John the Baptist extols us to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” As we prepare for the Lord’s birthday, let’s consider a few voices crying out from the wilderness.
During the 1992 Columbus Quincentenary commemorations, historian Dr. James Hitchcock gave a talk somewhere in Washington, D.C. He recounted the significance of Christopher Columbus and the men of his era. As a young man, Bartolomé de las Casas (b. 1484) was a slave trader in the West Indies. Dominican friars denied him absolution for failing to manifest a firm purpose of amendment. The denial eventually sparked a complete conversion and helped launch an illustrious career promoting Indian human rights. The slave-trading Spanish weren’t the only villains. According to one account, Aztec priests sacrificed so many victims that the pagan holy men collapsed from fatigue. Hitchcock quipped, “And our priests complain if they have to celebrate more than two Masses on a Sunday.”
As a newly-minted priest, I laughed heartily. But as an older and mature pastor, I started to question the wisdom of uninformed anti-clerical jokes.
Acknowledging grievances is not necessarily sinful and might be required for mutual understanding. I am no longer disturbed when people walk out of my pro-life sermons. Although at my parish, few object to variations of my “let’s excommunicate-Joe-Biden-and-Nancy-Pelosi” homilies. People sometimes say I’m courageous. Not at all. What many people (including a lot of priests and bishops) don’t understand is that, in time, habitual orthodoxy becomes pain-free – at least among faithful Catholics.
The following remarks are courageous because some of you may wince and even get angry when you hear them. You never know when a prophetic voice calls out from the wilderness.
Most parishioners probably do not know the troubles pastors endure. A family man – a Catholic with eight kids – once asked me, “Aside from Sunday Mass, Father, are you doing anything this weekend?”
Are you serious?
On Saturday morning, Catholic inquiry classes continue after the morning Mass. I need to say my prayers, tidy up my remarks for the weekend sermon, hear Confessions in the afternoon, and offer the evening vigil Mass. My administrative duties include checking the thermostats, unlocking doors, instructing the people to close the entrance doors to avoid global warming, etc. I have three Sunday morning Masses, with a visiting priest covering one of them. Occasionally, there is a baptism after the Noon Mass. At my age, a Sunday afternoon nap is well-earned. I will not be judged.
Consider that, father of eight!
There are occasional irritants as I walk to the rectory from the church building. The most common begins with a parishioner who says, “Father, this will just take a second.” What she (with no apologies for the misogyny) usually means is this: “Father, I’ve been thinking about this all week, and I would like you to agree with me — in one second.”
Frequently, people ask to schedule a meeting. I usually respond that I don’t have my calendar, and I’ve learned the hard way not to make appointments on the fly. A typical distracting conversation after Mass goes like this. “Check the bulletin and give me a call on my direct office line.” “Can I email you?” “Give me a call.” “When should I call?” “Anytime, leave a message – but not late at night.” “Will you be in your office tomorrow?” “Maybe. But give it a try. Call me.” “Text?” “No, call.”
A dreaded phrase begins: “Father, you should….” Stories about priests who do ridiculous things fill diocesan newspapers because parishioners say, “You should” (a Brazilian priest who was carried away by helium balloons a few years ago and lost over the Atlantic Ocean was probably a victim of a “you should” moment). I have no scruple borrowing phrases from Scriptures to hurl against “You should” parishioners: “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Mt. 11:17).
Parishioners also know little of our chancery afflictions. We endure safety inspections, “strategic plans,” and child protection paperwork, and we suffer aggressive fundraising programs, second collection appeals, endless emails, sexual harassment training modules, and “best practices” practices. So there is very little time for a conscientious pastor to watch “Wheel of Fortune”.
A parishioner would never report a plumbing problem – or most problems – to, say, an impeccably-dressed visiting Dominican priest. I received a phone call from a lady one day; she said that they could hear the voice of a visiting religious order priest in the confessional. I informed the lady that it was, sadly, all-too-common throughout the Church’s history to overhear a priest in the confessional. So reverently approach the offending priest and ask him if he would deign to lower his voice. But if there is a light, lavatory, leak, or lock problem, do not hesitate to call me again on the sacramental emergency line.
I know what some of you are thinking. I’m overlooking the indulgent generosity — and goodwill — people have for their pastors. (They lavish me with homemade meals, among many other acts of kindness.) Am I refusing to recognize the mutual affection and their true devotion?
Back off. I have legitimate complaints!
Can you think of anything more heroic than dealing with a septic system that has failed? Well, that also comes with my job description. Contractors Leo and Sam showed up the other week – sabotaging my day off — to replace two septic system pumps, some switches, and a float with a sensor. Leo arrived in a wetsuit because he planned to dive into the troubled waters of the septic tank and make the repairs. It sounded like a scene from Dante’s Inferno! But it’s an honest living, and he didn’t complain.
Now, where was I?
God sends unexpected voices “crying out in the desert,” telling us to “prepare the way of the Lord.” I hope you’ve learned your lesson.
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