In my June 3 Bulletin column on “why they (alienated Catholics) left,” I mentioned three frequently cited reasons for the exodus: poor preaching, clericalism, and lack of a sense of community. Having commented last week (6/10) on the issue of poor preaching, let me turn this week to the other two…
“Clericalism” is a tricky one because, in fact, the Church does reserve certain functions (like administration of the sacraments and preaching) exclusively to the ordained. But going back at least as far as my years as a seminary faculty member (1993-2000), I have always resisted what I sometimes call the “therapeutic model” of ordained ministry. I connect this model with a set of questions which unduly preoccupy some in our Church, along the lines of: “What is unique about the ministry of the ordained? What makes ‘Father’ special?”
As I told my seminary students way back when, while those questions are certainly legitimate in their own right, I have never found them particularly relevant or interesting in my own life as a priest. At worst, they can seem to suggest that we ordain “Father” so that he can feel “special” about himself and his job – to my mind, a poor reason for setting someone apart by the administration of a special sacrament of vocation. My own thinking runs more along the lines of priest as “servant leader” after the model of Jesus himself – as in, “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom* for many” (Matt. 20:28).
The other thing is, in 26 years of priestly ministry, I have never gone wanting for work. Perhaps if I ever find myself increasingly on the sidelines and underemployed, I will start to worry about what is exclusively reserved for “Father” to do. In the meantime, my experience is that the Lord Jesus and the people of God do an outstanding job of telling me what they need and want from me as a priest – so much so that I can never begin to do it all. I feel plenty “special’ in my priestly vocation, and I love being a religious and a priest. And it is all of you, the people, who have formed me and guided me in that, for which much thanks. It is an inestimable privilege to walk with you on the faith journey, and to serve you in whatever ways present themselves…
I also love the story which Fr. Dennis likes to tell. It seems that on one of his earlier postings to “the Alley” as a young(er) priest, he encountered a much-beloved older Jesuit who had been here for decades. Shortly after Dennis’ arrival, his elder brother in Christ pulled him aside and confided: “We have a reputation for being kind, dearie… Please don’t screw that up for us!” Not bad advice for a priest – or for any disciple of Jesus Christ, for that matter.
Which bridges nicely to the hunger for (and the widespread lack of) a sense of community. In the fall of my second year as your pastor (2009), the Holy Spirit nudged me to attend a workshop at St. Anthony’s parish in Ambler. The day-long event, conducted by theInstituteofSchooland Parish Development, was entitled “Becoming a Welcoming, Engaging, and Affirming Parish.” In many ways, it was a life-changer for me – enough so that we brought the same trainer from the ISPD to do the workshop for most of our core parish leaders in February 2010.
I have occasionally been asked why “there was no follow-up” to that seminal day of leadership consultation and training; but I would argue that there HAS been a great deal of follow-up. The insights of that workshop have deeply shaped my own pastoral vision, and have both directly and indirectly guided the work of the Parish Pastoral Council over the 2-1/2 years since. Our focus on total stewardship – which very much includes fostering wider involvement and a strong sense of community, as well as better communications internally and externally – has been an outgrowth of that workshop.
This year, for instance, PPC hosted an expanded ministries fair at Mission Sunday, regularized the “new parishioner welcome blessing,” instituted a mentoring program whereby seasoned parishioners reach out personally to each newly registered family, and followed up on our “listening sessions” to grow our ministries to young families and young adults. It would not be a stretch to say that our fledgling Youth Group for “tweens” and teens, our growing Children’s Choir, our thriving Young Adult Community (the “YACs”), and our Sunday 6:30 p.m. Folk Group have all been at least indirect fruits of that workshop.
Additionally, what we hear frequently from both new parishioners and visitors is that they already experience us as a warm, welcoming faith community. Simple things, like our greeting of visitors at the beginning of our weekend Masses, our convivial coffee hours after the 9:30 and 11:30 Masses, our “First Sunday Cookouts” after the 6:30 p.m. Mass, and our festive parish-wide celebrations ofSt. Joseph’s and St. Ignatius’ Days make a huge difference and set us apart. (Warm thanks to all the faithful servants on our Parish Life Committee, especially to the outstanding co-chairs, Donna Soultoukis and Joe Casey…)
Remember, that the welcome begins with you – with all of us, really. There are worse ways to describe the essence of the ministry of Jesus than to invoke Anne Herbert’s famous quote: “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” If we do that – especially for the “stranger” (who is, of course, our sister or our brother) – then we will find ourselves “not far from the reign of God”…
©2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.