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January 29, 2017

Expectations for our priests

Bishop Timothy Doherty

Editor’s note: In last week’s column, Bishop Doherty wrote about his expectations for our priests. This week’s column continues with reasonable parishioner expectations for priests and unreasonable expectations.

Parishioner reasonable expectations: These will vary with location. Parishes can be quite different. We have one parish with 13,000 members, while there are groupings of parishes that share one priest. In each case, the priest is there to provide reasonable opportunities for Mass and the sacraments. He will be available to talk to people and to visit the sick. His teaching will acknowledge the spiritual variety among ages and generations, men and women.

The Second Vatican Council recognized a special trait of modern ministry: Many elements are shared among the laity by right, not because of clerical kindness. Raising up and forming lay leadership is an obligation on the clergy that must be shared by parishioners themselves. A parish where Father is allowed to “do it all” is shirking baptismal responsibility, and becoming an unattractive prospect for any priest who might be asked to go there.

A few years ago, Father Thomas Gaunt, SJ, visited my office. He is the executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. He said that decades of research always turned up the same parishioner expectations for a successful priest: He visits people before or after Mass, he smiles, and he says please and thank you. These values precede homilies and parish business skills.

It is reasonable to expect that priests be appreciated for who they are, not to duplicate another man’s habits or personality. I was 10 when our pastor yelled “Father so-and-so is not the pastor here anymore!” That other man had been dead six years after being there for 40.

While there are reasonable expectations to care for people at society’s margins, there is a lot of ministry to do at the center. Individuals and families are often heroic in their own employments and vocations. A priest has to be allowed to spend time with ordinary people who are in no apparent distress. A man at my first pastorate told me, “We have no uninteresting people in our parish.” A wise insight.

If a person wishes to speak privately to his priest, it is reasonable to make an appointment to see the priest at the parish office. As a professional, the priest does most pastoral counseling at the parish office, not in homes or restaurants. It is unreasonable to expect the priest to be at the parish office at any and all times. The sacristy is not an office. It is common for a priest to feel bushwhacked when people interrupt his Mass preparation about something that could easily wait for a phone call or an appointment.

Unreasonable expectations for priests: Again, this list is not exhaustive. Many Catholic hospitals have full-time priest chaplains. They are there with the bishop’s endorsement so they can help Catholic patients and their families. It is wrong to reject any Catholic priest’s ministry and to insist that “my” priest come to offer sacraments. For those patients who know about an upcoming hospital stay, I recommend that they ask their priest for confession and anointing of the sick at the parish. Pastors support this practical approach, and it is not “a bother.”

Local priests are generally happy to include distant out-of-towners among their local patient visits if asked. One’s priests should not be expected to travel 60 or 100 miles to visit their parishioners in distant hospitals. This is another topic worthy of parish pastoral council discussion.

A growing problem that priests everywhere are seeing is an ignorance about anointing of the sick. We stopped calling it “Last Rites” in the late 1960s for various reasons. Every priest can tell the story of anointing a dying person at 5 p.m., only to have the family call at 2 a.m. and demand his return. I will admit that the misunderstanding is overcome easily by education in the parishes.

It is unreasonable for someone to send the bishop an anonymous and unsigned letter of complaint about a priest. I cannot act on something that is no more usable than a rumor. Anonymity offends against charity and Canon Law.

It is unreasonable to ask a priest to “fix” one’s relative with a visit when that relative has expressed no interest in, or is hostile to, meeting the priest.

Parish pastoral councils can help sort out when a priest’s presence is not only important but needed. His attending every junior high sporting event is not a reasonable expectation.

Another reality based on an aging but healthy population is the growing number of assisted-living and nursing homes. More than a dozen additional sites have opened in the diocese in the past few years. It is impractical to have scheduled Mass at each of them. Those places where residents are still getting out and about, often driving their own cars, are wrong to expect Mass apart from their nearest parish church.

In summary, we should remind ourselves that Christ is our main pastor, our Good Shepherd. All of our challenges and opportunities should be prayerfully sorted out under the shared guidance of the Holy Spirit. Last summer I attended a two-day national meeting for vicars for priest personnel. I was surprised to hear that in some places parishioners were treating priests as employees rather than leaders with their own authority and responsibilities. Given everything that our priests are being asked to do, in an age of diminished appreciation and changing or absent morals, it is in the spirit of charity that I address expectations. It is my hope that parish pastoral councils will continue to help their priests set realistic — and faith- based — expectations worthy of their work of caring for souls.

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