It is of course right that we should be a ‘listening Church’. We think of ourselves as a communion or a community – and that means communication. How, we married people may ask, can the hierarchy command and advise when they have no experience of marriage and the upbringing of children? Quite right! They should listen to us, and respect our situation, before they open their mouths.
But this goes both ways. Do we listen and respect those who have other offices in the Church? So I am proposing today that we should look at parish priests, and try – as best we can – to see what it looks like from behind the roman collar. So I have taken an extract from an article I wrote for the Catholic Herald, in 2007. It gives us a picture, from a fine priest, of what his life is about.
“I worked with Fr Mike O’C some years ago (name altered at my initiative) and he has been parish priest for several years of an urban, multiethnic parish with more than its share of the elderly and unemployed. A comprehensive video system in his presbytery, covers his frontage; it is essential for security.
Mike agreed to keep a diary, and the two weeks he has carefully recorded immediately removed any easy assumption that a priest does his work on a Sunday, and spends the rest of the week at the races. I am surprised at the variety of tasks ranging from the staples of baptism and funerals, “My life is in extremities: birth and baptism at one end of the road, death and tragedy at the other.” to complex administration “at the expense of my pastoral time”.
There is a myriad of meetings: some related to groups such as RCIA, or the pastoral council, others on an individual basis: “In marriage matters, whole lives can depend on the decision of some canon lawyer.” I inferred that his fixed points, besides the church itself, “the liturgy remains at the centre of all we do”, are his beloved parish hall, “a sacred space where so much happens”, the primary school, “a constant source of new life”, and his parish visiting team – some 30 people who work in pairs, for security. Mike is a natural delegator, and, without abrogating his canonical responsibilities, he leaves the chairing of these enterprises to effective lay people. The gentle steer rather than executive command is his natural way.
But in his diary reflections, fleshed out in our lengthy conversations, there are concerns. In deanery discussions he finds morale lowered by dwindling numbers, fewer priests and escalating tasks. And I have seen similar comments in other deanery reports, which sometimes question whether such discussions will actually result in any change. There are still a few priests around who fear a laity takeover, but Mike believes that an “exchange of gifts” is the way forward.
He is much concerned by the child abuse crisis (and strongly affected by the gross damage that this has done to his native Church). He will only hear a child’s confession on the sanctuary, in full view. “Suffer little children” he says ironically. They are more like unexploded bombs. But at least they go to confession: adults, except for the older generations, rarely use this sacrament; it is seen as irrelevant or obsolete. He hears more confessions in informal meetings.
Mike, who is 57, believes that in many ways he was ill prepared for parish life by his Irish seminary. “I was taught an idealised model of the Catholic parish; it bore little resemblance to experience. Just last week I presided over a wedding of a couple who already had three children. That’s reality.” He was grateful that his first curacy had been with a fine parish priest – old in years, young in mind.
He expressed what I sensed to be a deep concern. “You” he said, “have a wife and family. You know that there will always be people close to you, right up to your deathbed. Me, ultimately I am alone.” This aloneness (not, he stresses, loneliness) afflicts him during his rest times. He sees celibacy as a “strange animal”. No talk here of sexual need, but of the intimacy of an interdependent life. I note that his close support friends tend to be women, including his sister. Perhaps he is redressing his need for female qualities. I thought of Jesus and his valuing of women in his life.
But withal he is happy as a parish priest; he does not regret his vocation. “Yet” he tells me ‘I would never suggest priesthood as a vocation to others. I would support anyone who expressed an interest, but it would be his initiative, not mine.’”
Fr Mike did not raise with me another factor which I imagine to be important. A parish priest is an example of ‘middle management’. That is, he has a bishop to the north – perhaps bearing down, and the laity to the south pressing up – with a whole range of demands. He is squeezed in the middle. I suggest this because, generally, it is middle management in the secular world who are under the greatest stress.
I wonder, too, whether the paedophile scandals have lowered the public status of the clergy. I haven’t noticed many roman collars around lately. To feel that your vocation is suspect in many eyes must be a heavy burden to bear.
The only extensive survey of parish priests which I know is The Naked Parish Priest Louden & Francis, 2003. While I would not rely too greatly on the results – getting a truly random survey was difficult – it does suggest that a significant proportion of respondents are not in full agreement with the Church on some matters of consequence. Since they are obliged, under oath, to defend Catholic doctrines of substance, they may face a difficulty here.
All of us have different experiences of parish priests – and some, because of their office, work on both sides of the altar rails. But I think it would be useful to share our experiences, bad and good – and consider what it must really be like to fulfill that vocation.
I’ve never been much for joining church organisations except for being involved in mostly contributing to the music during Liturgy – either instrumentally or in a choir. Perhaps then, a little more than the majority of church – going Catholics of my generation. Not considering myself an ‘ insider ‘ in parish affairs , rightly or wrongly , I have generally thought of the work/ life of my parish priest(s) as something that worked relatively smoothly with the ebb and flow of parish life ….. ” God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” But as Saint Paul says…. ” When I became a man I put away such childish things.”
I feel privileged to belong to a vibrant outward -looking multi-ethnic parish , where a good number of young and old are not shy of rolling up their sleeves. I sense now than more so than in the past, our zealous and fastidious parish priest takes a lot on himself ; not taken to delegation on even very minor things to ease his own burden . Is this a matter of a lack of trust in his flock by keeping a ‘ tight reign ‘ on the parish , I ask myself ? Hopefully , as we grow in faith and maturity together as a community this situation will be corrected , ‘ grace ‘ having had the desired affect on each other.
Having been in this parish for three years and feeling more at home and ‘ closer ‘ to any parish priest than in the past – I sense there is another reason….. ” Since they are obliged , under oath , to defend Catholic doctrines of substance , they may face a difficulty here .”….. which is uppermost in the ‘ strategy’
our pastor, has for the long term in our parish.
There is no doubt in the minds of most Catholics that devotional practice due to poor knowledge of The Faith is wanting in many areas . Frankly, in my experience many parish priests over the years have been slow , bordering on negligence in doing their primary duty in this area , preferring to take a ‘ back seat ‘ in parish life. I am also not oblivious to the difficulties and pressures all parish priests confront in the changing nature of parish life relative to society at large and in facing , as we all do , the weaknesses of character prevalent in us all.
I can only say that our parish priest appears to have no such difficulties in his ” oath ” of office and have watched our pastor ‘ grow into ‘ the job over the past few years by the grace of God and His Spirit – too and with , the great blessing of the whole parish community.
Life for priests must be very different in different parts of the country. Where I live we are rather “out in the sticks”, the congregation is fairly small and predominantly elderly, weekday Masses are very thinly attended indeed. One altar server, occasionally two, occasionally none. The priest covers two churches, and the next nearest priest covers three, and is based about 18 miles away. No Catholic schools. When I am visiting family in London, the picture is totally different; three priests in the parish, three Masses Sunday morning, one Saturday evening, one Sunday evening. Catholic school nearby, at least half a dozen altar servers, flourishing choir and accompanying orchestra, lots of different groups during the week (going by the parish newsletter).
A couple of years ago there was a Deanery meeting at our church, and all the priests in the Deanery concelebrated Mass. Without exception, they were either old and white, or young and black.
The priest is alone, yes; but so are lots of his parishioners, some because of widowhood, some because of marriage breakdown.
“He expressed what I sensed to be a deep concern. “You” he said, “have a wife and family. You know that there will always be people close to you, right up to your deathbed. Me, ultimately I am alone.” This aloneness (not, he stresses, loneliness) afflicts him during his rest times. He sees celibacy as a “strange animal”. No talk here of sexual need, but of the intimacy of an interdependent life….”
I’ve noticed this in priests too. Strange really since they have community all around them and will not die alone but in some priestly care home or another where they will be looked after well. Neither need they dread bankruptcy or the fear of not being able to provide for family.
But, Ignatius, you are not comparing like with like. The community of a family is very different from a community with fellow professionals. To have a wife who is supportive, and ready to be a repository of worries, is a great comfort in the stress of life. To have children who really care about you — even though they may disagree about all number of things — is a permanent consolation. Friends who don’t feel they have to treat you in a special way are a continual boon. It is, I think, no coincidence that a lack of social companionship is strongly related to depression.
I know that a religious community isn’t a family in the strict sense!!! Have you evrr thought that it might possibly be an improvement on the flesh variety? Have you not noticed that we are anyway fundamentally alone with God?
Reading this account of one priest’s life is rather sad. While respecting all who have taken on celibacy for the service of others, I still have deep reservations about its role for all priests and religious. For religious who have each other for company in a monastery or convent, celibacy is potentially better tolerated. However that would depend on the individual in question as to their lived comfortableness with celibacy. With these well-known stories of priests or religious that struggle with celibacy there are those who are suited or relatively happy with this demand placed on them by the church. Who on earth would be one today?
I have come to appreciate more the insights obtained into a parish priest given through a well prepared good homily at Holy Mass. Where a point , for perhaps prudence sake may not be delivered in casual or direct conversational speech by a parish priest ; a congregation or individual can at the same time discern a lot about their own parish priest and also , he can drive home a particularly sensitive point of Catholic Teaching. The great advantage of this I see as twofold . Not to stigmatise or personalise a parishioner to the whom the point applies , and to encourage anyone having difficulties in following Church Teaching , to approach ‘ father ‘ for his help and advice in a personal capacity …. perhaps in preparation for a journey ending in The Sacrament of Reconciliation with God and the worshiping community.
After years of enduring desert conditions, I sense an oasis in sight for priest and flock on the horizon.
Vincent , Ignatius – I wouldn’t say that either of your points are convincing , although both have merit. All parish priests I have known have been at both ends of the spectrum of personality. Pope Francis seems to want our parish priests firstly to be ‘ comfortable ‘ with their priesthood / calling rather than appear too ‘ professional .’ That said, I believe a particular priest must take the opportunity to socialise with fellow religious , family or friends ( to offset the possibility of psychological distress ) as befits his personality ; at the same time avoiding being ‘ pigeon-holed ‘ for his efforts.
A lot is spoken about celibacy in the priestly calling ; chastity and abstinence being a trial for us all and may always be for some. As I understand it, it can be embraced with joy and accepting sacrifice as part of a ‘ comfortable ‘ priesthood after formation. As things stand , those who find particularl difficulty in this area should perhaps be thinking twice about being a ‘ parish ‘ priest.
It seems logical that depression can become more a problem if ‘ father ‘ is not particularly ‘ management-minded ‘ or cannot find provision for that in delegating such duties elsewhere.
“Vincent , Ignatius – I wouldn’t say that either of your points are convincing , although both have merit…”
I’m not trying to make any points, just confirming that I’ve noticed in one or two the same thing as Quentin expresses in his PP, a sense bordering on regret. This is just an observtion. I’m interested in it because in many ways I have the reverse ‘regret’ myself. Maybe ‘the grass is greener’ syndrome applies to us all in equal and opposite degree.
” Who indeed would be one today ? ” – In truth a ‘ terrible ‘ and onerous commission. It is just as well to remind ourselves what a priest knows and believes at ordination. ”De facto ” …Christ ordains to the presbyterate through his earthly episcopate those who will stand… ” in persona Christi ”.- CCC.
I take comfort with Matthew 19:26 in my ” common priesthood ” with others …. ” With man , this is impossible…. with God everything is possible.”
If I read the recent Synod aright, it would seem that priests are going increasingly to be needed as counsellors of conscience. That is a more demanding role I think than they have had traditionally. How well are they suited to this by temperament and training?
I ask this because I have a friend who once had the task of vetting potential counsellors. The main reasons for turning hopeful candidates down were apparently twofold. The first was that they tended to believe that they knew the answers. Fatal for counselling because clients need to be helped to find their own answers. The second concerned candidates who had gone through, and overcome, their own severe problems. It was likely that they would see their clients through a filter of their own experience.
I am sure that there will be many priests who can do this, notwithstanding their lack of experience in the marital and family area. But how many will be just the wrong people for this demanding task?
I see the most important thing to come out of the Synod (as it is on marriage and the family) is that couples. are made aware of what is expected from them when they make their vows.,so that when a marriage breaks down there will be no discussions anymore about where they stand with the reception of Holy Communion.
Pope Francis and many others have understood how this has been neglected in the past and I believe this to be the fault of the Heirarchy,I can not understand how the conservative’s can not see this, when they were not making their voice heard when HV was written and all the other Encyclicals referring to ‘open to life’.
It seems to me they dont want to take the blame and, the finger wont be pointed at them.
I have not heard much regarding the family and schools regarding the keeping of the faith, unless I missed it.
The responsibility does not only lie with the Priest. he administers the Sacraments visits the sick and preaches the Gospel etc, I dont see him as a social worker! However he ought to make people aware of their duties. After all he became a priest as a vocation firstly for the love of God and to be one with Him.To give up everything and to follow Him and to offer up the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Lest we forget!
St Joseph, I think most people understood the indissolubility of sacramental marriage from the beginning. The question is whether someone who has divorced and remarried should ever be allowed to go to Communion. when he or she is in a new ‘married’ relationship. This, I understood, is already sometimes allowed by the priest on a case by case basis — depending on the circumstances. Many think that this practice will become more common, and suspect that Pope Francis will be happy about this. We may get more clues if he comes up with some sort of summary of his decisions. The Synod was advisory and so cannot decide such an issue.
Thank you, however I disagree ,
A couple may not understand ,some couples in the sixties and seventies and onwards who were not really practicing their faith or really understood, some were pregnant, some were catholics marrying non catholics I mention all sorts of situation where an annulment would be possible through lack of faith at the time etc also through abuses. I believe that is what Pope Francis understands when he speaks of mercy.
How many children have been lost to the Church through ignorance
There are a lot more serious sins than a re-mariage who are faithful and have reached maturity. and who dont abuse their fertility!!!!.
Vincent – You raise an extremely important point which I see as crucial to the success of the ‘ parish system ‘ in the future , relying heavily on the confidence the Catholic community has in its parish priest via its Bishop, and could mean the difference in some cases between numbing inertia in some parishes to evangelical zeal in others.
As you intuit from the results of the Synod , while immutable Church Teaching has survived the process intact , pastoral focus in the future direction of the Church is clothed in ambiguity for those who have to carry it out , our Bishops … but ultimately the parish priest. I have great sympathy with ‘ Father Mike ‘ here…. ” he has a bishop to the north, perhaps bearing down , and the laity to the south pressing up – with a whole range of demands. ”
I hope and pray that The Holy Father in his Apostolic Exhortation following the Synod on the Family will now direct the Bishops in a way that presents no ambiguity to the Faithful, and they in turn will support their parish priests accordingly in the way the Spirit of God directs His Church.
A re-run of what generally prevailed Post – Vatican ii would be a tragedy . One positive for me in that respect is the comment by Cardinal Vincent Nichols in his belief – that the ” Euro-centrism ” of the Catholic Church has been broken following the Synod !
Brendan, you ask for no ambiguity, but my reading of the Synod reports suggests that ambiguity is just what we have got. The conservatives claim that they have held the line, while the liberals claim that a process of change is now unavoidable. Perhaps we shall become like the Church of England where acceptance of established doctrine has become voluntary. And the move towards synodality could easily give rise to endless talking shops, which reach no conclusions..
Happy All Saints Day, everyone !
The life of a parish priest is very different now from what seemed to be the norm in my younger days in and near Liverpool, when there were usually 3 or 4 priests in every presbytery, and one always had to be in, in case there was a sick call, and he would be needed to go to someone’s home or the hospital, to give absolution and the Last Sacraments. I don’t think there were separate chaplains, and there was no parish office, and no such person as a parish secretary., but there was always a housekeeper who cooked and cleaned, so the priests did not have to fend for themselves as they do now.
I am currently reading The Office of Innocence by Thomas Keneally, published in 2002, which tells the fictional story of a young, newly ordained priest in an Australian city parish early in WW2. It has very interesting descriptions of the role of the parish priest and their respective areas of responsibility, as well as what I think is a very perceptive account of the effect on him of close involvement in the lives of their parishioners.
The following quote is taken from an online article in ‘Global Pulse’ magazine by Australian Jesuit lawyer Frank Brennen SJ entitled, ‘The Synod: a victory for transparency’. It comprises his observations of the functionality of the synod of bishops in Rome on the family in its current iteration under Francis to what synods were like under Popes Benedict and John Paul.
‘Recently on his visit to the USA, Francis told the bishops gathered at Baltimore: “A Christianity that ‘does’ little in practice, while incessantly ‘explaining’ its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced. I would even say that it is stuck in a vicious circle.’
‘I am more and more convinced that Francis is not afraid to throw open the windows of the Church. He has the humility to accept that he does not hold a candle to Benedict as a theologian, nor to John Paul. But he knows the game is up with Roman authorities spouting dogma without being attentive to the lived experience of people and to the pastoral experience of those priests who carry with them ‘the smell of the sheep’.’
‘He is committed to collegiality. He is not going to take a synod where it does not want to go; and he is not going to represent the findings of a synod as being anything other than the diversity of viewpoints expressed and hopefully the emerging consensus under the action of the Spirit.’ (Frank Brennen SJ)
While it is appropriate that we listen to our priests it is important to note that Francis is humbly listening to the bishops gathered for the synod in Rome on the family. In this era of extreme difficulty and change Francis is giving the church life-injecting hope through eschewing predetermined outcomes in his insistence of freedom of deliberation for bishops attending synods together with transparency for the governance of the Catholic Church.
We need to get down on our knees and thank God for his papacy. It is a sign of where the church needs to go in order to make it more relevant for contemporary Catholics who live in an age of modernity and technological change.
My apologies for the above link. You will not be able to access the Frank Brennan’s article in full unless you have a subscription to ‘Global Pulse’ magazine.
I have been attempting to evaluate the lately concluded synod from what information is currently available. No doubt more will be ‘leaked’ in the next few weeks, and the topic no doubt deserves a thread of its own. All I would say at the moment, and in the light of all the evidence, is that Frank Brennan’s evaluation is pure wishful thinking.
There is no need to take out a subscription to ‘Global Pulse Magazine’ in order to read Australian Jesuit lawyer Fr. Frank Brennen’s article on synods under Francis’ guidance and direction, compared with how they were corruptly administered over a fifty year spree in order to obtain a predetermined outcome that reflected the preferences of vested interests.
The article in Global Pulse Magazine is entitled, ‘The Synod: a Victory for Transparency, Pope Francis is not going to take the synod where it does not want to go.’ This article in Global Pulse is in fact a condensed version of a speech he gave at a ‘Catalyst for Renewal’ Dinner on Friday, 23rd October 2015.
Catalyst for Renewal is a lay group of Australian Catholics who seek to offer a forum for discussion for the faithful, in order that they may freely canvas all matters that are pertinent to the faith that they are interested in.
The full text of Brennen’s speech is freely available on the ABC’s ‘Religion & Ethics’ website for anyone who is interested in reading it.
Vincent – I like you and all lay Catholics are trying to make sense of the situation ‘post-Synod ‘ .
All I will say as I see it , there is a huge battle being waged at the moment comprised of Bishops who want a Church fit for the 21st Century World and beyond while preserving the Faith that comes down to us from the Apostles, and the ‘ modernisers ‘ with relativistic mutable theories
based on the … ‘ sic transit gloria mundi ‘. ….. the reformed model which can be seen in the State Church we have today. Our prayers are required now more than ever for the Holy Father and the Catholic Bishops of the World. This is unfinished business after Vatican ii.
Getting back to the main thread of this particular blog and parish priests. I do think we need a reality check here. Priests , like the rest of us, do not come in a box with pre-determined characteristics and a kind of ‘one size fits all’ description.
Firstly its a job of work. It is a means of survival and therefore pays a wage. It is a chosen career path that is freely taken and would attract very few on this path if it did not pay its way and put money in the bank account of enough sufficiency to live on and have some spare.
Just like any other worker in any other lawful occupation there are some who are good at their job, some downright awful and some of every kind of category in-between.
In short we need to stop putting pp.’s on a pedestal and viewing them with rose tinted glasses.
Being a pp. has many advantages in life and many disadvantages. Welcome to the world of work. It is pretty much the same for all of us.
Hock, I dont believe that Our Lord would consider what you say to be true.!
He would not wish us to believe that we bring the priesthood down to our level,the other way around I think- and that is that we be’ lifted up to the level of the priesthood!’
The Body of Christ.
“Firstly its a job of work. It is a means of survival and therefore pays a wage. It is a chosen career path that is freely taken and would attract very few on this path if it did not pay its way and put money in the bank account of enough sufficiency to live on and have some spare….”
I had a very interesting formation tutor during my time at seminary. He reckoned that in his experience the PP was most likely to have some form of personal crisis after the first 3-4 years of ministry when they came face to face with the simple humdrum ‘reality’ of his job. Once all that was over it was possible then to get on with the show as the PP would most likely come to some compromise regarding the gulf between spiritual search and daily pragmatism that would suit the individual case; either that or leave.
I don’t put priests on pedestals myself because it is a form of cruelty. I am close enough to see their feet of clay but nonetheless I don’t compare them with say teachers, doctors, or social workers because,like it or not, their calling is of quite a different nature.
It is certainly the case as you say that the demands of the ‘job’ suit some more than others and that the ability to be empathic and able to communicate, while remaining as an authoritative figure, is not an easy balance to strike. But there is more to it than that.
Is there any way whereby priests could retain responsibility for their parishes and yet live in community without vows as the Oratorians do?
I worshipped in a St Francis de Sales parish for nearly 20 years.
There was never a problem intill it was given back to the Diocese, and then mayhem took over!!!!
I’ve come across an interesting description… ” The parish priest, in particular, lives a kind of paradoxical life : pastoral ministry is his work but it is not his full vocation ; he is a spiritual father to all but not a biological father to any ; he is a friend and a brother but not a buddy ; he is a man of authority but not an autocrat ; a servant and an helper but not a slave to any . ”
Most important is that he is in Persona Christi when he celebrates Holy Mass,
… and also when he hears confessions.
The priest’s function is primarily cultic; the pastoral side of things is the responsibility of the faithful as a whole.
For the last 9 years I have worshipped most days in a Monastery since becoming a widow I find it has given me something that I needed at the time and the life there with Holy Mass, Vespers and Terce is peaceful , after parish life it is a wonderful spiritual experience..
I believe retreats are a good way to recharge our batteries, and people would be wise to attend one occasionally.I am fortunate to live close to one, with the Real Presence also all the time,It is not only for Religious,Comunities,
God point John Nolan and more…. .St. Joseph , Iona ; perhaps women are more receptive to this than men , as ‘ Father Mike ‘ relates….. in persona Christi, Our Lord being frequently in the company of women and tending to him…..” foxes have their holes , the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of man has nowhere etc ” …. like the parish priest – in persona Christi.
The paradoxes continue ; the parish priest forms the ” cult ” without being the cult himself…… ” I must decrease , he must increase .” .. for the life of the world in persona Christi.
The parish priest brings the world the Sacraments of the Reconciliation and Confession…. in persona Christi.
The parish priest is only able to carry out his office by developing discipline in prayer spontaneously without rigidity… ” with God every thing is possible”….for the parish priest in persona Christi. This requires humility from the part of the priest on a grand scale through his prayerful life … ” pray always ”… if he is seen to be .. ” in persona Christi .” No Hock , it’s not just a ‘ job ‘.
I believe that in Saxon times priests lived in communities and went out to the surrounding areas in order to minister to the flock. Hence we have minsters (e.g. York Minister). John Nolan perhaps you can tell me if this is true or just an attempt to explain the word “minster”.
‘Minster’ is from ‘monasterium’ , a monastery. The great cathedrals were usually monastic institutions. Those that escaped destruction in Henry VIII’s reign did so by virtue of their status as cathedrals.
I believe you are right Geordie . Pre- Norman times , from early seventh century, groups of clergy accompanied noblemen/royalty around Britain. Where they settled they settled under their patronage ‘ minsters ‘ – as John says ‘ monasteries ‘- were founded. From there they tended to the spiritual needs of a surrounding area. This I believe is not certain ; but it is believed they are the precursors of the Norman parish system which we have today . The more important churches ( cathedrals ) retaining the word ‘ minster .’ There were similar developments in the pre-Norman Celtic churches. Of course with the Normans came the great religious orders.