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My last post has caused me to think a lot about the lessons I learned from Fr. C. I think there are several which deserve to be explored on a deeper level. First, I will tackle obedience and dedication.

Diocesan priests make a promise of obedience to the bishop of the diocese in which they are incardinated and all his successors. While some dioceses appoint pastors to parishes for specific periods of time, my diocese does not do so. A priest can stay in a parish for decades or months. After sixteen years as pastor of my parish, Fr. C. was “asked” by the bishop to move to another parish. While the term “asked” is used, it is not really an optional move.

After 16 years as pastor of the parish and nearly 10 years before that as curate of the same parish, Fr. C. had grown deep roots in the parish. He had been there for so long it was hard to imagine the parish without him. I watched how emotionally crushed the transfer left him. Many parishioners and some of his fellow priests encouraged him to petition the bishop to allow him to stay, and others suggested that he simply refuse the transfer. He steadfastly refused both suggestions. He said that he had made a promise to obey his bishop and he trusted that the bishop knew what he was doing even if he didn’t like it or agree with it. This type of blind obedience to the will of the Church was something which was foreign to me. I had been taught to question and fight and accept nothing which I didn’t understand or approve.

This does not mean that this type of obedience was easy. There were many sorrowful days filled with tears for everyone involved. I will never forget his final Mass as pastor of the parish. He stood in the doorway of the sacristy and couldn’t step into the sanctuary. Mass started 5 minutes late because he knew he was going to have to leave at the end. After Communion, Fr. C. sat in the presiders chair and just wept and we wept along with him. Our spiritual father was leaving us and although a new pastor was coming, we felt like orphans. Still, Fr. C. made it clear to us that he believed the Holy Spirit was guiding the bishop.

I didn’t learn the significance of that until I was much older and was reading Pope Benedict’s memoirs “Milestones”. There he writes about a professor who struggled with the doctrine of the Assumption. Others asked him what he would do when the Pope declared the Assumption as an infallable doctrine and he stated that he would accept that he didn’t know everything and the Pope knew better. So simple!

It was at that time when I realized that was the example I had been shown. We don’t need to always understand or even agree with everything about the Faith. Sometimes simply accepting that “the Church says so” is enough. With time, study, and prayer we may come to understand all these things.

With time, Fr. C. came to love his new parish and my parish came to love their new pastor. However, I did notice that during  the years when I worked with Fr. C. in the new parish he did not serve with the zeal he had once had. Some attributed it to his increasing age, others to his failing health, but I saw a spark which had been snuffed out. The deaths of two of his sisters and the sudden death of his priest brother occured in the months just after the transfer. He endured a  great deal of trauma in one year, but he still placed his new parish family first. If there was ever a time when he needed to place his own needs first this was the time. Thankfully, after much convincing, and an extended hospital stay due to congestive heart failure, he decided he needed to take some time and care for himself. When he returned he was in better health: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In time the spark returned and the joy of service became visible once again.

One danger of dedication to one’s vocation is ignoring personal needs. I know some priests who have not taken a real day off in years. A priest told me the other day that he has never had a weekend away from his parish in 15 years because he cannot get a priest to celebrate the Masses. On the other hand, I know some priests who farm out their duties to retired priests and to the laity. One priest I know celebrates one Mass a week during the week and has retired priest who come to celebrate the rest.

I do not think that either is an acceptable option. No matter your vocation, you are no good to anyone if you are burned out or overworked. One person cannot care for another properly if his own needs are so great they are overwhelming him. In the end the care will be less than it should be and/or the caregiver will collapse.

Remember, Jesus obeyed His Father’s will, but He also took time away to rest and deal with his thoughts and struggles.

Parishioners: Remember that your priests are humans with human needs and frailties. It can be easy to think of them as robots or alien species who are supposed to answer immediately, solve our every need, and always be perfect. Before you rush to judgement or attribute your anger or hurt to the entire Church when your priest isn’t everything you think he should be, remember the great responsibility he bears in his human body.  People make mistakes, they have bad days. How would you like to have your actions taken to represent the character of all Catholics? Your priest will most likely not (and he should not) tell you the personal struggles he is enduring, but he will still help you through yours. Love your priests, support your priests, pray for your priests and let them know you are doing so. Remember, they can’t come to you when they are hurting, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help. One kind word or sign of appreciation can go a long way.

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I think most people who have seriously considered giving their lives in service to the Church can look back to one or more priests who have been fundamental in the development of their vocation and their spiritual life. In my case, there were at least five priests who served that role to varying degrees and countless others who helped to shape my esteem for the clergy and love for Christ and His Church.

There was, however, was one priest who served that role to an extent for which I will be forever grateful. Fr. C. was my pastor, but he was also my mentor and my teacher. Although it was not a role he held officially he was my first ministry and theology teacher. From him, I learned what service to God and Church meant. I learned to place God first in my life and to trust in His failing goodness. I also learned the practical aspects of the Church such as rubrics and canon law. Sometimes these lessons were learned when we sat and talked, but usually I learned by doing and experiencing.

When I was an infant, he baptized me even though he did not want to. He did not believe my parents would raise me as a Catholic and he was right. I came into the practice of the Faith because of my grandmother and my own desire. His homilies had two central themes: The necessity of coming to Mass and celebrating the Sacraments, and (during the Summer) the importance of dressing modestly and appropriately at Mass. As he would often say, “The church is not a beach”. Although many people grew impatient with these themes they stuck with me and to this day I can recite his lines word for word. He was always affectionate with the parishioners, but in a reserved way. For many years I thought he was rather cold. Unlike the curate, Fr. C. was always Fr. Lastname. He did not tell jokes in his homilies or make spectacles during the Mass. Even his vestments were different. He didn’t wear the stole showing and he didn’t wear the “fun” vestments that the curate would sometimes wear. Instead he wore Roman style (fiddleback) chasubles  and gothic chasubles with beautiful sacred symbols. I didn’t know enough to appreciate them at the time.

When I think of Fr. C. the first thing I think of is his hands. They are HUGE! He would use them to ruffle our hair as we entered and left Mass and at any other time he would encounter us. unless had a pen. Then, he would tap us on the head with the pen. “Hey girl!”  he would say. Every child was either “boy” or “girl” even if he knew our names. When he would ruffle our hair, I was always amazed to think that these were the same hands which had just held Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and the same hands which were extended over us during confession, and baptized and anointed babies. I didn’t know that priests were anointed on their hands at ordination, but remember thinking that his hands were so huge because of the great responsibility they held. I grew up holding Fr. C. in great esteem and a bit of that respectful fear.

When I was only fourteen years old, Fr. C. suddenly became the only priest in a very large and very active parish. He trusted me to help him run the parish. I don’t know if I would trust a teenage sacristan with the roles and tasks he assigned to me, but I do know that I would not be in the position I am today if he had not done so. Because I was home-schooled my schedule had a great deal of flexibility. Each day, I would help him at morning Mass, return home for school, then return to the church after school for the evening Mass and I would do assorted tasks in the rectory until about 8 pm. In the summer I would stay most days unless I had some other activity planned with a teenage friend, but there was nowhere I wanted to be more than at the church. I taught the 2nd grade religious ed students and helped him run the religious ed program. I trained and scheduled the altar servers, lectors and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. I was also placed in charge of the “clergy division” of the parish procession.

On a human level I learned and experienced true friendship. Yes, we had our disagreements and even hurt each other deeply once or twice, but I still remember the 3 am phone call he made to to apologize to me after we had a major argument where serious emotional wounds where inflicted to both of us. He helped me get my first job (and even picked me up from work once when got stranded there) and I helped care for him when he was ill. I always knew that Fr. C. was there for me as a true shepherd.

Through Fr. C’s example I came to understand the self-giving relationship which Christ has with us and we are called to have with Him. This commitment was not something particular to me, but was how he cared for all his parishioners. I was just the lucky one who was able to be with him on a daily basis and get a quadruple helping. Fr. C. would answer his phone at all hours of the day or night and wouldn’t hesitate to rush out when someone needed him. Many mornings Fr. C. would be completely exhausted because he had been at the bedside of a dying parishioner or comforting a family involved in a tragic accident. I would ask him why he didn’t have office hours like so many of the priests I had previously thought of as being fun. He said that “A priest is called to treat his parishioners as a father would treat his children. No good parent would tell their children that office hours are only between 9-5 Mon-Fri and to call back then”.  While I don’t fault the priest who do keep office hours for doing so if that is what they need to stay healthy and sane, but there is something lost when a priest does not treat his parishioners as his own children.  Being a parent is a 24/7 job and being a priest is the same. That is why priests are called to celibacy.

Following his example I learned to do the same. First I did so for Fr. C and my parish, and now Ido it for my family and the parishes where I work. A he served joyfully, so I try to serve joyfully. My service to the Church is one of the great joys of my life. Fr. C. baptized me, heard my first confession, give me my First Communion, was present at my confirmation and at my marriage.  When Fr. C was transferred to a new parish I was invited to work for him as the assistant music director and that was the beginning of my professional career in ministry. As time went by, I moved on to other parishes and roles and Fr. C retired at the age of 75. Because of my experiences with Fr. C., the people he introduced me to, and the opportunities he gave me, I was able to turn my passion for God into a career. I was blessed get to know Fr. C’s brother who was also a priest and was equally as dedicated to the Church. Sadly, he passed away in 2001. I was also blessed to meet many good and dedicated priests, bishops and cardinals who visited the parish for numerous events.

Now, he is close to 80 years old, and is in failing health. I am saddened to think that he is growing closer to his eternal reward because I know I will be without a dear friend and the Church on earth will be without one of it’s greatest priests. It may not be fair to do so, but I have compared every priest I have worked with to Fr. C. and only a few come close. I was delighted that  JP was able to meet him yesterday. As I expected, Fr. C. starting talking to JP about the priesthood and encouraged him to investigate and consider it. What else would a man who truly loves his vocation do? Fr. C and I had not spoken for some time and I was a little startled to see how frail he had become and how much he had aged. I used to believe they didn’t make priests like that anymore, but after working at this new parish I have come to realize that is no longer a true statement. Unfortunately, given the code of conduct rules, most young people are no longer allowed in sacristies or to be alone with a priest, never mind to have the kind of experience I was blessed to have. That is a great loss. Had I been a young man I would have undoubtedly entered the seminary and attempted to emulate this good and holy priest.

Priests: Be conscious of the example you give to the young people in your parishes. If you serve joyfully and give yourself completely you will inspire service in others, but if you do not do so, you will show them that the priesthood is nothing more than a job. Help your parishioners experience the love of Christ through you! Teach them though your example.

 

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servusdomini@catholic.org

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