Simcha Fisher: Making the church in our image

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Single, separated or divorced or never married – and middle-aged. This is a generation and a distinct group who represent a not insignificant proportion of our faith community. PHOTO: Thomas Vitali/unsplash
Misuse of power in a parish is not a ‘left’ or ‘right’ problem, it’s an everybody problem. PHOTO: Thomas Vitali/unsplash

Power grabs in the church are not a new problem

The National Catholic Reporter has published a strange story about what happens to a parish when arrogant, ultra-trad priests move in and start making the church over in their own image. I say it’s a strange story because it’s hard to tell exactly what happened. Some of the details seem damning — book burnings, secrecy around finances — but others sound like they might be innocuous (oh no, incense?) or even commendable.

The pastor, for instance, is accused of bringing the Eucharist to a sick parishioner rather than letting a lay minister do it. Maybe that was an example of the priest trying to control everything, or maybe it was an example of the priest trying to serve his flock because that’s his job.

Let’s assume for a moment that what the article describes really is part of the great traddening of the Church, wherein rigid hardliners bulldoze over their goodhearted congregation and drive out love and tolerance with inflexibility and retrograde thinking. That is a thing that happens; I’ve seen it.

“it’s not new for a raft of arrogant people to move into a parish and remake it in their own image, without regard for what the people of the parish actually want and need.”

I’m also old enough to remember priests doing something very similar to our local church. Only they weren’t ultraconservative; they were ultra liberal. In a very short time, they laid waste to building and to the liturgy, removing the ornate crucifix and replacing it with a modernist corpus sans cross dangling in midair. They had clown masses and balloon masses, and they taught frank heresy in the school, in marriage preparation, and from the pulpit.

They tore the tabernacle off the wall and reinstalled it somewhere out of sight. And — I remember this so clearly — there had been a lovely midnight blue half-dome wall decorated with golden stars behind the altar. This, they painted over, and made it flat beige.

I was only a little kid at the time. I knew my parents were upset about something or other at church, but most of the changes went over my head. But when they took away the golden stars, it felt unforgivable. Why would they do such a thing? Who would want that?

Someone must have wanted it, and the more profound changes it symbolised, but many more did not, and I was not the only one who felt dismayed and betrayed. My parents, fairly new Catholics themselves, did their best to push back against the most egregious changes that were so abruptly imposed, but after they were kicked off parish groups for the crime of adhering to basic doctrine, they eventually gave in and found a new place to worship, where things weren’t perfect, but at least they weren’t bonkers.

Pope Francis has summoned what we see as ordinary parishes to be burning, faithful centres of evangelisation. PHOTO: CNS
No church community is perfect, but a genuine desire to be of service to others must be present. PHOTO: CNS

I wondered how many others did the same, but ended up outside the Catholic church — not so much because they didn’t like the way things were, but because the people making the decisions clearly didn’t care what they needed. They were there not to serve, but to exert control.

This is a long way of saying that it’s not new for a raft of arrogant people to move into a parish and remake it in their own image, without regard for what the people of the parish actually want and need. The problem is not Catholics who are too far left or Catholics who are too far right. The problem is Catholics who are overbearing jerks who care more about power than service.

What is clericalism, and what prevents it

This is what’s meant by clericalism, and it’s so destructive not only because it’s unpleasant for the people who suffer under it, but because it shows such a profound misunderstanding of what it means to be a cleric.

This is how sexual abuse flourished, and how it continues to flourish: When priests seek power, and when parishioners who admire them defend them no matter what. This, too, is an everybody problem, not a left/right problem, and it happens when priests seek too much power, and when the people let them have it.

I saw the conversation about the Reporter article play out on Twitter; and at the same time, I saw a young priest put out a request. He wanted to offer more support for families and women’s health, so he was soliciting ideas.

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Several people had great suggestions for classes, programs, services, and material help that might go a long way. I had some ideas myself, but what I ended up suggesting was: Leave some paper and pencils at the end of every pew, and ask your people what they need. Find out what specific things they, specifically, wish they could have, and what kinds of things would really make a difference for them.

Those are the two elements necessary for insulating your parish against clericalism: Going in with a desire to serve, and finding out from the people themselves what it is they truly want and need. One or the other is not enough; you must have both.

And there is a third thing necessary: A willingness to disappoint.

It sounds nice to reach out directly to your parishioners and ask them what they’d like from you, but it does come with a risk, because you definitely won’t be able to do it all. Once you’ve reached out, you can’t claim ignorance; and Catholics, being prickly, are very likely to feel slighted if they don’t get what they asked for.

When priests are both leader and servant

I don’t think there’s much you can do about this. Someone is always going to be mad and looking for a reason to leave. I will say that the priests who seem truly holy to me are willing to be disliked.

“I wish that more pastors would…give an ear to their flock….But I also wish that laymen would be more discerning about what kind of thing is worth protesting. We come to church to be nourished but that’s not the same thing as coming to be pleased.”

They don’t seek it out or make it into a mission; none of this “Like it or lump it” stuff as they charge around imposing their will on every aspect of parish life. But they accept that a pastor is both a leader and a servant, which means every day brings a new opportunity to disappoint someone even as you run yourself ragged trying your best.

So even as I continue to sound the alarm against clericalism, where we make excuses for and defend some priest (or bishop, or pope) who says the things we like and makes the changes we approve of, I’m also trying to be more patient with the priests who do disappoint me.

I wish that more pastors would take a gradual approach, and give an ear to their flock when they take charge of a parish. But I also wish that laymen would be more discerning about what kind of thing is worth protesting. We come to church to be nourished, yes, but that’s not the same thing as coming to be pleased.

Priests shouldn’t be overly insulated from owning up to errors, but neither should they be overly castigated when they make mistakes or do unpopular things, especially when they’re young and learning.

Priests should learn to make necessary changes gradually and pastorally, and we laymen should learn to be forbearing and patient with our needs and desires. We can fill out our papers and tell our pastors what we really need; but we should also be willing to stand down and accept that we’re not always going to get it. I don’t see any other way we can all get over ourselves and remember what we’re really there for, which is to serve God.

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