classic teaching from ‘Soul Institute’ Re Newing a Parish from Father Bob

Last April all the priests of the diocese gather for a few day after Easter for human and spiritual formation. One of the speaker was a Jesuit priest. I remember him saying that he was in charge of making sure that everything that came from the US Bishop Conference was doctrinal sound. He also apologize for having back pain.

During his talk I turned to the priest next to me and said, “He is giving a teaching from Father Bob.” When he was done I went up to him and said, “Were you giving a teaching from Father Bob?” He said, “Yes, How did you know?” I told him that I meet Father Bob twice on a charismatic retreat, and was always profoundly moved by his teaching. I told him that I pray to Father Bob to pray for me and to teach me from Heaven. When I left I pointed out to him where he obtain his teaching for the day. And here it is.

Father Bob in his book, ‘Reflection of a Veteran Priest’ writes, “Former Model. Our first priority, it seems to me, as to make the Mass and the Sacraments as available as possible. This led us to multiply Masses, setting them at convenient hours, so that everybody would have a chance to ‘get to mass.’ Many parishes had Sunday Mass on the hour. I used to help at St Theresa’s where the schedule was 7,8,9,10,11,12,and 1. This necessitated neat, efficient, somewhat rushed liturgies, the clearing of the parking lot between Masses bring of prime importance. I must confess that this was a pretty sore point for me and others like me who had participated in the liturgical movement through the fifties and sixties before the Council.
Long hours were scheduled for Confessions in most parishes and penitents were shuffled through at a fairly rapid clip. There really wasn’t time to give much individual attention to people no matter how badly in many cases this might have been needed.
Baptism was administered without much preparation and the other Sacraments suffered varying degress of the same fate.
But the important thing was to make the Sacraments as available as possible. It was as though they were to work automatically and, as long as people received them often enough, all would be well. ‘Ex opere operato’ was pretty well our battle cry. If one wanted to grow in one’s faith, he was advised to receive the Sacraments more often. If one was alienated from the Church, he was said to be ‘away from the Sacraments’, and the solution to this situation for him was ‘to get back to Church.’ If he would simply do this, his chances for salvation were once again deemed to be promising.
Of course, off of this providing of the Sacraments was something only a priest could do. The ministry of the parish was seen as flowing exclusively from the ordained clergy.
This rest of the our time was spent instructing potential converts to the Church, visiting parish schools, organizing and attending meeting, listening to people’s troubles, and taking care of the material administration if the parish plant. This last-named was considered to be the preserve of the pastor alone and tended to consume a large portion of his time.
There was very little room in all of this for lay people to exercise their own apostolate. It was assumed that all the gifts for ministry resided in the priesthood. The solution for any problem of deficiency in ministry was more priests. Our inability to answer completely the people’s needs for ministry was blamed on that perennial problem, the ‘shortage’ of priests. Just how short we were of clergy is open to debate. I can well remember when four priests were full time at St. Patrick’s church down town largest parish in the Archdiocese of Ottawa. And, of course, religious orders were able to do better still. St Joseph’s parish, also down town , had six to seven priests in staff, with or two religious brothers as well!
The lay person’s participation in parish ministry was pretty well limited ti such things as taking up the collection as counting it (though not usually depositing it in the banks), ushering at Sunday Mass, serving at the altar, singing in the choir, sacristy work, answering the telephone,locking the parish hall, and organizing and running various fund raising activities such as teas and bingo.
lay people who felt a call to serious and sensitive ministry, to make the Church present in the market place, the temporal order, tended to operate largely outside parish structures. These were the pioneers in the social apostolate, usually know as ‘Catholic Action’. There was a prophetic people, ahead of their time. They met regularly, studied the social encyclicals, and supported one another in what they truly believed to be their mission from God. But again, this type of thing, while enjoying official Church approbation, was largely suspect in the minds of clergy and was very tenuously connected to parish life if at all.
All of this is not to say that the former model was all bad. No doubt it was able to answer, in many ways, the needs of the time. And I imagine that many of my own biases are reflected in my description, making it inaccurate to some degree. But the fact remains. It will simply not do the Job today. This is not my bias, but the official stand of the Magisterium. A restored model of ministry has emerged from the Second Vatican Council.

Restored Model
Describing the Vatican II vision of pastoral ministry as ‘restored’ makes an important point. It is not new. It is reflected very directly in Scripture and finds fulfillment through the history of the Church was most effective.
According to Vatican II, embracing the restored model requires of the priests that he identify with the Lord’s vision for his people on earth. Jesus founded the Church so that all men and women could be redeemed and the whole world brought into the family of God. The scope of the work is enormous. The Church is commissioned to reach out and minister to everyone: non-believers as well as believers, unchurched as well as churched, the wounded and the healthy, people of all ages, backgrounds, and occupations. The Church’s mandate is to evangelize with the Lord. The Church’s assignment from God is to speak a prophetic word of justice and peace to a broken world and to work towards achieving it. And the Church is to celebrate good news of life in joyful and meaningful liturgy. For the Church’s mission to be successful, all this has to be happening in every parish.

The task is to say the least, staggering. To even begin in any parish to realize the vision, the priest must understand that, even though he bears the full responsibility, he does not have to do it all. Just as the bishop has the responsibility for the Church’s mission in the diocese and delegates it to the ordained clergy in specific areas, so the pastor of a parish must delegate the tasks to lay people.

The Council has made it plain that all the gifts needed for ministering to God’s people and to the world are present in the Body of Christ. It is the pastor’s role to see these gifts in the people. It then becomes his responsibility to call these people forth, give them some training and preparation, and send them out to minister. He must then continue to work with them and support them. Since most of these lay people will have only a limited amount of time to give to ministry, there will have to be a great many of them. Although the lay person’s apostolate derives, as the Council makes clear, from his Baptism, it must, to be in the order the Lord intends, be exercised in submission to the pastor. Just as the priest’s ministry is out of order unless it is in union with that of the bishop, so the lay person’s ministry makes no sense unless it is done in concert with and directed by the pastor.

All of this presupposes, it seems to me, that a pastor exercises his ministry as the head of a team. There is no way he can do it alone. There is no way the Church can be properly present to the world in all its needs without fully putting to use all the fits our people have. It is not enough for them to be urged from time to time to ‘get out there and do it’. There needs to be recognition that not every person’s gifts are the same and that giftedness without training will be largely ineffective.

In short, it remains the pastor’s task to head a sizeable team of people in his parish to make it possible for the Church’s mission to be adequately carried out.

The reality we face, and the principal problem as I see it, is that we as priests have little training to do the kind of pastoring that Vatican II calls us to. We need to be coordinators of ministries and are ill-equipped to do the job. Even those of us who understand what the Council calls for and want to move with it could not properly do it without training.

One of the frustrations that I experience regularly is running into eager lay people, obviously gifted to minister, who have little opportunity to get involved in the Church’s mission. I would say the pews in each church are crowded with people who are both capable of significant contribution to the real work of the Church and very enthused and ready to give some of their time, money, and priority to it. But all this is doomed to ineffectiveness until priests are prepared to embrace fully the role the Council says is theirs.

I guess the recommendation has to obvious. We need to set up a training program for priests. It would have to do three things:

1) convince us that the Council’s way is the only way;
2) give us a whole renewed theology of ministry;
3) give us training in the principal dynamic and all the techniques of heading working with a team of lay people.

Naturally, some of us a going to feel threatened at what might seem, at a glance, to look like an attempted takeover of the Church by the laity. Much work needs to be done on how we see ourselves, our identity as priests. In fact, I see this as one of the keys to the whole thing. We need to know who we are and how we fit into the whole mission of the Church. We need to know that, although the lay person is coming back into his own, as the Council teaches he must, there is still a crucial need for the priest. Actually, the priest is more important today than ever. Without the one whose gift it is to preside and co-ordinate, nothing can happen.”

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