Friday, January 22, 2010

Towards a more compassionate priesthood

This week's Catholic Herald contained a column by Fr. Peter Daly, pastor of St. John Vianney in Prince Frederick, MD, on what he has learned in 24 years of priesthood. Says Daly:
I’ve learned to be more accepting of people. I take them as God sends them.

We are all works in progress. This insight has made me more compassionate.

Twenty five years ago, I was much more severe. When people came to me for the sacraments, I wanted to see evidence that they were living the Christian life.

If they wanted their baby baptized, I want to see them married.

If they wanted to get married, I wanted to see them not living together.

If they wanted confirmation or reception into the church, I wanted to see some knowledge of the faith and some evidence of practice.

But now, I realize that the sacraments are not trophies conferred on those already victorious over sin, but rather they are food for the hungry and strength for the weak.

People seek the sacraments because they want help on the path to perfection, not because they are already perfect. I take them as they come.

This is the kind of spirit that has informed my pastoral work in the Hispanic community. It was the vision that I had for St. Ann's -- that it could be a community where those who felt excluded from other parishes because of their pasts or their conditions of life could feel welcomed and find an opportunity to worship and serve God to the extent allowed by the Church. So, for example, couples who had not married in the Church were welcome to serve in any position except as catechists and ministers of Holy Communion. This kind of attitude is especially critical in the Hispanic community where many of our brothers and sisters cannot get married due to their immigration status.

When St. Ann's new priest started last week, he spoke out against concubinaje and urged all such couples to get married. Now that I know a little more about this priest's past, I understand why he is stressing marriage but tone makes all the difference in how the message is received. If you begin by stating that you don't like couples living together, the only thing you achieve is to drive cohabiting couples further into hiding or away from the Church completely. If you tell me you don't accept me as I am, I don't want to deal with your distaste. I am afraid to open up to you even though I might want to change my circumstances. This is especially true in a Hispanic community where there is tremendous respect for the figure of the priest and a lot of importance given to "face".

It takes courage to come out and admit that we are not living in conformity with the teachings of the Church. In many ways, our Hispanic concubinos are braver and more honest than their North American counterparts. Every Sunday they silently "come out" by remaining seated in their pews while their married brothers and sisters step up to Communion. They have enough respect for the Church to accept their exclusion and not put on a mask.

I hope all priests will read and reflect on Fr. Daly's words. I hope they will stop and listen to their own words from the perspective of those who are on the margins of the Church. Do our words invite the marginalized to come in, as Jesus taught, or do they drive them further away into the shadows?

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