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Flak Catchers and Shepherds

The proper exercise of obedience relieves the conscience of a priest and places the most vexing of dilemmas directly on the plate of the bishop.

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A secretary interrupts a busy executive’s schedule announcing the visit of a salesman. The executive growls, “Tell him I’m busy!” and he goes back to practicing his putt. The secretary politely tells the salesman that the boss is not available. “May I take your card?” The secretary is a valuable “flak catcher.”

Under many circumstances in the Church, human shields and flak catchers are perfectly normal. The diocesan communications director is the flak catcher for a bishop. The Parish secretary catches flak for the pastor. A pastor’s flak catcher allows him to do his job as a shepherd – in his role as a human shield for the people. Correctly understood and applied, there is no injustice with duties assigned.

The seven ordination promises provide the priest’s job description as a shepherd, human shield, and flak catcher.

On his ordination day, a priest solemnly promises to discharge his duties as a fellow worker of his bishop. He becomes a member of the hierarchy as he cooperates with the chief shepherd. His right and obligation to proclaim the Gospel and celebrate the Sacraments comes from his role as the bishop’s coworker.

The priest also promises to preach the Gospel and the Catholic Faith. Proclaiming the truth of the Gospel is the inviolable duty of the priest. Increasingly, the culture silences the faithful with politically correct demands. But that must never be the case from the pulpit. If the priest catches flak for violating cultural sensibilities with the Gospel truth, well, that comes with the job description.

The priest promises to celebrate the Sacraments with reverence, above all the Mass and Penance. It isn’t uncommon for the faithful to expect the priest to celebrate Mass according to the personal expectations of entertainment. But a good priest deflects the flak and plays by the rules of the Church with reverence. He is also the moderator of lay participation, wisely (one hopes) exercising his authority regulating parish devotional life.

On his ordination day (diaconate, Roman Rite), a priest promises celibacy in imitation of Jesus and the service of the Kingdom. It includes chastity as traditionally defined. He has fewer personal entanglements that may undermine fearless preaching. The gift of celibacy enhances the ability of a priest to catch and deflect harmful cultural flak and support the faith of his people.

Of course, a priest can abuse his celibacy and become a selfish bachelor, a frequent temptation. But a priest’s celibacy – correctly understood and reasonably lived — demonstrates that happiness is possible for the unmarried, widows and widowers, and in difficult marital situations.

The priest promises to pray the Liturgy of the Hours – the Divine Office. His whole life should be a form of prayer, including his recreation and private time. He never takes a vacation from his duty to pray, including his daily Mass. The priest struggles to live the teaching of Saint Paul: “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31)

Patterns of prayer depend upon our state of life. The prayer life of a diocesan priest varies from a hermit’s prayerful solitude. So a pastor should stop complaining about his many distractions – lights, locks, lavatories, and leaks — and realize that those annoyances are part of his duties and prayer life.

Executing everyday responsibilities bring us closer to God. Yet many worry when they “don’t feel close enough to God.” But painful and unpleasant duties fulfilling one’s vocation bring us closer to the Cross in union with Jesus.

The priest also makes a promise to imitate Jesus. There are many fine books about Jesus. But there is no substitute for reading the Gospels over and over again. A priest catches flak on behalf of Jesus when he stands with and abides by words of Jesus as we know them through the Bible and the authentic teaching of the Church.

The last promise of the priestly flak catcher is obedience to his bishop. The controversialist radio preacher from the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin, was immensely popular and was perhaps the first modern celebrity priest with mass appeal. (Historians continue to argue his motives and politics.) He opposed our entry into WWII, and President Roosevelt insisted his bishop silence him, or he would arrest him for treason. His bishop complied, and this powerful preacher retired into the obscurity of parish life, never to appear behind a radio microphone again.

In 1972, a reporter from the Associated Press asked him why he surrendered. Father Coughlin responded with perhaps his most significant contribution to the Church: “A priest isn’t worth a damn without obedience to his bishop.” Father Coughlin’s obedience safeguarded his humility.

A bishop’s decree may be ill-advised, unjust, uninformed, disagreeable, capricious, and cruel – or exactly what a rambunctious priest needs. But unless it violates the Canonical rights of the priest or requires a priest to cooperate with or promote evil, the priest is obliged to respond with obedience. If John the Baptist wasn’t essential to Jesus as one of the Twelve, neither are the most talented of priests. A priest’s authority does not stand alone.

The proper exercise of obedience relieves the conscience of a priest and places the most vexing of dilemmas directly on the plate of the bishop. When he provides information to a bishop for the lawful exercise of authority, the transfer liberates a priest’s conscience and binds that of the bishop. The bishop may catch the flak of God’s wrath, but not the obedient priest. For priests concerned about their spiritual resumes on the Day of Judgment, it is a happy trade. Priestly obedience ensures that the bishop is the ultimate flak catcher, for better or for worse.

Somehow the truth of Christ limps forward by way of His unworthy earthen vessels. Priests and bishops are shepherds with innumerable imperfections. They need the prayers of the Church to remain faithful flak catchers, human shields, and good shepherds — after the example of the Good Shepherd and Divine Flak Catcher Himself, Jesus Christ.


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About Father Jerry J. Pokorsky 16 Articles
Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.. He holds a Master of Divinity degree as well as a master’s degree in moral theology.

5 Comments

  1. This was an interesting story. I know who Father Coughlin was, although his fame came well ahead of my time. I was not aware that FDR requested he be silenced.In this event it was fortunate that the Bishop sided with FDR. The failure of the US to enter WWII would have meant both physical death and the permanent death of freedom for millions more people around the war. Peace at any price is just capitulation.

    Some years ago our parish had a priest from Europe arrive, from his previous post elsewhere in the US. He was supposed to be with us for at least a year but about 2 months after his arrival to us, he was notified by his Bishop he needed to return to his home country for reassignment there. He was well liked, and many of us asked if he could appeal to his Bishop to remain here in the US. He shook his head and said to us, ” I must be obedient to my Bishop.” He said this with some sadness mixed with exasperation, but there was no doubt he intended to obey. Which he did.

    • Fr. Coughlin was FDR’s Catholic errand boy until Coughlin criticized the second phase of the New Deal and threw his lot in with Huey Long, whose “Share Our Wealth” proposal was more to his liking. When Coughlin went against FDR and attacked James Farley (FDR’s Catholic campaign manager whom FDR later betrayed) and Msgr. John A. Ryan of Catholic U., formerly Coughlin’s ally, the Archbishop of Baltimore said both Ryan and Coughlin should retire to a Trappist monastery and “shut up.” Cardinal Pacelli (later Pius XII) refused to have anything to do with either Ryan or Coughlin, and in some of his encyclicals is believed to have indirectly reprimanded Coughlin, and held Ryan in dislike for Ryan’s attacks on Fulton Sheen. FDR’s “order” to Coughlin’s bishop was his last attempt to stop the attacks and silence him.

    • “The failure of the US to enter WWII would have meant both physical death and the permanent death of freedom for millions more people…”

      I respectfully disagree. Of those millions of people you refer to, vast majority never saw the light of freedom regardless, having never been liberated, but rather sold to another slave holder who was just as much, if not more a mass murderer; Stalin.

      Also, in the process of “liberating” the world, US carpet bombed and nuclear bombed cities killing more civilians than military personnel, which seems to have become a tradition of sorts for our government to do since.

      US might have been better off if it stayed out of WWII. Moreover, the world would have been better off if the US stayed out of WWI, as, chances are, neither Hitler not Stalin would have had a chance to become the murderers we know them as, if WWI ended with a stalemate it headed towards until dear old Woodrow, whose reelection slogan was “he kept us out of the War,” sent the innocent young men to die in “the war to end all wars…”

  2. At first hesitant to respond largely because I believe Fr Jerry Pokorsky, a faithful priest, is correct. Fundamentally. Reason is there are contemporary issues I suspect Fr Pokorsky alludes to. My suggestion for consideration, not a rebuttal, is based on principle. That moral principle is whether anyone inclusive of the local ordinary [a bishop with full ecclesial authority within his diocese] may prevent a presbyter from withholding the truths of the faith, or even in special circumstances when there is danger of loss of faith, and practice of gravely sinful behavior. As a priest I never disobeyed my bishop, only once did I disagree with the written policy, not an injunction liable to penalty of the Archbishop which included my diocese. It concerned discussion of the abortion issue prior to the national presidential election. I believe we can and must address this issue at any time, especially before an election without naming the complicit candidate or the party. There are other issues homosexuality major. Some dioceses have and presently permit advocacy of homosexuality, and its representation in parishes, and during Mass, in sermons, and display of rainbow colors. And the local ordinary permits this, himself an advocate. We are able to discuss our issues with our bishop, and explain if warranted why we should address these issues with tact and intelligence. Similarly, during the Covid lockdown some bishops refused their priests to offer parishioners the sacrament of penance. For sake of danger of loss of faith of the penitent, or other dire consequences a priest should make himself available. The example of Fr Coughlin is interesting and correct but doesn’t compare to the immediate spiritual needs of the faithful. Even a derelict priest stripped of his faculties can validly and lawfully hear a confession and absolve a person who is in danger of death [Can. 986 §2. In urgent necessity, any confessor is obliged to hear the confessions of the Christian faithful, and in danger of death, any priest is so obliged]. Charity knows no bounds.

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