christian manhood, the responsibilities of discipleship, and the dignity of spiritual fatherhood.