Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Everyone Is Looking For You
Last evening, I decided to take a quick swing through the high school Religious Ed classrooms just to say, "Hello." As luck would have it, one of the teachers was unable to get to class last night and so I became the last minute--unprepared--substitute for the Ninth Grade girls' class. Initially, I tried discovering what last week's discussion was all about. But, I felt a bit like I was trying to extract top secret information from well-trained spies. They were not going to be forced into revealing too much. I did manage to discover that they've been talking about, "the Bible."
So, we launched into a discussion about Reason and Divine Revelation. Before too long, we were going through some of the traditional arguments for the existence of God and how we can arrive at these things through the use of our reason. If you walked by our classroom last night, you would have seen some ridiculous looking drawings on the whiteboard surrounded by terms such as, "contingent being," and "unmoved mover." Their silence moved towards engagement and, quite honestly, I had a blast.
There's a scene in one of the gospels when Jesus goes off from the crowd for some time to pray. He's been teaching and healing for hours and you have the sense that he needed to "get away" and pray. No sooner does he go off to pray than some of his disciples come and find him. It's one of those times in the gospels that the disciples speak words that are far more profound than they actually intend. They tell Jesus, "Everybody is looking for you." Truer words have never been spoken. Everybody is looking for Jesus. Whether they know it or not, everybody is looking for Jesus. Everybody needs him. Everybody is pining for him.
A parish priest makes present Christ the Good Shepherd in the midst of his flock. That's why the priest exists. And so, when we think about our lives as priests, we have to be thinking about imitating the life of the Good Shepherd. Part of the Good Shepherd's life was that he was constantly sought after and constantly busy. Yes, he went off to pray. But, the people kept looking for him.
In many ways, Jesus' pastoral plan seemed a bit disorganized, chaotic, and unrealistic. During his major events, there were possessed people screaming, not enough food for the crowds, and some serious safety hazards--like people cutting holes in roofs to get close to him. Jesus' mission was to be close to the people.
Sometimes priests spend way too much time attempting to organize priesthood into a well-oiled machine. These attempts seem to be designed to have priests spending less and less time with the people they were sent to serve. We spend countless hours planning ourselves out of existence. In the future, it is said, we won't have time to hear confessions, visit the sick, or spend time with the youth. But, we are told, this will enable us to be more efficient and better able to provide pastoral care. What are we talking about???
I sometimes think of mothers of small children. They must continually feel like, "Everybody is looking for you." Kids are crying, hungry, hurt, distraught, bored, stuck, in danger, and to every one of these needs, children can think of one answer, "Mommy!." Now, no matter how organized a woman might be, there is no way she is going to organize her household in such a way that her children will cease to demand her presence. Why? Because it is in the nature of things for it to be this way. Imagine if we heard a mother say, "No, I've organized my household in such a way that my children no longer seek me out for anything. I have to limit myself to providing only the most necessary things like meals and emergency care. Beyond that, I have to know my limits." We'd not be recommending her for "Mother of the Year."
Similarly, it is in the very nature of parish priesthood that people are looking for us. They look for us for the Sacraments, for well-prepared preaching, for visiting the sick and the dying, for meetings about finances, for decorating the church at Christmas, for the science fair at the school, for high school sporting events, for Religious Ed classes, for advice, for prayers, for adult education, for youth group, for meetings, for parties, for cookouts, and for everything else that has to do with the lives of the people. People are looking for a relationship with their priest. Everybody is looking for us.
It is tempting to look at such a situation and attempt to fix it. To manage expectations. To safeguard ourselves and insulate ourselves from the needs of the people. But, I'm afraid that sometimes we are managing ourselves right out of business. Yes, we need time to pray, to relax, and (gulp) to exercise. But, we exist because everybody is looking for the Good Shepherd and our whole life is meant to respond to that need on the part of the people. Plans that make the priest more remote and obscure are detrimental to the priest and to the people.
Whatever plans we put into place for parishes ought to prioritize the availability of priests to be present to their people. That will mean that the people have to make sacrifices. A future plan for parishes should not be that you take one priest and multiply his workload by three or four parishes. A far better plan would be that parishes focus upon how to have more consistent face time with their priest. That might mean that people have to travel ten minutes to another church for a particular Mass or attend a meeting at another parish hall. Instead of having three youth group meetings in three different parishes, you have one. What's one of the benefits of that? The priest is more likely to be able to be present on a more consistent basis. Priests need to be present to the people. But, for that to happen, parishioners have to be willing to sacrifice the "where" and "when" of those encounters.
I think that one of the top priorities of pastoral planning is to make the bond between priest and people stronger. Making it weaker would be a huge mistake. In fact, when a parish is left without a strong priestly presence for any length of time, it begins to drift off on its own. It becomes detached from the rest of the Church. The presence of the priest is a visible link to the wider Church.
It seems that there are choices confronting the parishes of today. We can opt for a more obscure and remote priesthood where the priest is seen for brief moments and where no true relationship between priest and people develops. Or, we can opt for a model that respects the very beautiful truth that everyone is looking for the shepherd. If we choose the latter, then we build a pastoral plan around making the bond between priest and people stronger. We acknowledge that priests will have to sacrifice more of their time and energy for the sake of the people. And, we acknowledge that the people will have to be willing to sacrifice and be inconvenienced as well. Basically, this model will strengthen the local Church, encourage priestly vocations, and provide the best pastoral headship.
Everyone is looking for us. For priests, that is sometimes frustrating. (Like, I'm sure it is for parents). The fact that everyone is looking for us doesn't need to be fixed. What needs to be fixed is anything that hinders priests from responding to the desire of the people. On the part of the priest, that might mean we need to become more generous, more giving of our time, and more willing to get tired. On the part of the people that might mean giving up the expectation that things should stay the same as they always were. Everyone is looking for us. It beats the alternative! Let's not fix the fact that people are looking for priests. Let's fix whatever hinders them from finding us. Why? Because we make visible Christ, the Good Shepherd . . . and he's the one whom they truly seek.