|Priests at the Chrism Mass in Boston|
I'm a pastor of two parishes (well, pastor of one and administrator of the other). I have the benefit of being fairly close to the people; seeing them each week, providing the sacraments for them, attending their family events, preaching to them every week, attending meetings with them, visiting their children in school, and a thousand other interactions. Those who know me would, I hope, say that I think with the mind of the Church. Nobody comes to our parish expecting that they will hear anything other than what the Church teaches. Nobody comes here expecting to hear some wink and a smile way to justify sin.
And yet, there are always things that need improving. In fact, whenever a seminarian arrives at this parish for an assignment, I will usually tell him upfront that he will undoubtedly see certain things that ought to be fixed, improved, or abolished. Not fixing, improving, or abolishing those things is not to neglect them. It is simply a matter of doing what is possible when it is possible. I'm obviously not speaking here of major issues, but of those everyday things in parish life that need improvement. An example comes to mind:
When I first came to one of my parishes, I wanted to make certain that the school children and the religious education children were brought over to church for confession on a regular basis. If the kids thought this was painful, it was probably all the more so for the priests. In large part, the kids would come in and have no idea what to say or do. Extracting a confession from them was more difficult than extracting a tooth. They were fairly oblivious.
Something great has happened over the years. The Religious Education teachers and the School teachers have done a remarkable job in preparing these students for Confession. The other day (and again, in a short while) some of our school children came over for Confession. They come in, make the Sign of the Cross, say, "Bless me Father . . . ," and make a good and thoughtful Confession. They know how to examine their consciences! It took a lot of time and it took the cooperation of the teachers. The other day, after Confessions, the two priests who were helping me both said, "Wow, the children are so well-prepared." Music to my ears!
My point? It didn't happen over night. It required the patience and hard work of those teachers. It also required pastoral patience on my part. Little by little, encouraging a lot and correcting a little, we've managed to help improve one aspect of parish life. What has most impressed me is that over the long-run, the quality of confessions have vastly improved. The high school students who've been coming now for ten years have a much better understanding of sin, grace, mercy, and making an integral confession. Perfect? Not yet, but we keep working at it.
Attending to that one aspect of parish life might mean that other aspects don't get immediate attention. Also, encouraging people is a lengthier process than (figuratively) excommunicating them. Pastors sometimes see the greater context of particular situations as well. So while I may see the need to correct some aspect of parish life, I see that in conjunction with the whole picture. Things take time. That's not an excuse. It is a fact.
So, back to the bishops. I am responsible for two parishes. That means that ultimately I'm responsible for the pastoral care of the young, the dying, the infirm, those preparing for marriage, two Religious Education programs, Youth Ministry, the Catholic School, the Liturgy, Adult Faith Formation, preaching, teaching, sacramental preparation, evangelization, promoting vocations, two church buildings, two school buildings, two rectory buildings, a convent, a bunch of other stuff, and a whole lot of people. No matter how hard I work, tomorrow a roof will leak, a door will break, a person will make a mistake, a parishioner won't be completely faithful, somebody won't show up for their adoration period, an altar server will show up for Mass in sneakers, I will make a decision that upsets somebody, and the lector will mispronounce some key word (like, "The body is made for immorality" rather than "immortality"). That's just in two parishes. A bishop is responsible for an entire diocese of parishes and he does not have the benefit of seeing all of his people on a daily or weekly basis.
None of this is to dismiss the legitimate concerns of the Faithful or their right to make their concerns known. But, in the end, these concerns ought to be made in charity and with deference to the pastoral authority of the Bishop. It's probably true that pastors and bishops have erred too much on the side of caution in the exercise of their pastoral authority. But, patience is also part of pastoral governance.
In St. Paul's Second Letter To Timothy, he writes, "proclaim the word whether it convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching." Preaching, convincing, reprimanding, encouraging, patience, and sound doctrine are all part of pastoral governance. Reprimanding is certainly one part, but it is not the whole. Pastors (be they bishops or priests) ought not shy away from reprimanding, but neither should anyone think that reprimanding is the sole function of a shepherd.
All of this came to mind today because tomorrow I am going to the Chrism Mass and will be with my bishop and all of the priests of the Archdiocese. This is a good week especially to pray for bishops and priests and to give them the benefit of the doubt. If you see moral, liturgical, and pastoral problems in your parish, diocese, or country, it's a safe bet that the shepherds see those things even more clearly. Most of us aren't ignoring the problems. We're just patiently working on them. Most of us who are parish priests get the benefit of the doubt because people see us up close and know that we are trying. Bishops sometimes don't get the same benefit of the doubt because they are a bit more distant from the people So, this week, let's pray especially for our bishops. Let them be on the receiving end of some patient encouragement.