In the process of helping pastors and their teams try to build amazing parishes, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a real problem in the Church that isn’t being properly addressed. It seems to be a somewhat sensitive issue, one that is easy to avoid, but it cannot be ignored if parishes are going to become the outposts of the Great Commission that they are meant to be. What I’m talking about is the less-than-fraternal relationship that exists between many pastors and theirassociate priests.
Now, a few caveats.
First, I know that there are plenty of pastors who live and work very closely with their associate priests, and we should celebrate those situations. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the overwhelming norm. Second, I’m not condemning pastors or priests at any level here, because I know that they are imperfect human beings, susceptible to the same struggles and frustrations as the rest of us. Not getting to choose one’s housemate or colleague is hard for anyone. And so, priests need patience and understanding around this issue. Finally, I realize that there are cultural and historical reasons why this problem exists. But since I’m not an expert on Church history or canon law, I don’t understand them all. For that reason, the purpose of this note is not so much to propose a prescriptive solution, but simply to highlight the issue so that we can wrestle with it more openly, because it is hurting our parishes and the Church in ways that are as unnecessary as they are tragic.
In the context of getting real work done in a parish, there seems to be a real lack of coordination, communication and accountability among many pastors and their associate priests. I’ve seen it again and again. Quite a few pastors have readily admitted to me that they don’t know exactly what their associate spends his time doing, and more importantly, they don’t feel comfortable asking him to do more outside of his sacramental duties. As a result, the parish leadership team and staff are confused about the associate’s role in the parish, and important projects and programs suffer. In a world where we hear constant complaints about a lack of resources in our parishes, this seems particularly untenable.
On the human side of things, I’ve been surprised and saddened by a lack of fraternity, vulnerability and fellowship that I’ve seen in many parish rectories and offices. Too often I see priests living and working together without a sense of brotherhood, which is a big problem for a few reasons. First, the priests themselves are left feeling lonely. Without family, failing to build strong relationships with brother priests must be particularly painful. Second, when parish staff members and parishioners notice a lack of affection and camaraderie among their shepherds, they can’t help but wonder if the admonitions they hear about love in homilies and confession are sincere. “If I’m supposed to love my enemies, and even my annoying brother-in- law, shouldn’t my pastor be a lot closer to his brother priest?” This is an inescapable dilemma, one that pastors must understand and confront.
So what should we do? I can’t say for sure. But here are a few ideas.
First, let’s pray about it. And pray some more. Priests are people with challenges like everyone else, and none of them want to have strained or distant relationships with their brothers in Christ. Let’s ask God to bring them together in a spirit of love, and to help us find a way to assist them in that effort.
Second, while we need to understand the historical and structural reasons for this problem, we shouldn’t allow them be an excuse. Yes, pastors may have some formal limitations in their authority over associates; and they may be concerned about developing a reputation in the diocese for being too demanding of associates; and they may be wary of investing personal energy in an associate who will probably be moved after a year or two. I get all that. I really do. But I don’t think that anyone would dispute the idea that pastors and priests have a moral obligation to embrace one another in an iron-sharpening- iron kind of relationship, and to fully utilize one another’s skills in the service of the parish. Can you imagine what St. Paul would say to the presbyters in the early Church who didn’t engage one another and work closely in sincere love?
Finally, and this one may be the most difficult of all, we must have the courage and love for our pastors to gently confront them when we see evidence of this problem. While respecting their authority and vocation, we must exhort them in humility to demonstrate the love with their brother priests that they work so hard to instill in us.
When more pastors and their associates come to work closely and in fraternal love for one another, the world will change. Parishes will be healthier and more effective outposts of the Great Commission, focused on going out and bringing people to Christ rather than avoiding internal conflict or protecting schedules and turf. Priests will experience greater love and support from one another as they rediscover the joy of community. And the Church at large will benefit from having more living examples of obedience to Jesus’ great commandment, that we love one another as He loves us.
I’ll close this by thanking all priests for their vocations and their sacrificial love for the Church and Her flock, and assuring them of the prayers of the Amazing Parish Movement.