And weren't those days grand!
This particular parish was established in 1924 in a sleepy little town that had, until recently, been the site of a WWI army camp. A small country church was built that same year and dedicated to a newly canonized saint. (This might narrow down the options.) The parish was entrusted to a religious order of priests and brothers who had a monastery only a few miles away and from which the pastor commuted to the church. The town—and the parish—remained a small and quiet place surrounded by truck farms that supplied food for the nearby big city, but in the years between the wars the town slowly expanded, pushing back the farms as more and more people bought land, built houses and schools, and settled in. More and more of these families were Catholic and the parish experienced steady growth.
In the years after World War II, expansion really took off. The parish built a school and a convent to house the Sisters who would teach there. Even more Catholic families moved to town. And the parish got a dynamic pastor—an “old school” pastor who came right out of the Going My Way theology of Church. “Father Joe” was one of those large men who lived large and loved large the people entrusted to his care. He was lavish with money. His model was “Cast your bread upon the waters and it will come back to you as sandwiches.” He helped families when the Dad was out of work. He paid peoples’ mortgages when they were in danger of losing their homes. He paid doctors’ bills for those who otherwise would not have seen a doctor in illness. He paid tuition at Catholic High Schools for kids whose families couldn’t afford it. During Vatican II he even paid for a missionary bishop from his Order to stay at a good hotel in Rome with the other Americans rather than some dark and dingy room in a Rome seminary. (I am not sure today if Pope Francis would approve this luxury.) The bread was cast on the waters and it came back as sandwiches. As much as he gave away, people gave more and more to the Church. And more important, he built up an incredible amount of trust in his parishioners who knew that they had their priest at their back.
After Vatican II, Father Joe’s Order decided that pastors would no longer reign for life. It was a blow to the old man whose life was his parish, but they sent “Father Paul.” Paul was a theatrical megalomaniac—he was “the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, the baby at every christening” (to use the famous words of Alice Roosevelt Longworth). The spotlight had always to be on him. Yet he was kind to the former pastor, welcomed him to live in the rectory, and treated him well. Megalomaniac that he was, narcissist even, he wasn’t unkind—and I think he knew he had an asset in Father Joe who was deeply trusted and loved by the parishioners. In fact it was that trust who permitted Father Paul to break through the barriers of the "old Church" and lead the parish into the era of Vatican II.
It was Father Paul who brought the parish into the Vatican II Church—and brought it in with a bang. He built a new church—“in the round” with the altar at the center. The stained glass was brilliant but abstract. The only real statue, a large resurrected Christ, hung over the altar where traditionally a crucifix had been. We could not call this “the main altar”—there was only one altar in this Church—no side altars or chapels. Mary and Joseph were joined by the Child Jesus in a bas relief that almost fades into the left wall alongside the altar. The patron saint of the Church and her father—the guiding influence of her life, and now (but not then) a “blessed” in his own right—similarly hung darkly on the right wall. Father Paul recruited one of the first “folk groups” and it was for years a huge success with several dozen teens and guitars, organ, piano, and various other instruments. It played at two Masses each Sunday—and they were packed. Father Paul specialized in “dialogue homilies” asking questions and inviting parishioners to respond. In the late sixties and early seventies it was a premier parish of its diocese and people came from miles around to belong to this parish rather than the various parishes in which they lived.
There was a huge amount of energy in Father Paul’s parish but little theology. Father was brilliant and had been a college professor for years before coming to the parish but he taught English literature and drama. Theologically he was “flying by the seat of his pants” (as were most priests of that day) and he didn’t put the parish on a firm ecclesiological foundation. Yes, there was an involved laity, but not a theologically informed laity. It was sort of popular opinion Catholicism. Especially the liturgy suffered when roles were confused, seasons and sacraments ignored for popular themes, and traditions overturned with abandon. No, there were no “Clown Masses” or other wild excesses, but there was a distinct shallowness—intellectual and spiritual—to the Sunday experience. But it was always great theater and people loved it—especially Father Paul, the bride at every wedding, the corpse at ….well you know the rest.
Sometimes in bible history they speak of “the time of the bad kings.” And so we enter the next phase of this parish. Father Paul came in because term limits had been imposed on pastors and Father Paul went out—quite reluctantly—under the same rule. He was not happy. And he stirred the pot to make life difficult for his successor. His successor—let us just call him “Father B”—was a burnt out shell of a priest who lived for four o’clock and his first manhattan of the day. He bragged that he hadn’t opened a book since the day he was ordained—and, if the truth be told, probably not for several years before. And he only got the job as a political plum from his provincial who was his “padrone.” He had no idea what to do with an active and involved—if theologically underinformed—laity. Hell, he was as theologically underinformed than they—probably more so. And he just didn't want to have to very much. With his predecessor meeting off site with groups of disgruntled parishioners “to keep the parish alive” the plum proved to be a sour cherry and after three years Father B decided to move on to more peaceable pastures.
Next was “Father C,” a man who also had a “bit of a thirst,” as the Irish would say, but who was well read and well intentioned, though one who had difficulty in knowing how to move ideas from the theology book to realities in the parish. He began building a good lay staff however, but wasn’t always supported by his priest-associates who missed the “lazy, hazy days” of Father B and resented parishioners who recalled the enthusiasm of Father Paul. One of these associates, “Father D” succeeded Father C when he, Father C, was asked to take on a position in his order. Father D was not a drinker—at least not a problem drinker and was a very good money man, but like his friend Father B, had not opened a book in years and had no idea of what a church is about other than a source of income for himself, his Order, and the diocese. Pretty much in that order. He built up a good financial base to the parish by introducing tithing but he wouldn’t spend a wooden nickel. When it was suggested he hire a director of music and liturgy (granted this was c 1980, the early days of professional liturgists), he refused saying that such jobs should be volunteer. Indeed, he expected most things to be volunteer. And while volunteers mean well, they rarely have the skills for needed for professional ministry to nourish the parish and make the parish grow, but only the wise understood that thirty-five years ago. Father D had trouble holding staff together—associate pastors, principals, youth ministers, all moved through with comparative speed finding him difficult to work with and too tight with money to accomplish significant goals. He was however, to his credit, a decent preacher and had great compassion for the sick and the bereaved—and that counts for a great deal in a priest.
Father Paul had laid the foundation of a strong (if uninformed) laity and that foundation would last a long time and enable the parish to survive through a succession of pastors who lacked vision and appreciation for the role of laity in the Church and the need to provide a theological and spiritual formation to guide them. But nothing lasts forever if it is not nourished and cared for and a long slow slide commenced in the morale of the parish.
Father D was succeeded at the end of his terms by “Father E” who had a list of academic degrees as long as his arm. While two of his various Masters degrees (he had about five and a Ph.D as well) were in theology, his love was not theology or even the Church, but music. Moreover he had a teaching career at a nearby university. While he hung on to the administration of the parish, most of the pastoral work was done by his associates. Fortunately he had a succession of associates who had hearts as big as the all-outdoors. Unfortunately their intellects were in inverse proportions to their hearts. And it would take a gentle soul with a large heart to put up with the abuse that Father E heaped on them—making them cancel their vacations so that he could take research trips to Europe, depriving them of their days off to cover funerals while he went to teach, etc. Father E also fancied himself both a good liturgical presider and a good preacher when in fact he was terrible at both. His approach to liturgy was “open the book, read the prayer. What’s the issue?” The once vibrant liturgies began to slide into banalities and the good homilies gave way to abstract lectures that would bore a graduate student. Pews began to empty slowly. Though popular enough personally, Father E’s time came leaving the parish somewhat smaller and much disheartened.
“Father F” came aboard with a degree in liturgy and did some minor renovations in the Church—expanding the sanctuary which had been overly small, refitting the altar, and installing a new and more dignified ambo. But his people skills were little and for all his knowledge of the rubrics he had no appreciation for the liturgical assembly. He was a brick and mortar man, not a people person. All wisdom reposed in his heart and consulting the laity, much less empowering them, was not necessary. They knew nothing anyway. No one else knew anything. Father F loved fidgeting with things—gates went up here and there on the property to block traffic when he wanted traffic blocked, fussiness and chintz took over the rectory in an “old Kentucky home” style. The liturgy had become unimaginative. The same Director of Religious Education was running the same program she had run 15 years earlier. There was little rapport between priests and people. The parish plodded on. Fortunately this pastorate did not last long and his successor was as much a people person as Father F was not.
“Father G” came along—a breath of the ’50’s again. Much like the Father Joe at the beginning of our saga, Father G lived large and loved the people entrusted to him large. Much like Father Joe, Father G was a wizard with money. Money came in and money went out and more and more came in. But Father G was ‘50’s through and through. This was The Bells of Saint Mary’s.” Vatican II was something in a coffee-table book with lots of pictures of bishops in their finery. O sure, Father G says Mass facing the people but it is all about his saying Mass. No one could be in Church, but as long as he can wear a chasuble and swing a censer Father G is in heaven. Nevertheless, he had great rapport with people, to the point of a personality cult. People follow him from parish to parish. He is upbeat and funny, with a great memory for names and as much Blarney as any native born Irisher. His taste can be a bit gauche but for those who confuse cost for quality, quite impressive. But he doesn’t understand the role of the laity—like for so many of those priests who prefer “the old ways” the laity are peripheral to the Church. They’re fun. They’re good for going out to dinner. They’re great for a party. But much like the famous Monsignor Talbot in nineteenth century England, Father G sees the role of the laity “to hunt, to shoot, and to entertain.” He doesn’t see them as collaborators in ministry. The parish had Eucharistic ministers—and needed them—but Father G went for years without recruiting or training new ones. He had no idea of what lay ministers are—ministry is about sacraments and sacraments are about priesthood. It wasn’t that he disbelieved in the laity, it was just that he didn’t believe in them as active co-adjutors with the clergy in the mission of the Church. A good man, a good priest in the old model, but he left a parish with money in the bank but fewer and fewer people in the pews—much less in mission.
Well Father G’s pastorate has come to its conclusion now too. What is left is a parish that is smaller, less involved, and somewhat in need of encouragement. Or maybe, in need of a sense of mission. What the succession of pastors had failed to appreciate and thus failed to develop was a Christian community of empowered laity with a sense of their vocation for mission. The parish had long been seen—by its priests—as a sacramental station where Mass was said, confessions heard, children prepared for first communion and confirmation. What had not been developed was a community of believers who were anxious to reach out and bring others into the net of Christ. The root problem, I believe, is that the priests themselves had not only failed in their own need for ongoing education/formation but they had lost the vision of their being called to empower an evangelizing community. While in the days of Father Joe the foundation for a community was laid, and in the days of Father Paul an enthusiasm gathered people around Word and Sacrament, the house was not built on the rock of firm faith but on the sands of religious faddism and while it managed to stand through long storms of indifferent or misguided pastors, it could not last forever—at least with the vitality it once had.
I tell the story of this parish because I believe that it is not atypical. I am concerned at the ecclesiology that I find among many of the clergy. The vision given us in Vatican II has too often not be undergirded in the parishes by a sound theology for either clergy or laity. As in most helping professions, clergy burnout is far too common. The Roman Catholic clergy are one of the few professions that does not require continuing education to maintain one’s license to practice. Moreover, I question the ecclesiology being taught in most seminaries. Despite Avery Dulles’ claim that the day of the Institutional model of Church predominating is over and it is time to give way to the Servant Model or the Kerygmatic model, the vast majority of newly ordained seem to be fixated on the corporate/hierarchical model where their only concern is on those prelates “above” them and not on those faithful “below.” I think this self-obsession of the ordained is a great part of the impetus towards the liturgical restorationism that wants to put the priest back at the apex of the assembly, not as servant-leader but as sole mediator between God and man. I am appalled to see new churches being built in dioceses like Arlington VA or Kansas City MO looking like they were lifted from 1935 South Side Chicago. I am horrified to hear of a pastor who compared himself to a shepherd who “must occasionally break the legs of a lamb to make it dependent on its shepherd.” The struggle today is not over the liturgy it is over how we see the Church and our Mission as Church. Pope Francis is changing the tune, but will the clergy dance to it?