While serving as a priest-chaplain in the largest military hospital in the world, I was fortunate to get to know well a man dying of cancer, Joe Condon. Joe was not only a life-long Catholic, but a man who had been living a life of genuine prayer. He studied his faith and sought to put it into practice. He would sit alone in silence everyday for meditation; and for years he had prayed to “meet a monk before I die.” Long retired, Joe attended daily Mass. As we spoke, he told me how disappointed he was in the parish priests he had known over the years. Joe looked me in the eyes, and said, “Father, they are not pastors. They are administrators.” Never having been a Catholic parishioner nor known many parish priests serving in the military, I asked him what he meant. He explained to me that the priests assigned to his parish in the San Diego area showed little or no interest in shepherding souls, but considerable interest in maintaining the buildings, having a large staff, making sure that the property looked good. But these priests showed virtually no interest in helping parishioners deepen their spiritual lives. As he said, “They can’t. They don’t have it to give. They are administrators.”
Even while celebrating Joe’s funeral in his home parish, I had to deal with his high-handed, self-important pastor, who insisted on leading a rosary before Mass, and raced through the rote words as if he was in a rush to get to a bathroom. What this pastor called “praying the rosary” seemed to me like a nearly blasphemous, noisy exercise of no genuine spiritual value to anyone; no doubt it served to flatter this monseigneur’s ego, that he was “doing something.” In reality, he came across as a hindrance to a genuine spiritual life, not a servant. Joe had attended daily Mass, yet I saw no understanding of who Joe was, nor any compassion extended to his very large family. This was my first taste of what Joe meant when he said, “Father, they are administrators.” They are indeed “worldly men,” who care for things, not for human beings.
Over time, while serving in Catholic parishes around the country, I have come to understand better what Joe Condon meant, and also to see other ways in which Catholic clergy seem to “play church” rather than seek to nourish human beings by and in the Spirit. Now I would say that there are various ways in which parish priests may be anything but genuine pastors—men entrusted with the care of souls. At the outset, I note that there are indeed some men who seek to serve the faithful, and who display a good practical understanding of what it means to be a spiritual father. Based on my experience in some six dioceses throughout this country, I would say that these men are all too scare, and surely an exception rather than the rule in the desert of the Church.
Furthermore, it seems useful to categorize the priests who are more or less just “playing church,” and who are in reality pseudo-pastors. We list them under several headings, depending on their predominant way of depriving human beings of genuine spiritual, intellectual, and loving care:
1. First, there are priests who really are primarily administrators of things, and not shepherd of souls. Indeed, they give the impression that they are not interested in human beings except to the extent that they “contribute to the parish” by giving generous sums of monies, and perhaps their time in unpaid labor. These administrators seek to maintain the church’s property, to make things “look good,” but are nearly devoid of a sense of the vacuum in their own soul, and in the souls of people in the pews. They stage a grand “production,” and overlook the real spiritual needs of the human beings sitting in front of them. These men are far more at home with handling things, than with working with and for human beings. And what many of them most like to handle is money: the more, the better. They seek to have large sums flow into the parish coffers, in part to impress the local bishop, in part to keep up appearances in the parish, and just possibly to “feather their own nests.” These administrators have real skills in raising money, and are rarely lacking it themselves. Their Lexus or Mercedes is washed and polished.
2. Second, there are the priests who play church by being virtually nothing more than sacramental ministers. They wear clerical garb around in public (often complete with a Roman collar), sometimes even parading about in black cassocks in public places. They are on display. They set their noses in the air, and talk about “Holy mother church,” “the Holy Mass,” “the holy Eucharist,” “holy days of obligation,” “holy priesthood”—holy cow, holy everything! These walking Infants of Prague sprinkle everything they say with “holy” (and sometimes even with “holy water’), perhaps hoping to give the impression to everyone that they themselves surely must be “holy priests.” How “holy” they may be is “unknown to anyone, except to the God,” but they surely know how to put on a wholly religious show. They play church. And in reality they come across as little more than walking Infants of Prague, dressed up for liturgical services, and not being real flesh and blood, not sharing in the weaknesses and sufferings of their parishioners. To share Christ, they are content to stick a host in someone’s mouth, and do so proudly, because they believe that “the sacraments work by their own working.” To visit the sick means for these churchy fellows to wipe some oil on a forehead and depart quickly from the hospital room, lest they be contaminated. They do not know that to share Christ means to communicate heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind, and willingly to share in the sufferings of others.These men, like the administrators, have not learned to give themselves. They are, after all, “too holy” for such mingling with the masses—except at “Holy Mass.”
3. Third, the worst group of parish priests: not shepherds at all, but habituated fleecers of sheep. These men are professional con-artists, who typically wear clerical garb around as a cover up for the scoundrels they really are. In meeting them, one wonders, “Why did this man ever become a priest?” They show little or no interest in God, no genuine love for the faithful, and much concern with getting money—not only for the church to keep up appearances, but most importantly, for themselves. These priests willingly go by the title, “father,” but they are no more genuine fathers than are the brutes who abuse children. In reality, these false shepherds abuse their parishioners by lying to them, deceiving them, and stealing monies from them. Indeed, some of them are such criminal personalities that they even steal chalices from the sacristy, sacred objects from the church, or put church property up for sale—all to swell their own private coffers. These men, long protected by the hierarchy, belong in prison, not in parishes.
What is a pastor in the context of the Catholic church, or of any of the churches? Whoever genuinely loves, cares for, looks after the spiritual and intellectual needs of others is a pastor. A good parent is a pastor of his or her children. A genuinely loving and self-giving spouse is a pastor to his or her beloved. A priest assigned to parishes is in reality a pastor if and only if he genuinely loves his people, seeks to get to know them personally, has a strong interest in their spiritual and intellectual well-being. A priest as pastor would not dump down-loaded or borrowed homilies onto those gathered at the Eucharist; rather, he would seek to help form those present by sharing in the living word of God, present here and now. He would seek to help open their minds with gentle persuasion, with kindness, with words of truth spoken from his heart to theirs. A genuine pastor, caring for those to whom he has been entrusted, seeks to help bind up their wounds in any way possible, and is ever mindful of his foremost duty: to help lead them into eternal life. A good pastor is not afraid to “smell like his sheep,” because he lives among them, is one of them, spends his time with them. Those in his pastoral care are in effect family members he knows by name and seeks to help grow into Christ.
In short, a real pastor knows the basic duties of being a shepherd of souls: helping to lead his people into eternal life, into “the Kingdom of God.” Second, he is available to his people night and day, whenever they need him. Third, he is readily open to hear them, to listen to their concerns, and to share his heart and mind with them. All to the glory of God.
Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
31 January 2019
Feast of St. John Bosco