Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Roamin' Catholicism (Roaming - Part 2)

Having established the foundation in Part 1, I'm now going to focus specifically on Catholicism. 

I would argue that one of the most fundamental problems in the Church today is taking place at the parish level, where the problem of "roaming" is rampant. The bishops need to put the breaks on this by setting a good example and by warning the faithful of the negative effects of this mindset. 

To start with the problem from the perspective of the parishioners, our mobile society constantly has families moving to different cities and houses because of work or because they "got tired" of where they lived. While this is understandable, we have seen the devastating effects of this on parish life. You no longer get to know the families you're going to Mass with, and with people constantly coming and going everyone becomes a fellow 'stranger in Christ' rather than a brother or sister in Christ. Parish events also take the hit because there is no core team of families to attend or host the events. The parish now begins to look more like an airport terminal rather than a reunion of extended family. There you lose the opportunity to have people close to you to pray for you and help you out in times of need. As laity, we can help curb this by committing to truly settle down somewhere and not buy into the "seven year itch" idea that after things slow down or get boring that it's time to move on to greener pastures.

Approaching this problem from the perspective of the clergy, our pastors need to reenforce the reality that a priest is a father of a family, and as a father figure he has a commitment to a specific family. Traditionally, a priest was typically assigned to a parish for the course of his entire priestly life, and he was only moved for serious reasons. This meant that the priest truly got a chance to know his flock and he had the chance to baptize and celebrate the weddings of everyone in the parish, including the grandchildren of the younger generation he first met when he first arrived. For whatever reason over the last few decades, the Bishops began to move priests around and call this movement "parish assignments." The priest was then "assigned" to fixed "terms" at their parish, typically 6 years or so, after which time they were uprooted and moved to "serve" another "term" at another parish. A "business model" mentality began to set in, where the priest was seen as a workman to be hired, fired, or transferred.

Hopefully you can see the damage and devastation this causes. If the priest is truly the father of a parish family, then to be assigned a new father every few years is effectively to be living under the constant instability and disorder of step-fatherhood. This eerily models the major societal problem of fatherless homes due to divorce and illegitimacy. It's beyond obvious that mom's live-in boyfriend or a step-dad isn't going to have the same respect and dedication the children's real dad should have. Even the best intentioned priests lament the fact they must start afresh every 6 years with new families in a new parish "assignment." We need to speak out against this and talk to our own family, our priests, and our bishops about this madness. 

In talking to some Catholics about this, they've responded by saying this constant shifting of fathers is due to two other dilemmas: First, it 'spares' a parish from being given a bad priest, because a parish will only have to 'suffer' through a bad priest for only a few years. Second, with the number of priests retiring and the lack of priests to replace them, this forces the bishop to reassign priests according to who is best fit to lead a given parish based on it's size and other needs. While these responses are understandable, here's why I don't think this shifting is a true solution, and at best only a band-aid.

As to the first reason, we should never come to fear that our parish will be assigned a bad priest. A bad priest should be the exception, not the rule. If bad priests are the rule rather than exception, there are bigger problems at hand. Given the priest has made it to ordination, we should only expect that he has the best motives, regardless of his shortfalls in character. And being assigned to a parish for life would force even a bad priest to realize that, just like a marriage, he's there for the long haul and has to shape up if he wants to be well received by his family. So the first reason isn't a good reason at all, and to cap that off, if a priest is truly no good, then the best thing to do is to stop him from terrorizing, not send him to another flock to terrorize more of the faithful! 

As for the second reason, this is a bit more tricky. I would say that even given the 'shortage' of priests to replace the rapidly retiring priests, this still does not call for the frequent shifting. A young priest can be assigned to a given parish and remain there for a long time, especially since assignment shouldn't be primarily 'talent based'. Shifting priests should be done reluctantly, where as it has become something of a regularly scheduled occurrence for priests in the whole diocese every July. A bishop should resist uprooting as much as he can, even if that meant a priest had to serve more than one parish or even if it meant closing down parishes that don't have enough parishioners. It's better to have fewer parishes with a solid roots than to have many parishes with no roots that simply act as airport terminals on Sunday. And with increased mobility, it's not much of a burden on faithful Catholic families to commit to driving a bit further to have a solid parish.

To lose your father is truly an 'earthquake' moment in anyone's life, and that's why I don't need to make that much of a case for why this is wrong and a bad idea. Even in politics we see the whole nation go into turmoil every 4 years when we get a new president. That's sad. This means the president must naturally be worried about not getting re-elected, while those serving a second term become "lame ducks," and meanwhile the whole nation becomes divided at the toxic environment known as political campaigning.

I don't want this to be a rant, but rather a wake-up call. A good priest is a gift from God, one of the best gifts imaginable. We must pray for good priests, bishops, and even popes. One Saint once said that the number of good priests or bad priests a nation has directly corresponds to how pleased or upset God is with the Church. There must be some truth to this, as I cannot imagine a worse 'punishment' a Catholic can be faced with than being given a bad priest or a priest shortage. And while it's easy to blame either the bishops or ourselves, that really doesn't accomplish anything. Only catechesis and prayer matters.


Devin Rose said...

It's an incredibly difficult problem. Tons of bad priests exist, yet dioceses are so low on vocations that they will not or cannot send these bad priests packing. Hence one strategy is to try to minimize the damage bad priests can do, and one way is by shifting frequently and marginalizing bad priests to small/heterodox congregations.

Also, young priests are almost all orthodox. So what happens is that they want to get that young priest up to speed as fast as possible. Hence: first assignment associate pastor at a big parish under veteran solid pastor. Three years later next assignment, associate pastor at a parish/cathedral with a school or pastor at a small parish, perhaps a rural one. Three years later he is ready to be a pastor at a big, thriving parish or one that needs to be turned around.

It's not ideal at all but it is the reality for many dioceses. I think the problems you point out with it are all valid.

God bless,

guy fawkes said...

I live in Portugal where this problem exists but nowhere on the scale as in America. It is not uncommon for villagers to rise up in protest when the priest that has Baptized, married and buried members of a village for years to be replaced by a stranger. But then people don't change house or jobs like in the Stats either. Property, even apartments, are passed around within families. Fathers do not ell their kids to get out and be on their own when they reach 18 or 21. When people marry they often stay in the same house they grew up in. The family and the parish is more intact than in the U.S.

Nick said...

Thank you for your comments.
For some reason Gmail has been filing these comments under "unimportant" mail so they got lost in a mix of spam mail.