We had our new priest over for dinner Friday night. I love him. Everyone loves him. Not because he has a big personality, or because he gives exceptionally charismatic homilies. In fact, he’s quite reserved, but also reverent, and I wondered how he would be at our dinner table, if we would break through that “priestly” exterior, and see the man himself.
I wanted to gather his impressions about our Parish, see what he thought of our people, and of our little place in the world. Would he have the same irritations I’ve had? Would he see the same strengths? Put frankly, I was sort of hoping he’d dish a little.
“You have a very healthy Parish,” he said.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“Well, coming in, you can see that people have a sense of ownership. They take care of the daily parish life. They are responsible for their house of worship. That’s not something you always see.”
I do happen to know that our parish finances are in excellent shape. I know that there are parishioners who have such a sense of ownership over this church that they have at times clashed over who gets to do the yard work. I know there are women in the parish who have memorized every item of cutlery in the parish hall kitchen drawers, and there are men who know every tree on the grounds, and the ones that stood before them fifty years ago. Many parishioners hold keys to the sanctuary and its surrounding buildings.
I know who to contact if I would like to participate in pro-life ministries, or serve dinner at the Salvation Army. I know who to call about the food drive and religious ed. I know where to go if I want to sing in the choir at Mass or have my kids go through training to be altar servers.
I knew all these things in just a few weeks of attendance at our parish because the Evangelization Committee hosted ice cream socials in the hall after daily Mass, and before Religious ed on Wednesday nights some of the older women served dinner to the young families bringing their kids to Church in the evening on a school night.
Members of the Parish made certain that there were times to share a meal as a parish family even after we had shared the Eucharistic meal. This is indeed, a very good parish, the best I’ve ever attended.
And because the Parish is healthy, because it stands on a foundation of many families who have been wedded to this place in the world and this community for many years, our new priest has been able to glide right in, serve the Mass in his own particular style, which happens to be very much to my liking, and also serve the other two Parish communities to which he has recently been assigned.
Yes, he also single-handedly serves two other Parishes.
I live in one of those rural areas where small towns once sprouted up every ten miles or so along the ribbon-like two-lane highways, each with its own Parish. For a hundred years, each of these churches has had its own priest, but recently, the Archdiocese has begun the process of joining parish communities, assigning a parish “administrator” to each church (typically, a nun), and joining them to other nearby churches with a shared priest.
Our new priest’s schedule is brutal. On Saturdays, he says the vigil Mass at one church at 4, followed by a Spanish Mass at six. He hears confession before each. On Sunday’s he hears confessions and offers the 9 o’clock mass at our Parish, then a 10:30 Mass at our sister parish. On Sunday evenings, he sometimes has to fill in for neighboring parishes where priests are sick or absent for some reason. He says four additional daily masses during the week, including one for the Catholic school kids.
He needs the parish itself to be healthy, to be self-serving, to offer its own leadership outside of the Mass, so that he can do what he needs to during the Mass. More and more, I see how parish life is a mutual relationship, a marriage of sorts, where everyone has a place in the family, and a job to do so that the family can be healthy and stay nourished.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to go into a church as a priest, and have everyone there looking to you, starving for leadership, hungry to be fed and have only oneself and the Eucharist to offer.
And yet, I can see how this happens in large churches where the parishioners are nomads who change communities every five years or so, who travel 10,15, or 30 miles to sit with other strangers and ask for a decent meal. The priest there is the only parent, serving thousands of orphans. No wonder everyone goes away from it a little bit hungry.
And no wonder the lay people who do get involved don’t seem to know any other way to serve, than to put on a good show–sing a song, play their guitar, offer something of themselves, even if that’s not what anyone went to church to find.
It’s different when the priest is the nomad, traveling from parish to parish, bringing the main dish. In his absence, the parishioners have to figure out how to feed one another and supply all the sides. And it really helps when people are rooted to a community, invested in it over many years, where grandparents attend church with their children, grandchildren, cousins, and ancient friends and neighbors.
When I read a complaint that the church has failed to meet its parishioners’ needs, spiritually or physically, that The Word is not respected or made flesh in parish life, it occurs to me that the problem is less a Catholic one than it is a cultural one. Our families are disconnected. Our parishes are made up of many disparate people who all have a different idea about how to make things work.
We don’t leave the Mass feeling anemic because the homily was dull or the music was bad. We feel malnourished when we don’t know how to serve, when we don’t know whom to serve or why. Why should we empty and spend ourselves on the stranger sitting next to us in the pew who looks healthy and prosperous, but whose wounds are invisible?
This, I believe, is one thing Pope Francis is trying to teach us. Be present to one another. Heal the wounds, but first, know what the wounds are by being in relationship with one another. Let a person’s sins go behind the person himself. Call people by name, rather than by their defects.
Granted, it’s easier to heal the wounds in the small town parish of 300 members, than it is in the 2500 member parish located two intersections up from Wal-mart in the heart of suburban sprawl.
But you have to start somewhere, and I believe it’s by wedding oneself to parish life as we do to our own families, making the commitment to drive those 20 miles, not just on Sunday, but several times during the week as well, looking for opportunities to serve.
This is how we pump blood into our churches, and by extension, into the Mass itself. This is how our reception of the Eucharist becomes not just a Communion with Christ, but with each other. This is how our participation in the Mass becomes, not a performance for one another, but a mutual offering among people who have labored and suffered shoulder to shoulder throughout the week. This is how a group of strangers and sojourners becomes the body of Christ.
I appreciate our new priest’s unwillingness to put on a performance of any kind. Even at our dinner table, I could sense that he always defers to his interior Christ. I asked a few leading questions, hoping he might tell his “vocation story” to my kids and possibly inspire them to become priests. But even that, he downplayed, preferring instead to ask my children questions about their lives, engaging them on their level.
Afterwards, I could see that his tactic probably made a far greater impression on them–how he sought to understand rather than be understood. This is what a good spiritual leader does. He empties himself. He asks rather than answers. He serves.
And this is what we’re all called to do.