Monday, March 30, 2009

Pastor as Soloist

An interesting quote from CNS about remarks the Pope made recently in Africa:
ROME (CNS) -- In a world that does not seem interested in hearing about God, effective communication of the faith requires a group effort, Pope Benedict XVI said.

When many people seem unable or unwilling to recognize the presence of God, "it is important that a pastor not be a 'soloist,' but be surrounded by believers who, along with him, are bearers of the seed of the word (of God) and help it live and grow," the pope said during a visit March 29 to a Rome parish. [...]

The pope told parish leaders, "The council is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and the pastor -- and even more a pope -- needs advice, needs help in making decisions. And so these (parish) councils are also a work of the Holy Spirit and a witness to the Spirit's presence in the church."
This is interesting to me, because I recently found out more about my mission parish's former pastor. He was, by all accounts, rather autocratic. Even when the parish council would research an idea and be clear on the details, Father would decide to do something completely different (and not always advisable) simply because he was the pastor, and his word ought to be law. The final straw came when the parish raised money for an addition--and Father reportedly refused to accept advice from the lay people who had raised the money, hired some substandard contractors, and permitted the laying of a floor in the addition that had to be removed almost immediately because it was being destroyed with normal use.

Now, none of this is to point fingers at a priest I've never met; these are stories I've heard, and I would certainly ask Father's side of the story if he hadn't retired to another state. But it does illustrate the need to balance the authority of the pastor, which should be respected, with the role of the laity, who should also be respected in their proper spheres.

Far too often in parishes the situation exists where the parish council or other lay members think they are, or ought to be, in charge of the liturgy. From youth group leaders or DRE's demanding unrealistic roles for children at "special" Masses to out-of-control music ministers to segments of the congregation insisting that their particular culture ought to be featured prominently on holy days or other major occasions, lay parishioners seem quite happy, in many parishes, running to Father with a list of liturgical demands and expecting him to do whatever is asked, or to approve whatever is wanted, without a consideration for the integrity of the liturgy, the sacred or solemn, or the overall liturgical character intrinsic to the Mass. Granted, sometimes Father is part of the problem, having been educated to think that the Mass is something over which he has power and in which he may ignore the Church's liturgical will, but even when Father would like to have his Masses be reverent affairs he may be "overruled" by various lay people and their demands.

But the other side of the problem, the pastor who thinks, as the Pope so aptly put it, that he's a "soloist," is a frustrating reality, too. Sometimes a pastor who is very sound liturgically will be this type of pastor, the one who micromanages not the matters of liturgy, religious instruction, etc. which are very much his concern, but also such matters as construction and repairs, fundraising, parish outreach programs etc. involving areas where Father may not only not be an expert, but where he may be ignoring the advice and experience of parishioners who actually are expert in these areas. A priest who has never had to raise money, for instance, will turn away from the sound advice of the head of a local small nonprofit group at his peril; he will overrule people who have great experience in the construction industry to his sorrow; he will end up discouraging such groups as the Altar Society by a demand for the detailed minutes of their every meeting, and the right to overrule at the last minute the plans they've made for the purchase of altar flowers for a major feast day.

There needs to be a good balance between those areas that are the pastor's total concern, and those areas where he ought to welcome and even encourage the advice of the laity.

This may seem like common sense. However, just like the head of a family, a priest can go from dispensing his rightful authority for the good of the parish family to thinking that his authority means that nobody else can ever have a good suggestion or some sound wisdom, that it would diminish his authority to let a lay person help him figure out what kind of new furnace to buy for the church building, or how to go about raising funds for a new baptismal font to replace the "1970s Immersion Pool" that is now leaking a mixture of water and lime-green paint all over the main aisle where it is most unfortunately located.

An authority figure who seeks such advice will never find his authority diminished; he will only find respect for his lawful authority increased, especially among those whose opinions he honors and experience he values. Our priests need our prayers and our support always; but sometimes, even if they don't know it, they need our help, too.

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