Friday, January 11, 2013

The Pastor as Shepherd, Bridegroom, and Father and Pastoral Planning

This week, in the Archdiocese of Boston, the implementation of a new pastoral plan began.  As a first step, 12 collaboratives were designated consisting of 28 parishes. Among them were the three parishes of my city.  I am currently pastor of one parish and the administrator of a second.  As part of the plan, all pastors in those twenty-eight parishes were required to resign.  They, along with any other priest, is then free to apply to any of the now open collaboratives.

Icon of Christ the Bridegroom
For me, writing that letter was akin to filing for divorce despite wanting to stay married. At any moment in time, priests must always be willing to fulfill the pastoral mission of their diocese (and even beyond their diocese.)  At the same time, I think we must zealously guard the Church's long-standing tradition of the stability of pastors. Church law still holds as its first option the indefinite assignment of pastors, and secondarily permits dioceses to have renewable terms for pastors. The Church's wisdom in promoting stability of office for pastors should not be underestimated.

This deterioration of the importance of the stability of pastors is often defended by rather banal discussions of  " new blood," or "new ideas."  At times there are attempts to overly spiritualize it by saying, "Well, this is part of the life of a priest."  But we should not be so quick to do that. Before knowing how to act, we should first know who we are.

In the life of the Church, the pastor is not a mere extension of the bishop.  He is an intimate cooperator of the bishop and he exercises his priestly office only under the authority of the bishop.  And, in this sense, every priest should have the pastoral concern of the whole diocese at heart.  If the bishop needs a particular pastor to move for the good of souls, then a good priest is willing to do so.  In this way,priests should always be willing to exercise missionary zeal in caring for the whole Church, even beyond the boundaries of his particular diocese.  But, at the same time, a pastor exercises his office in his own right. In other words, the pastor does not represent the bishop in his parish.  The pastor exercises the pastoral office under the bishop and dependent upon the bishop, but the pastor represents the person of Christ, the Good Shepherd in his parish.  The pastor is shepherd, bridegroom, and father.

As a shepherd, he is called not only to lead and to lay down his life for the sheep, but he is also called to know the sheep.  Knowing the flock takes time--a long time.  The sheep also need time to know the shepherd, to know the voice of the Good Shepherd through him, and to follow him.  Parishes aren't corporations.  Things take time. It took St. John Vianney over forty years!

As a bridegroom, the pastor lives Christ's spousal relationship with the Church.  He is with his people in good times and in bad, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health.  The stability of pastors is a necessary condition for living this spousal relationship. Without this stability, it can seem as though pastors are always on the lookout for the next best parish.

As a father, stability is important because fatherhood is a stable presence in the lives of people. To say, "Well, all priests are fathers" would do a disservice to the theological foundation of the office of pastor.  In the Canon of the Mass, even though we pray for all bishops, we pray for our own bishop by name. He is not simply just one among the many bishops.  Specificity matters.  Similarly, the people of a parish have been given a father in the person of their pastor.  Moving him, while sometimes necessary, ought to be done with serious consideration.  "Is this so important that the father of these people should be taken from them?" If the answer is, "yes," then there's no doubt that the pastor ought to move.  But that question ought to be asked.

There are always going to be good reasons to move a pastor.  The argument for stability is not an
argument for leaving an unhappy pastor in a difficult assignment or for leaving an ineffective pastor in a parish.  Rather, the argument for stability concerns the very identity of the pastor himself  and his place within the ecclesial communion and in the life of a parish.

When I think about my own parishes, I can say that I know I am a shepherd, a bridegroom, and a father to them. So, it is natural that I would want to maintain stability.  If a pastor isn't heartbroken about leaving his flock, his spouse, and his children, then he really should be leaving his parish!  By setting the threshold for moving pastors high, we go a long way toward emphasizing the beautiful relationship that exists between the pastor and his flock.  By setting the threshold high, it also builds trust so that when such moves are made, we can have confidence that it was for very good reason.

To be clear, this isn't a public appeal to be left in place. But, it is, I think, a very critical part of the conversation about pastoral planning that is necessary. A profound appreciation for the stability of pastors would paradoxically encourage a greater acceptance of those instances when a pastor needs to be moved. 

It is an interesting moment in time. We most definitely need priests with a missionary spirit and yet, the goal of every missionary ought to be to create stable communities with a stable pastor.  We need pastors who have stability of office and who possess a willingness to take new assignments when necessary.  For all of us, priests and laity, it is important for us not to yield simply to emotion or to a corporate model of the Church.  All of us continually need to return to a meditation on who the priest is and who the pastor is.  It is from meditating on the reality of the priest that we will know how to interpret the way forward.  And, of course, we should all pray for our bishop and for those he has entrusted with the task of overseeing this pastoral plan.  It is undoubtedly an overwhelming task and they deserve our respect and our prayers. We are all in this together, bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity. I think discussions about this are beneficial and, in the end, will help all of us to be better disciples in mission. 

(As an aside, when looking for an image to incorporate into this blog post, I thought of finding one of Christ the Bridegroom.  I was rather shocked when I found the icon above.  It is not exactly what I would have imagined for an image of the bridegroom and it honestly beckons me to deepen my own understanding of what it means in my vocation to be an icon of Christ, the Bridegroom.  I encourage you to go to this link and to read what the icon means.  It is really fascinating.


  1. Father,

    Please apply here.


  2. I agree that the frequent re-assignment of pastors is destructive to the life of the parishes. It is a kind of serial monogamy that we see reflected in the modern marriage culture. To push the analogy, often the new pastor ends up being "Mom's new boyfriend"--maybe his presence will make home life better, maybe worse, but it can get hard for us kids to be very invested because we suspect he won't be around long [in the case of pastors, certainly not long enough to both baptize and witness the weddings of our children]. I know shifting demographics and less than explosive numbers of new priests make this something of a necessity, but it is not a healthy situation. God bless you and keep you where you will most prosper the work of His Kingdom.

  3. We need you here, in Beverly, where YOU have made this all work!
    If it isn't broken why "fix" it?
    Most of us are praying for you to continue( for a long time) to take care of the flock and success that you created!

  4. The people at the Archdiocese Planning Office have not a clue as to the spiritual realities of parish life. They look at everything as if we are pieces on a chess board for them to arrange. They haven't got any common sense at all about human psychology, let alone spiritual development.

    A vibrant parish is one where the Holy Spirit has created the bonds of love, and the leader in that work is the pastor. Loving people necessitates knowing them intimately, and that takes time. The pastor is not just a dispenser of sacraments. He is "in persona Christi," and as such, must know each one as well as possible if he is going to guide them to eternal life. The care of souls is the only reason for the existence of the Church, and when the bureaucrats start making decisions based on "resources," they have lost the vision of Christ, and they are impeding the work of the Holy Spirit, Who is the bond of communion and intimate love. Love doesn't grow in organizations; it grows in communities, and it grows in relationships among the members of the community, and it most especially grows under the wise guidance of commtted spiritual leaders who know their sheep, and where the sheep know that they are cared for by him, in a stable, long term relationship.

    1. Dan, I agree with what you say about the pastor and his relationship with the parish. As far as folks involved in the planning office, they too have a difficult task and are trying to do the best that they can. While I don't know what decision they will make concerning Beverly, I really do trust that if I have to go, they will put a pastor in place here who will be all about the New Evangelization and will build upon what we have. I really believe that. And, I think that they will do that precisely because they are trying to be attentive to the spiritual and human needs of the people here.

  5. you ARE applying to St Mary's correct?

  6. Back home, my pastor toys with the Mass, offers no opportunities for adoration of the blessed sacrament, and very sparse opportunities for confession.

    There was a priest at the college parish I am part of who also toyed with the Mass and carried his own quirks (he was swapped out the year I got here).

    There's another one in a place I worked who wanted to promote "dialogue" on holy Church's teachings on birth control, altered the language of the Mass to use inclusive language, and ad-libbed as he went.

    Unfortunately, it is my experience that these priests who were formed in the 70s or so are not especially equipped to minister to me or to my colleagues effectively. I will not jump to calling them "dissidents", as admittedly I'm trying to temper my engineering tendencies to jump to extremes. However, these people have not had what it takes to even begin to inspire me to become a holier person. This is a problem.

    Before I put any thought into this topic, I sort of assumed it was like rotating your tires--leave a "sketchy" priest in a parish for too long, and you'll have a community broken in some way. Not a perfect analogy, but I think it gets the point across.

    Father David, I certainly am not attempting to imply that you have any "sketchiness" about you--my comment is not meant to be personal at all. Just...I suppose I can see where these planning people are coming from.

    Change is often good. Maybe you are off to a parish where people are not used to going to confession, or have never just sat in silence in front of the blessed sacrament. Maybe you are the beacon of light in a sea of darkness. I don't have anything that says that's why anyone moves priests around, but I think it is a working theory. That doesn't make it easy--heck no. But I can't imagine ministry is supposed to be easy all the time.

    I don't know. Just my thoughts. I'm willing to rethink them if you've got any food for me...I'm just a lay-person, and a young one at that.

    God bless.

    1. Dear Anonymous Young Person, thank you for reading the blog and for taking the time to comment. Your experiences are instructive. Good for you for your attempts to temper your tendency toward the extremes! I think that you have articulated well, the very best of the opposing argument. And, I agree that just because something is difficult doesn't mean that it is a bad thing. But, I think the Church's wisdom leans I towards stability of pastors. I think that perhaps the Church's wisdom also presumes, however, that there are only good pastors! So, moving them around for the sake of not keeping somebody who likes clown Masses in one parish for too long, wouldn't be necessary!

      But, you make some good points. I have every confidence that God will work all things to our benefit, no matter what the decision is. In this regard, I am not worried. Thanks again for your remarks.

      PS: There are some great priests ordained in the 70's! But, I know what you meant.

  7. Father, I hope you apply to the Beverly Parishes. Please.

  8. Father,

    I respect your diplomatic approach to this difficult situation. It is yet again another characteristic that makes you such a great leader. Being also a young adult (different from the person you originally commented on), I may not know all there is to know about planning futures or even God's will. But I can tell you that any time an event in my life caused me pain where something was lost to me that when the pain subsided that something new was found to me that surpassed even my wildest imagination.
    Although I will miss you terrbly, as a spiritual father and as a person, if you have to go, it is clear to me that you have a very specific purpose. (Yes, of course being a priest and living in the image of Christ!) But as you stated previously, specificity DOES matter. Now, I know that there are many wonderful priests out there. But I speak for you alone since you alone are my Pastor.
    I don't want to come across as being coy, but it has ALWAYS been evident that God has a very special plan for you as an individual man and as an individual priest. I don't want to measure this simply by the material fruits of your spiritual labor. It is so much more than that, as God is always so much more than what we can imagine Him to be.
    I don't believe you were honestly ever meant to remain a parish priest. (And I mean it with the deepest reverence.) You were meant for something even greater and I think the hearts of the members of your flock know this. Our Pastor could become a saint!
    If God wants you that close to Him then, please, search the earth for souls that need saving, wherever they may be. For if ever there was a man; a priest who could save even the most hopeless soul, it would be Fr. David Barnes.

    Praying that you grow in holiness to save even more souls, in whichever way God chooses it to be done.

  9. We (and countless others) agree wholeheartedly with the above statements.