Sunday, June 26, 2011

When the Sheep Drive out the Shepherd

 I know a good priest who is leaving his parish assignment because so many of his parishioners have failed to accept him. The people have no real grounds for not liking him so they complain about his personality, his liturgical style (Mass is longer now), they don't like his homilies (his homilies are actually very good), and they complain that his is not like the previous pastor. In many ways, they chose to make his life miserable and to think only about what they wanted while ignoring what their priest needed and was capable of. Now that they have driven him away, they are upset because they will no longer have a resident pastor. I am having a hard time feeling sorry for them, but I do feel sorry for the priest who will now be responsible for two parishes.

Over the last three weeks, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on my 18 years in ministry. Some of these reflections and memories are posted here, some will be posted in the future, and others are simply treasured in my heart. Over and over again I have been reminded of the odd ideas that people have about what life is like in the parish office and rectory and what can be expected of the priest and parish staff. In many ways it often seems that people treat it as an alternate universe where the priest is some sort of humanoid robot creature and we, as parish staff, are among the chosen few who get taken up into the mothership each day.


Sometimes I wonder if people think that when their priest was born the doctor said, "Congratulations, it's a priest!" He would have known, of course, by the white collar around the baby's neck. Let's enter reality! These men grew up in families. These families were not perfect and in many cases they were downright troubled. These men had their own experiences which shaped their personalities. Some were always good kids, but others had very dark and troubled lives. Some entered the seminary early while others entered after starting careers and entire lives. It is even becoming more common for widowers to enter the priesthood now. Of course people know these things, but it doesn't change what happens in parish life.

Holy Orders must be the source of this mystical vortex! Sometimes I wonder if people think that the indelible mark transforms the man into the humanoid. While it is true that ordination to the priesthood sets a man apart from the rest of the Christian faithful it does not change him into something other than human. It supplies him with the grace, if he accepts it, to fulfill his calling as a priest, but it does not make him perfect or change his personality, needs or nature.

Here are some of the strangest things I have experienced

At my home parish there was a woman who claimed that her mission in life was to turn priests into saints. She was a good woman who had a very loving and generous heart, but a very misguided mind. Every Sunday she would give Fr. C some booklet or paper about a saint who practiced one form of mortification or another. In one month she encouraged Father to sleep on a bed of nails, to fast on bread and water, and to sleep on the floor. Sleeping on the floor was her particular favorite and she would present information on in regularly. Father was becoming advanced in years and suffered from severe arthritis particularly in his back and knees, but she believed this suffering only made the penance more fruitful. Father would often respond by saying, "You like to have Mass, right? If I sleep on the floor I won't be able to get up to celebrate Mass." I was always responsible for helping Father up after the prostration that begins the Good Friday Liturgy and I knew the struggle he had to stand after just that short time. One Sunday, she rushed into the sacristy in a joyous mood, "Oh Father! I knew you were holy! You are going to be a great saint." Father was rather confused until the woman said, "You don't have to hide it. I saw the mattress and boxspring in the yard! I won't tell anyone that you are sleeping on the floor". With that she went to her pew. I turned to Father and said, "She has no idea that you bought a new mattress and boxspring?" She was clueless and was so happy that his was on the road to sanctity.

Parish supplies were also assumed to fall from the sky. One day I was stocking the sacristy cabinet with hosts and a parishioner came in and said, "Father has to buy those?" I was tempted to tell her that he only bought them once, blessed them and they kept on multiplying. It wasn't only hosts though! There were also strange ideas about clerical attire. One day I was opening a package from our local church supply store which contained several clerical shirts. A woman who was in the parish office saw the shirts and turned totally white! She gasped and said, "Those are priest shirts! You mean....well...I guess he....I never thought of it like that. He wears shirts!" I don't know what she thought he wore. I suppose it theoretically could have been possible for him to just have loosefitting black skin with buttons and a white collar if he was an alien from the planet Priestland.

The sad thing is that after years of this, it all gets rather frustrating. One day I was washing laundry because the housekeeper was sick. One of the parish groups was meeting in the conference room next to the laundry room and a few people said "hi" to me. Then one person noticed that I was washing clothes and said "You have to wash those?" At this point I was so tired and frustrated that I said, "Well, usually I put Father in the washer and then in the dryer. If it's a nice day I hang him out on the line, but he's been complaining that the spin cycle gives him a headache so I thought I would try just washing the clothes this time.

This semi-human status carried over into illness as well. Telling parishioners that Father wasn't available because of illness was unacceptable unless he was hospitalized. Once I had a woman come to the rectory who wanted to speak with the pastor, she refused to meet with the associate. I informed her that Father was unavailable because he was very ill with the flu and she said, "That's ok. I'm not afraid of catching it". I further explained that he had a high fever and needed to rest. She said, "It's ok, I don't mind". I wondered what her reaction would be if I, or maybe her boss, showed up at her door and demanded to see her when she was ill! While it is likely that Father would have left his bed to speak with her, since her need was important, given that she had refused the available priest, the rectory was a very busy place where at least 4-6 people an hour came by looking for one of the priests and had he come down to meet with her he would have never been able to get any rest, that was not a viable option.

More normal events

Those stories are just a few of the more amusing and memorable ones, but I have also seen priests berated by parishioners for sneezing during Mass, not being able to celebrate Mass standing or distribute Communion because of broken bones, accidentally misprouncing words, momentarily losing their place in the Missal, and speaking with an accent. Although we all want a priest who is a master at preaching, finances, business operations, administration, construction, building maintainence, counseling, theology, spirituality, liturgy, music, public relations, etc, the reality is that most priests are strong in some areas and weaker in others. I have worked with very holy priests who were strong in the pastoral areas of ministry, but were disasters in the temporal (financial and administrative) areas of ministry and the other way around as well.

So please, don't be surprised when the alter Christus at your parish turns out to be human after all. He is not ommiscient, he cannot bilocate, he cannot remember everything, he cannot make everyone happy all the time, he cannot change the rules to suit you, he has weaknesses and strengths, he makes mistakes, he has personal needs which must be fulfilled, he has emotions that can be deeply hurt, he has family and friends, he needs time off and time to relax. Have patience with him just as you want people to have patience with you. Remember, Jesus was human as well as divine. His humanity was not snuffed out or overwhelmed by his divinity. Jesus got tired, frustrated, sad and experienced the entirety of human life. His clothes even had to get washed.

Also remember, that your priest needs your support, your care and especially your prayers. Be grateful to have a priest. Don't be quick to judge him or to complain. Be gentle in giving advice or correction. Be forgiving. Send him a thank you note once in a while or just thank him after Mass some day. Be kind to him and speak well of him to others. Ask him how he is doing. Invite him to your home for a holiday particularly if he does not have family nearby. (I know many priests who spent Christmas by themselves because everyone assumed Father had plans) Pray for him every day (not for his transfer to another parish!) and pray that you will come to understand him better.

To read more on a similar topic: Read this post. The Dignity of the Priesthood

No comments: