That will never work! I have been in parish ministry for eighteen years, but during this past year that is the phrase I have heard more than ever before. Despite all the people who have told me that my plans would never work, I kept to my plans and in the end they worked out to the surprise of those watching and even my own surprise. My lesson this year could be called “Don’t be afraid to do the ridiculous”.
At the beginning of the year I was in charge of a religious education program with no records, no teachers, no students, and virtually no preparation time. Two weeks before class was ready to begin, I had only half the number of teachers I needed. I debated postponing the start of classes and even considered combining some grades. Nine days before the start of classes I had one last class without a teacher. I got a call from a woman who was interested in joining the parish. After welcoming and registering her family, she mentioned that she was interested in helping out. She had taught religious education for fifteen years in her previous parish in New York. On impulse I went against the unwritten rules that say new parishioners should not take on parish ministries for several years and I invited her to teach 6th grade. Within a week she had the unruly 6th graders under control and interested in their lessons. Now, she is one of the most talented teachers in the program.
Finally, at the beginning of Lent I planned to stage the Living Stations of the Cross. After inviting the young people in the parish to help, I found myself all along at the first rehearsal. The pastor suggested that I give up because our parish is a small parish and the people aren’t used to this sort of thing. I kept inviting kids and at the second rehearsal I had a full cast. Now, I had a serious problem. My cast consisted of children from grades 3-5. The other religious education directors in the deanery suggested that I cancel because as they said, “You can’t stage living stations with elementary kids. It will turn into a mockery”. I decided to put it in God’s hands and trusted in God and in the kids. The kids came faithfully to rehearsals and I made costumes every chance I had with expensive satin fabric that had been donated from the remnants of a curtain factory. Our production not only was a success, but the church was nearly full. Instead of a mockery, the stations turned out to be a moving spiritual experience for the children and those who came to pray with us.
Part of me was surprised, but another part of me knew this would happen. It was then that I realized that we need to go out on a limb for Christ if we wanted to do our best ministry. Jesus didn’t play it safe. He didn’t choose his apostles by their resumes. In fact, all of the apostles would likely be turned away if they applied for a position in parish ministry. After choosing and teaching this unlikely band, he sent them out two by two without money or supplies and commanded them to rely on the kindness of those they encountered.
If that is our example, what kind of ministers will we be if we fear stepping into the unknown? Mother Angelica, who founded EWTN, often said “We have to do the ridiculous so God can do the miraculous”. Our faith is one of paradox. If God is willing to hang on the limbs of a cross in order to save us, we need to be willing to go out on a limb and put the “rules” aside and follow His will. If we set out without a second tunic or a purse, we put out into the deep, and we have faith that the sycamore tree can be moved we may not always get the results we seek, but we will serve with humility and the recognition that the best made plans can fail and the plans which seem doomed to fail can succeed. We just need to discern whether our plans are ours or God’s.
Time and time I set out on missions that seemed impossible but ended in success. I had faith that God would make it work and I had faith that the parishioners would come through. Finally, I made sure the parishioners knew that the ball was in their court. If they wanted these things to happen, then they needed to step up and make them happen. I am not a parish babysitter or a spoonfeeder. The people knew that their participation was needed and wanted and just as the people who the apostles encountered supplied for their needs, the parishioners at this parish supplied what was needed for the parish to succeed.
So many books on ministry and parish life follow a corporate model. While we do need to be concerned with finances, public relations, and those things they can never take a back seat to faith. I can think of many priests who run their parishes as though they were business entities rather than faith communities. Faith must always come first!
I think that much of the difficulties the Church is facing today is the result of the corporate model of parish and diocesan adminsitration. We have to have the faith that we can do the ridiculous and let God do the miraculous. Had the bishops of years past had more faith that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, and had they been more concerned with the gross immorality lurking in their dioceses and less concerned with bad press would wouldn't be dealing with this seemingly endless string of horror stories.
To the heirarchy: Please have faith that God will protect His Church despite our own inadequacies! Put down the canned press releases! Be human and honest! The corporate model says cover your self. The faith model says care for the wounded. The corporate model says bad press hurts business. The faith model says justice and caritas must come first. The corporate model says never give them more than you have to. The faith model says to lie down your life.
The Church isn't a business. The world expects and deserves more from us than P.R. strategies. They expect and deserve true repentence for the errors which have occured without posturing.
We need the bishops of the world to lead the Church as a whole in public penance. Yes, as a whole. As part of the Church we each share responsibility. Remember, "If (one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy" (1 Cor 12:26).
I think about the recent meeting that Pope Benedict had with the sexual abuse victims in Malta and his meeting 2 years ago with victims in the United States. The most profound part of the meeting seems to have been the Holy Father's tears. In was in those tears that he expresssed genuine sorrow. That is worth more than any P.R. expert's finely crafted script. Jesus is the Good Shepherd not the Good CEO. If Jesus was the Good CEO, he would have never chosen a brash fisherman to be the first Pope. In fact, I wonder if any of the Apostles could he hired today. I doubt they would pass the background investigations.
In the Catholic Church the only corporate model we need is The Corporate Model, the Corpus Christi.