In later years, I witnessed various groups of people who would rip each other to shreds and stab each other in the back when absent, but who would still come together when someone other than a member of their group attacked one of their own to defend that person, often employing tactics that would make the scorched earth policy seem tame.
I thought of that when, against my better judgement I decided to drop by Fr. Z's site today. Z. has shown no compunction in the past about levelling heavy criticism against priests, bishops and cardinals. Today, a parishioner wrote in to explain three problems they have with their priest, and wanted to know how they should address these problems. Here's the guts of the letter:
I have 3 problems with him. 1) he is always late for mass 2) he is a mediocre preacher and seems to be making it up as he goes along 3) he drives a brand new Mercedes. How can he look us in the eye and ask us for money to support the parish when he drives a car that costs more than I make in a year??
My question is: How does one tactfully tell him that we expect more, that we deserve his full and timely attention?
Is this person nitpicking? Perhaps. Perhaps not so much. I'll get to that at the end. However, first, here's Father's response:
Must… Breathe … Deeply… In… Out… In… Out…
How do you tactfully tell him what “WE” want or what “YOU” want?
I’ll tell you what to tell him. How about “Thank you, Father, for Mass!” How about “Thank you, Father, for saying ‘Yes’ to your vocation!” How about, “Father, I said my Rosary for you today!” How about, “Is there anything that is needed in the sacristy? My friends and I will help set up before Mass.”
He then concludes by reprinting the old story about the perfect priest, which, I admit, is funny. However, in this context the message is clear. You don't know what a priest goes through and the unreasonable demands put upon priests by their parishioners, so just shut up. The only one who gets to beat up on priests around here is me.
In short, he blows the person off. Which, I suppose, is to be expected. My wife and I have written letters to the diocese about priests who invent new ceremonies and preach heresies and have been blown off. Thank you for bringing this to our attention, the bishop or his flunky tell us, now PFO. The clergy, it seems, protects its own and will tolerate no criticism from outside the circle. The person who wrote to Fr. Z. wanted to know how to tactfully address some issues, but they went to the wrong person. Of all the things for which Z. is known, tact is not among them. Plus, he is clergy, and does not take criticism of clergy from the lay lightly.
I have some sympathy for some of the points raised by both people. Though I have criticised him (and will do so again real soon), I do agree with Fr. Z. for much of what he says. My mother used to tell me when I was bored at Mass, or that I didn't like for such and such for whatever reason, she would tell me to be grateful we have a priest, that we could go to Mass and to offer it up for the poor suffering souls in Purgatory. And I did. I still do. Frequently.
When I was younger, I considered joining the clergy, but ultimately decided against it. One of the things that made me decide against it was the fact that I was aware in a small way, of the amount of criticism priests faced from their congregation. Every move, every word, every gesture was weighed and evaluated and seen in the worst possible light. (Incidentally, similar reasoning made me decide not to try and go into teaching. The idea of facing parents on Parent/Teacher nights was just something I was unwilling to face.)
But let's look at the points raised by the parishioner. First, father is always late for Mass. What they don't say is why he is late for Mass. They also don't say how late. If he is late because he is administering to two or more parishes, and he is just racing in from a previous Mass, then I would say this complaint is mostly frivolous, and worthy of Fr. Z.'s dismissal. The solution would be to schedule Mass fifteen minutes or so later to give father a little more time to arrive. Bring it up at the next parish council meeting. If, however, this is his only parish and he lives in the rectory and he is more than a minute or two tardy in starting the Mass, then I would say this is more serious. It would appear that Father cannot be bothered to come to church on time and start Mass and the writer would be justified in approaching father and asking why.
Father's tardiness would be especially trying for families. Speaking from experience, getting the family up, out of bed and through the door to make it to Mass on time is difficult at best. It is hard enough to convince one's children that this is important when you are the one setting an example. But when Father himself can't seem to be bothered to rise and shine on time, when he himself doesn't act like it is important enough to be on time, then convincing the family gets that much harder.
The second point, that his homilies are not prepared and badly done, seems to be endemic. Most of the priests I have known are not very good preachers, and some of them were awful. Around here, almost all of them insist on starting with a joke, even, and I kid you not, on Good Friday. I often hear priests whose first language is not English give homilies that are frankly incomprehensible. I have unfortunately come to regard the homily as an almost irrelevant part of the Mass. This is a suck it up moment, give thanks that at least we have a priest, etc.
Lastly, the guy drives a luxury car. This is a little bit thornier. On the one hand, the writer pointed out that father did have a life before he became a priest, and this car may be a relic of that previous life. He may also have been successful and have a healthy bank account. It would not be sensible to tell father to give up the car he already has to get a worse one. On the other hand, it does look bad to have a priest ask for more money from parishioners when he has a car none of them could afford. It is unfortunate, but appearances do matter. A priest who indulges in their taste for the finer, more expensive things in life will not find the congregation made up of people who are constantly tightening their belts to make ends meet sympathetic to his appeals for more money.
At this point I was originally going to write a response to Fr. Z.'s comment that we should give thanks for priests. We should, I was going to say, but I was going to continue on to say that priests should also give thanks for us. We have faced terrible priests and bishops, inept and incompetent, occasionally criminal, and arrogant and dismissive of us. Frequently we find ourselves going to church not because of the priests but despite them. It was a long rant, and I was smugly impressed with my spleen. It was the kind of thing that draws in readers and gets comments- you know, the sort of thing I don't get. But then I changed my mind and removed it. It is unworthy of a Catholic to try and raise barriers between members, or to set one member against another, or to hold a grudge.
Instead, I will say that we should be grateful for each other. Grateful that there are still a few, too few, men who heed the call and enter the priesthood, and still a few, too few, who still show up and worship God in our churches. We should be respectful of one another, but that also means we should be able ask questions respectfully of each other, and get meaningful answers. It would not be wrong to enquire of father why he is tardy, and if there is anything that could be done to help. I am at a loss as to suggest how the other issues may be approached, (although I might be inclined to one day admire father's car and say "Nice car, father! How did you get it?") but certainly the parishioner's concern merited more than a blowoff with contempt. We should all remember that we are in this together, and that we need each other. We should act like we all matter.