Thursday, May 31, 2007


Can you imagine being Bishop Lennon right now? I trust he is doing what he believes in his heart what is best for the Diocese and for the faith. But having good intentions does not mean that everyone will cut you slack. There is a storm a brewin’ in some circles and there is no doubt that they intend to pour burning hot coals on our shepherd’s head.

It would be nice to have Jesus Christ Himself come and be our bishop for a little spell. He could sit and listen patiently to each and every person, not take attacks personally, not let the strain wear him down, and always have the right thing to say. But we have a man named Lennon. A good man, but a man none-the-less and as such he will have imperfections not the least of which is, even after in depth consultation with all kinds of experts and people across the diocese, he cannot be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is doing the exact right thing. Jesus had that assurance, but Bishop Lennon can only do what he thinks is best and having everyone who is interested in talking to him second guessing him must be a terrible strain. H/t to Carol for, in her way, pointing this out yesterday.

Bearing this in mind, Gypsy and Winnipeg Catholic broached the subject of how to go about speaking to a priest about something that he is doing that may not be right. With some priests this is easy. For some men, there will never be a right time. They will take offense no matter how delicately you couch the subject. Either way, you have both a right and sometimes an obligation to make your concerns known. Knowing that there are no guarantees, here are some suggestions that I recommend for engaging a priest in such a case.

Know the importance of your concern. Is your concern something along the lines of a matter of validity of the sacraments or more having to do with personal tastes? For (a silly) example, is the priest using beer instead of wine at the mass? That is a hill worth dying on. If he wearing green clericals instead of black and you make a huge brouhaha of it you will find little meaningful support and your future real concerns, as legitimate as they may be, will have lost their impact.

Make sure that your concern is true for where you are. For example, kneeling after the Agnus Dei in the United States is up to the discretion of the local bishop. The former bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland has mandated that we stand and many a good priest were viciously attacked for being obedient servants to the bishop by well meaning persons who not only did not know of the ruling, but refused to believe it when they were informed. I was once grilled horribly for having a communal penance service. The person who accosted and threatened me thought we were having general absolution, a practice forbidden in the diocese. No explanation was satisfactory. I finally gave him the number of the bishop and told him to tell on me.

Everybody wants their priest to act as a good spiritual father of the parish family. That desire cuts both ways. A good friend of mine stopped in to talk about his kids whom he dearly loves. “But Father, all they are doing now is yelling and fighting, and getting sick. They are driving me crazy!” Is the first time your pastor really hears from you going to be when you have a complaint? As a member of the parish family has he heard from you about what you are willing to do in the parish? “Father, do you need help?” This is welcome news especially for things outside of mass. Bringing communion to the sick, teaching CCD, offering to head up something are ways not only to be involved in your parish but a way to build up trust between you and your pastor and allow the free flow of ideas both ways.

Be careful not to ambush. I’ve seen it all too often. Just stepping off of the altar is a bad time to do anything but shake hands and offer pleasantries. There may be a couple of hundred other people to greet or the next sacrament to get ready for. Also, if you have something meaningful and difficult to talk about it is not a good idea to “catch” your priest as he is out on a friendly errand, sitting at the table in a restaurant, or “not doing anything” when he is in church praying. If you don't have the kind of relationship in which you spend time together and can just talk, make an appointment.

The past liturgist for this diocese was fond of reminding us, “Nobody wakes up in the morning planning to destroy the Roman Rite.” Chances are, even if something is clearly against liturgical law or what have you, the priest (hopefully) has what he believes to be the good of the parish in mind. He may use inclusive language because he feels he can reach more people and bring them closer to Christ by doing so. He may use some aspects of an older rite for funerals because he feels that is what his people know, expect, and are comfortable with. This is not to excuse such actions, but to point out that they are not being done in a nefarious manner. This should be kept in mind when approaching a pastor.

Be sincere in your desire to understand why it is he chooses do something that you find objectionable. You would wish to be heard and understood in a disagreement even if you don’t prevail. At least then you feel respected. Priests are no different.

Understand that there are some things that take place that he also may be uncomfortable with and does not wish to do. Parochial vicars may be under orders to do something at mass. As a good churchman he might keep his mouth shut and do it knowing some day he too will be a pastor and then can do things the (hopefully) right way. He may not be at liberty to make his grievances know to you.

Of course, politeness, courtesy, and friendliness go a long way. Many a position has been held just as a grudge against an angry accusation. Is this right? No. That is why we all need Jesus to save us from our sins.

Lastly, know there are guys just barely holding it together. There are men in charge of parishes much larger than they are qualified for, but there is no one to take their place. Sometimes guys in small parishes are there because they need a more limited ministry in order to function well and being snarky may be their way of coping with life. The snarkier usually mean the more fragile.

Pray for priests. They need it. They need you as you need them. Know that it can take as long for them to come around and warm up to a new idea or a new way of doing things as it can be for the average parishioner. We are a family. A darn big one. And large families are difficult to manage and take great care and sacrifice on everybody’s part.


Adoro said...

Fr. V., great post, and great answers. Since I've been serving in parish leadership, I've also become more aware of what our priests have to deal with. It's actually hard to bite my tongue when I hear people I know criticize them for doing things a certain way or not doing things a certain way, because I'm not always in a position to be able to defend them. Sometimes it's because I don't know the whole story so it's better not to step into it, sometimes it's because there's other info that I don't think is my place to reveal. There's a balance that has to be struck.

We are blessed, though, and we love our priests. They're incredible and people do show them their appreciation all the time, although I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they take more flack than compliments.

One of my training officers once told me that it takes 10 positive things to overcome a negative, and I've often found that to be true. We all need to know when we're doing well, that what we are doing is appreciated, etc, and that appreciation can be shown in small ways. It's usually the little things, whether good or bad, that make the most difference. I suspect you'd agree with that.

Anonymous said...

Great post and nice tongue twister title! As a teacher I totally agree about not ambushing. I can't tell you the number of times a parent would try to talk to me about their child when I was out running errands. It's hard to have a meaningful conversation when you are distracted, rushed etc. Not to mention just plain rude to take someone's time away from what they were doing.
About offering to help being a way to build trust and share ideas between you and your pastor. It also helps you get to know other parishoners and how things "work" in your parish. It can give you an insight into how your pastor or priests are sometimes treated by others.
What we all need to remember is that whether it's bishop, pastor, priest or ourself, we are all human and can only do the best we can. We all need each others support and prayers. It's going to be a tough time for all. For those mourning and those rejoicing!

Anonymous said...

Our parishes are in the midst of great change, too.. but I recall when all the little cliques, and that's what other parishes had seemed to us all, all came together for the RCIA folks. This parish's priest spoke on this, that one on that, and all Rites and Scrutinies were held at different parishes, and we all were to go follow these, gathered as one, no more the 3 or 4 parishes gripping our favorite pewbacks. It felt new in a good way.. A much bigger sacrifice is asked, now. But it's the Catholic Church, however it looks or feels, and that is that.

As for speaking with priests.. I'm sure I mentioned it, but indeed, make an appointment and speak privately. One day while in Adoration, the pastor came and said, "I received your note, but I'm free right now, if you'd like to come into the rectory?" We talked about the matter, and after he discerned this was only and truly a hill I'd gladly die on for Christ's greater acknowledgement and honor in the Tabernacle, he said he would address the problem from the pulpit for two weeks. He did, it didn't help right away, but we loved each other even more, right away. The problem is greatly resolved, now, and sometimes, resolutions just have to germinate a while, and sometimes, others need to speak up, too--but in a way of respect and patience and with some grasp of what the clergy both faces and answers to.

A family, yes. :-)


Odysseus said...

-It would be nice to have Jesus Christ Himself come and be our bishop for a little spell. He could sit and listen patiently to each and every person, not take attacks personally-

Actually, scripture shows that Jesus would not simply stay on the defensive. I believe the town of Chorazin got condemned to Hell for not listening.

Now, He was Jesus so, as you say, He knew He was right. Not so easy for us.

However, having been in leadership positions, whether it's over a classroom, a school or a homeless shelter, I know I have often been too passive, too willing to let the other guy talk. And my subordinates would let me know that they didn't like that! They wanted me to take charge and even be wrong, rather than be everyone's friend. I have brothers that were in the army and I think they would agree that they would rather follow bad orders than have no orders to follow.

My point is this: I think many bishops have to be more assertive. They are the top of the line. There is no person with a closer connection to God than a bishop. In the early Church, the bishop was simply Christ on Earth, and what he said was law for his diocese. And we need them to give orders, even if they offend us sometimes.

"Being pastoral" does not mean being a carpet for everyone to walk on. If my bishop takes abuse, I, as another member of the body of Christ, take abuse too. If anyone can defend us, it is him.

The good news is that bishops all over the country seem to be coming out and speaking the gospel much more publicly than we are used to. I hope Bishop Lennon follows this trend and visibly rules his diocese, giving all the good Catholics there someone to follow.

Anonymous said...

"he might keep his mouth shut and do it knowing some day he too will be a pastor...He may not be at liberty to make his grievances know to you."

Keeping his grievances to himself is patience, charity, and humility of a heroic nature. His cross is one that I'm sure benefits us all.

That priest will be a pastor someday. I'm sure his parishoners hope he will not have to leave them to do it.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

oops, I clicked publish to soon. My AMEN was for Fr. V's post.

Adoro said...

Speaking of praying for priests...if y'all could please keep the priests at my parish in your prayers; they have a HUGE job, they're understaffed, and our Pastor just looks exhausted all the time. A year after his ordination the Archbishop asked him to take the reins at the largest parish in our diocese, and he did it, but it also became a full stewardship parish at the same time. And debts are being called in, less than half of the parishioners are supporting the parish in any way, and he's had to make some very tough decisions, even amongst the petty stuff people bring to him all the time.

I would not in a thousand years want to be in his shoes, and we need a miracle. (I'm pretty sure no one would rejoice more than he if that miracle happens)

OK, back to regular programming....

Anonymous said...

Prayers from here, tho' what you describe is what we've been seeing for years. Pray for priests.. and for vocations.. and talk both of them up. :-)


Rev. Daren J. Zehnle, J.C.L., K.C.H.S. said...

Very well said, Father. I appreciate your words; thank you.

fr jim said...

pistol packing pastors?

i've seen more pistols coming from the lips of the church ladies who want us to do things "their way"......

just tonite, trinity sunday,
i was accosted by a woman who wanted me to "stop all those people from leaving mass early."

My response:"M'am, with all due respect. What would you like me to do?"

"Whatever it takes."

The only reply was the one used by Jesus himself: "sigh"

and we wonder why so few want to enter the deep waters of ministry these days...
when you are attacked on all sides.....
when you see the blogs that attack and now the utubes that film....

i'd like someone to write a blog: "when the parishioners ambush the priest."

Mary B said...

My husband and I have seen a few problems that we or a group had to address. Yes it was a 'hill worth dying on' As it was looked at we found the first symptoms of Alzheimer's.
Address your concerns with great compassion. 2 beloved men of God have not passed and yet are not with us.
Be glad you knew them when. Offer you sadness at their errors for their health, well being and their soul.