A few times a month, the simply professed meet together for a presentation and a discussion about relevant pastoral issues we may encounter in our life as a friar. A few weeks ago, we were given a presentation about interacting with and empowering the laity, focusing heavily on our need to learn from the ones we serve. It was a great message for all of us to remember, and something that Pope Francis has reiterated heavily for months now, emphasizing service as the priest’s primary duty.
We are often told about the young, zealous priest, fresh out of seminary and ready to change the world, who goes into a well-functioning church of faithful people and tries to “fix” things that don’t need fixing. There are even more stories of a church changing pastors and the new pastor dismantling everything the previous pastor did for the sake of his “vision”. Sometimes it happens to even the most well-intentioned and capable priests: they walk into a situation with a spirituality unlike their own and, unable to recognize the merit in the congregation’s expression, either become indignant or apathetic. In these cases, there is a need to wait, to listen, and to learn from the people of God.
As we discussed our experience of this issue further, we stumbled upon a dilemma:
How, then, do we reconcile this with our emphasis on studies, requiring everyone to get a Master’s degree in theology and/or pastoral studies? It would seem that the reason we do this is so that we can be a source of knowledge and guidance for the people we serve. If this is the case, what do we do when, informed by our many years of studies, we find that there is something being done that is objectively wrong and potentially harmful to the people we serve, but they do not recognize the problem or are unwilling to change?
There are definitely situations in which something is legitimately wrong, and there needs to be someone able to teach, inspire, adjust, or even force change. If a priest enters a new parish and the choir isn’t singing the songs he likes, this might be something to leave alone. But what if the majority of congregation is praying the rosary during mass; the choir sings “O Come O Come Emmanuel” during Lent because they really like the song; or the church as a whole engages in no ministries outside of mass and devotions, refusing to help the poor, care for the sick, or visit the imprisoned? These are extreme examples (and thankfully have never experienced myself) but I think they prove a point: there would seem to be situations in which change needs to be instituted, and sometimes, these changes will not be at the instigation of the people we serve. What do we do when our will is not that of the people we serve?
For some, the first inclination would be to use one’s credentials as a way of claiming authority and using that authority to be the decisive leader. This is a less-than-ideal first move, especially in regards to faith. An authoritative approach that makes changes without consultation, even if in the name of orthodoxy or orthopraxy, is a well-intentioned way of alienating those one serves and driving people away from the church. Because faith can be a very personal and touchy thing for most people, telling someone that he/she is wrong (no matter how wrong he/she actually may be!) is a terrible approach, at least at first, because it will most likely result in denial or resentment, not greater faith.
So where is the balance for us as ministers? How do we teach without making everything we do a reflection of our personality and preference? How do we remain open to an experience of God in the “real world,” an experience that cannot be learned in books, without an “anything goes” policy?
As is usually my answer to conflicts, I think that education and patience are the best solutions. As ministers of the people, our highest aim must always be to foster a relationship between God and the people we serve. The best way we can do this is to invite, to inspire, and to model people to a deeper experience of faith. Instead of telling someone that he/she is wrong for praying the rosary during mass, we can be a witness of the power of the liturgy by singing and being fully engaged. Maybe we could begin with a question such as, “What do you get out of the liturgy?” and then share what we get out of it by participating with the priest and congregation. It pains me to think about how uninformed the average Catholic is, but this will never change without opportunities for questions, invitations, sharing of one’s own experience, and information sessions.
More importantly, there needs to be the recognition that things will not change overnight. We must not become impatient judges wondering why everyone is not where we are and resort to sweeping authoritative measures to “fix” the problem. The problem of uninformed or apathetic faith may appear resolved in its superficial external expressions, but the root of the problem cannot be fixed with rules and administrative decisions. This is a problem that can only be solved with tireless efforts to invite, inspire, and model, and unwavering patience when it doesn’t work.
I’m not naive to think that this solves the problem of having to make decisive (and even divisive) decisions. Issues of great importance, whether it be liturgical, canonical, financial, or personnel, cannot be democratic, and there are times when things simply need to be done a certain way. But (speaking from my ignorance) I don’t think that there is ever a situation in which at least a few members of the laity are not informed about and consulted for their opinion, because, quite frankly, it is their church. When we are given an assignment in a new place, they will remain there. Our role is to recognize this and to serve the needs of the people as best we can. For this, may God give me patience and humility.