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January 22, 2017

Expectations for our priests

Bishop Timothy Doherty

It is funny what I remember from my retreats. Early on, one spiritual director told us that if we totaled Church rules directed at priestly prayer requirements, we would begin at dawn. Then, we would finish by 4 p.m. to begin the day’s ministry. So expectations accumulate in every corner.

My intentions here are simple: I have a role in regulating the flow of expectations that come at our priests. They should have a general idea of their bishop’s expectations of them. They should be attentive to reasonable expectations from those whom they serve in parishes, schools and hospitals. And we have to find a way to expose unreasonable expectations overall and in specific settings.

In these matters, I asked for advice from the priest members of our Presbyteral Council. They seemed graciously willing to let me stick my neck out with an article. When I asked St. Mary Cathedral parishioners to pray that I could come up with the right words, there were smiles and muffled chuckles.

Just so you know that I am not immune, a chancery team has been visiting parishes for months. They have been recording a list of expectations for the bishop. We have yet to hit the “total” button.

I do not pretend that these lists are complete. And though I commit this project to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and protection, parish-based discussion will promote needed balance based on local experiences.

Bishop’s expectations for priests: A priest should be a friend of God through Christ, and attentive to the Holy Spirit. I expect that a priest says his daily prayers, celebrates Mass on time and preaches to hearts, takes care of his health and takes a weekly sabbatical day. My home parish pastor told me always to take my day off “because you never know when you are getting another one.”

Parents of priests live a lot longer now than when I was ordained. Our diocesan priesthood never involved turning one’s back on one’s family. Many men participate in the care of aging parents, and most people value that loyalty because it indicates a priest’s sympathies for his own parishioners. One bishop in a neighboring diocese tells of asking an 80-year-old priest to retire from his pastorate. The old priest’s first response was, “Where’s my mother going to live?” While this is an extreme case, it points to a present reality.

By rule, a parish must have a parish pastoral council and a parish finance council. Pastor and councils should meet regularly. The pastoral council cooperates with the Holy Spirit in shaping a parish identity, and it helps its priests in prayerfully setting holiness-driven priorities. The council is different from the committees that run dinners, schedule events and paint fences.

There are many articles about Catholic or Protestant pastors being run into the ground because no mechanism regulates expectations. A pastoral council should be good at the care of parish priests. Its members can help a man to know his limits, and vice versa.

In my experience, parishes that have the best chance of success when pastors change are those with living councils. Contemporary councils may have some elected members, but generally they are appointed so that useful expertises and faith-mission are balanced. I only asked that we name “people who play well with others.” While councils are by law consultative, not deliberative, their work shapes the content and tone of a parish’s religious mission.

Next week: reasonable parishioner expectations for priests.

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