Thursday, August 7, 2008


A number of years ago there was a large meeting of priests and one of the topics of the day was the work load expected of them. There were a few hundred priests present at the general call for discussion. Per forma one of the priests raised his hand, was recognized, stood and said, “What we need to do is get other people to run the parishes so that we can focus on what we were ordained to do; sacraments and teaching!” This was met with a smattering of applause among my confreres, some of it impassioned.

First, a little background: What the Church does in the United States is a bit unique. Ask almost any foreign priest functioning as a parish priest here for a spell. We tend to do more, provide more, expect more as parishes than most of the rest of world. The way I understand it this came about largely through the influence of ethnic parishes. The nationality parish was often the center of the community. The very reason that nationality parishes sprung up in the first place was that there were communities of Catholics that felt excluded, needed a unique experience of community, and looked to the Church for assistance in this new world. As a result the parish became the center of the community. It provided not only sacraments and education but almost anything that the community needed or desired. Sports, social clubs, banking, community dances, picnics, fairs, and what we would call today social services. It was not unheard of for parishes to have such amenities as bowling alleys or the like. At one point at my home parish of Sacred Heart Slovenian Church the pastor built a bar and told people that if they were going to go drinking and waist their money do it at the parish! And then he opened a bar.

Of course there is also the experience of the model of the mega-Protestant-church today that provides every kind of service conceivable (save the sacraments) for those who join along with gourmet donut and a cup of Starbuck’s Coffee. As a result many want to mimic this example of church in the Catholic Church in order to stave off loosing people to “Every Sunday is Donut Sunday” at the latest church down the street.

So now we have mega parishes often providing services comparable with a small city. On the one hand this is pretty great as long as our primary objectives (sacraments and Christian education) do not just become one on the list of services provided. (They must be FIRST and all else flow from it.) But on the other hand the parish is often entrusted to the leadership of just one priest who could not possibly run all of these programs and be ever present to his people and be a fabulous preacher and show up to all of the meetings and promote every club, and who, quite honestly, is probably not qualified to do it all.

So what is the problem of the pastor handing over the reigns to non-clergy and focusing on what a priest is “supposed to do?” The first problem is that the parish priest was ordained to be entrusted with the care of a parish. The way that I see it, to change this would either require a change in the universal Canon Law which governs the Church or that we would become a Church without pastors. A priest would simply be assigned to a parish to provide sacramental services and otherwise not have much to do (Canonically) with the place.

Without this change in law, if something were to wrong on the parish level resulting in a law suit, the person who is ultimately responsible is the pastor (and through him the bishop. And he would be thrilled about this.) In a court room an unacceptable answer to a prosecutor’s (or bishop’s) question is, “I did not know it was happening. I trusted everything to this person.” “But Father, were you not responsible by your own governing law to watch over this person?” “Yes.” “Then why did you not keep a closer eye on what he did or put safe guards in place?” “But I wanted to focus on spiritual matters I trusted this person to do the business aspects.” “And now because of your negligence this happened. You were responsible Father. You should have tried to do something!”

Unless there would be a change in Canon Law (which I do no foresee) or that priests simply become sacramental machines and not pastors of parishes (which at least I do not want), it will require more cooperation between the parish and its pastor. Even if the priest hate it, he must keep his finger on the pulse of everything of consequence at the parish. Much trust and responsibility must be given to others but there also must needs be strict checks and balances. Only with this can we continue to be both healthy and provide all of the services to which we have become accustomed.

It means that priests need to be better trained in these areas. As they are trained to know the limitations of their counseling skills and when to refer someone to more competent professionals, so must they be able to do in parish activities: knowing enough when they are over their heads in order to pass on the day to day load and also knowing enough to be able to assess the process and results. That is simply good stewardship.

It also means that if a person thinks that there is a great need for a ministry or activity at the parish, it is not simply a matter of suggesting and waiting for someone to make it happen, but offer to be the person to make it happen. (And of course support the parish so that it has the resources to do it.)

It also means praying for and promoting vocations. There are a number of empty suites here at Saint Sebastian and I would love to fill them with priests eager to take on the duties expected of the modern parish and to eventually take care of me in my dotage.


Father Schnippel said...

Another good post, my friend!

Many who advocate doing 'the things I was ordained to do' forget that we are ordained to the TRI-muneral office of priest, prophet, and king. What this means is that yes, we have obligations to the Sacraments (priestly role), to teach (prophetic role), but we also very much have a role as a priest to administer (the kingly role). This is part and parcel of who we are and what we do! It is NOT something that is 'added on,' which we do simply because no one else can do it. Does this mean we, as priests, have to do it all? By no means. But we are certainly responsible for it all.

Anonymous said...

ROFL, "dotage" -- one can hardly picture you young guys in dotage. Man, Fr. V is so tall, some nursing home will have to have TWO gait belts on him for any wobbly walking --one 2/3 of the way up and the other 2/3 of the way down.

It was amazing to see how a parish can really take off when things are well-offered as well as well-delegated. I was not Mrs. PTA so I always felt there wasn't much I could do in a parish, but after offering to serve in this or that capacity, I ended up being entrusted with so much, I was one of the Nine Do-ers. That's when I saw how much there really is to do for even a 2100-family parish. And it is FUN to help the parish family. It's very rewarding. I have come to consider it duty -- it is like an extended family, yes? That is the only reason that an old hippie would accept not only a pastoral council seat for years, but also the Social Events chair.

Religious ed and confirmation facilitation, RCIA sponsor and team, Evangelization team, food pantry and soup kitchen, office help, pro-life efforts, national awareness / involvement in issues, Children's liturgy, Book of Intentions, seasonal things, Newsletter, Arts and Environment, liturgical theme and other committees, annual RCIA reunion dinners, nursery, endless years as coffee hostess.. and all the things I wasn't involved in, ushers, welcomers, Readers, EMHCs, Liturgy committee, mercy meals, etc etc etc. Can we imagine a parish priest trying to do all this? It's why even I offered; the priest needs to be the priest --and especially in these days when he has so little clerical assistance.


Adoro said...

We are constantly hearing news stories about parishes that have "Sacramental Ministers", and so the "Parish Administrator" role goes to some wacked-out Sister or equally left-wing lay person who suddenly begins making liturgical decisions, relegating the Priest, or, in their terms, "Sacramental Minister" to a submissive role.

And it NEVER works. If the Priest isn't in charge, it becomes "religion by committee." And there it all dies.

Lillian Marie said...

Who are you calling a 'wacked out sister'???? *grin* (yeah, that'll probably be me in a couple years. *grin*)

Sounds an awful lot like what's going on here at work. Doing more with less staff and having to keep up with the demand. (no wonder I'm going gray..uhm, I mean, auburn). However, we are only working with 'people', you all are working with souls.

Anonymous said...

LM ~ Your community doesn't allow wacked out sisters. You're in no danger of becoming one!

Anonymous said...

I wonder why the college seminary doesn't offer business as a major or at least encourage business courses as an elective. With more and more parishes having one priest it would seem to make sense.
More lay people getting involved in parish life to help out in different ministries would also be good. But usually it is the same people and everyone gets spread thin.
I try to help out at my parish as much as possible. I find it helps you get to know other people in the parish, which in turn makes it feel more like a family. Sometimes I wish I could do more.


uncle jim said...

hang-in there dear fr.v ... i think you've got a handle on the concepts real good - nooooow let's see how the rest of the parish helps handle them under your guidance and appointment.

Anonymous said...

It would be nice to have a pastor who makes decisions based upon what he prayerfully discerns to be good for our parish. I have seen a pastor who was willing to have some "devotional" and more "traditional" programs and speakers come to our parish, but he seemed unwilling to approve the bringing of these programs to us unless "Parish Council" first gave the OK. I had the feeling that the pastor was afraid to upset his "liberal brethren" in the parish. By throwing the decision onto Parish Council, he could say to his friends that Parish Council, and not he himself, was responsible for bringing those programs to the parish.

Anonymous said...

Waste padre not waist though at Sacred Heart the amount of beer consumed by parishioners contributed to the gut size..

Cathy_of_Alex said...

Father: Great post.