A Series of Essays “On the Business of Religion” by the Rev. Know it all
Essay Seven: Good Intentions with which the Road to Hell Is Said to Be Paved
Many years ago when I was young and even more foolish than I am now, I was invited to be a guest on a radio talk show sponsored by an evangelical organization. They thought they might venture into the heady world of ecumenism that was popular at the time. Being one of the few Catholic priests who, at that time, spoke fluent evangelical-ese, I was to be their first experiment.
At some point a woman who didn’t particularly like Catholics called in with a grocery list of complaints, “How come Catholics added books to the Bible and how come Catholics worship Mary and the pope and how come Catholics call priests Father when the Bible says call no man Father????Huh? Huh???”
I responded, “Madam, you needn’t call me father, I’ve never even met your mother!!”
True story. No time delay. Live radio. I think I set ecumenism back twenty years at least. Still, her last question is not a bad one. In the gospel of Matthew, (23:19) we read, “You are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Nor are you to be called master, for you have one master, the Messiah.”
Contrast these with St. Paul who called himself the one who fathered the Corinthians and St. Paul writing ”For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every fatherhood (patria) in heaven and on earth derives its name.” (Eph 3:14) What Jesus is saying is, “Don’t have any gurus.” No one has the absolute right of teacher, leader or father over us save God alone.
It is curious that every Christian group calls their clergy either Doctor, Reverend or Father, doctor being the Latin word for teacher and reverend essentially meaning leader. If you take the text absolutely literally, what are you going to call that man who married your mother? I guess all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If the Catholic custom is properly practiced, the word “father” is not a title. In the context of the parish, it is a relationship.
It is that very relationship that our current direction is destroying. A priest who lived in his parish until death really did become as if a spiritual father to his parish. He worried about the money, the school, the leaky roof, the health, spiritual and physical, of his parishioners, all the things that fathers do. He took part in their births by baptism. He witnessed their weddings and in turn baptized their children and finally conducted their funerals. He forgave their sins and fed them the Eucharist and listened to their sorrows. They mourned when he died, and they prayed for the repose of his soul. They were the children who loved him and cared for him in his old age. He was their father in the Lord.
That is almost all gone. Now he is temporary help, for at most twelve years. He is paid to love them for a while, then moves on to love another group of people who will pay him the same salary as determined by corporate headquarters. The parish was a home for believers, Priests were expected to be fathers, nuns were expected to be mothers to the faithful. The parish was the center of our life when I was a child, the place where I met Christ, joined His family and learned the beauty of the faith. True, the pastor could be difficult as could be the nuns who taught me, but it was home. There were certainly horrible exceptions to this rather rosy picture. The parish could be as dysfunctional and even dangerous as any human family, but by in large, it was a system that worked.
Now it feels like the priest is the manager of a branch office appointed for as long as suits the needs of the head office. The system by which the gospel filled the world prevailed for a thousand years and more. We, the clergy, killed that system one afternoon in Chicago just short of fifty years ago. I am sure we had nothing but good intentions in doing so.
PS I forgot. We can either have someone who cooks for us or get a very generous per diem. That brings my after-tax salary up to $35,000. Clearly, I am not starving to death. Also, in addition to paying taxes, I buy my own clothes and pay for my own car. As I have mentioned. I am responsible for my own retirement and pay into social security. That’s the worrisome part.