Friday, July 18, 2014

A reflection on priestly life -- part 4

Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued.

“Benefice” denotes either certain property given for the support of ministers of religion, or a spiritual office or function, such as the care of souls, but in the strict sense it signifies a right, given permanently by the Church to a cleric to receive ecclesiastical revenues because of the performance of some spiritual service.  (Plagiarized from the “the Catholic Encyclopedia”). 

There were such things as single and double benefices.  A single benefice was a kind of living, or salary provided for a clergyman whose job it was to offer Mass and pray the liturgy of the hours for the well being of the faithful. Such a priest didn’t have to live in a parish. He could do his praying anywhere and just pop the check in the mail, please.

A double benefice included the basic job description of praying for the faithful plus the care of souls! The recipient of the double benefice is expected, “to preach and take care of the religious instruction of the faithful (especially of the young), supply their spiritual needs by the administration of the sacraments, reside in their parish or mission, administer the property entrusted to their care, watch over the moral conduct of their parishioners, and remove as far as possible all hindrances to their salvation.”  I suppose that means I am supposed to peer in your window to see what you are watching on HBO and, if need be, pull the plug or take an axe to your new flat screen. Keep your eyes peeled. That rustling in the shrubbery in the front yard just might be me!

For these services, I am to be reasonably remunerated. As the French say, “One must eat”, except they say it in French.  Keeping me in fighting weight, a salary and a roof over my head is sufficient these days. Back in the dark ages when a man’s wealth was estimated in chickens, the living provided the clergy was a scosche more direct. A parish might have a few acres attached to it, a household, and a flock of sheep, a few peasants and a certain number of barrels of wine in the rectory cellar. From the revenue generated, the priest maintained the church and the rectory and provided for his needs and that of his household. Had I lived then, my household would definitely have included a lute player and a retinue of dwarves. Ah, good times.

I digress. Times have changed. I don’t think we are even allowed to use the word “dwarves” anymore. We no longer deal in barrels of wine, chickens, dwarves or even sheep. We deal in little bits of plastic and computer printouts, but I remember once upon a time in the grand old days of my youth when the medieval concept still applied. The pastor was entitled to all the income of the parish from weddings, baptisms, Mass offerings and funerals. He might, or might not share this income with the 2 or 3 assistants (not associates) who served under him. He also received the Christmas collection, the Easter collection and the All Souls Day collection.  There were more prosperous parishes called “plums” by the clergy.

These were places like Sts. Pecunia and Prospera here in the Forest Lake district of the West Shore here in the Frostbite Falls Parish. A pastor was expected to maintain his household with this income, but the rest was his to do with as he chose and this occasionally involved real estate in Boca. Most pastors were hard working and generous. I got in on the tail end of this system. I remember a pastor who every week would give me an envelope in which he had scrupulously divided the income from stipends (money offered by the faithful for a Mass intention, stole fees money received for services rendered while wearing a stole, such as blessings, marriages, baptisms etc.).  It was all recorded in his precise hand, Stipends, Stole fees, Masses and a category I didn’t quite understand: Fun. One day I asked the pastor, Fr. John, a real saint, what was meant by “Fun Money”.  “Oh,” came the reply, “That’s for Funerals.”  Fun Money. Oy!  

Less saintly and less scrupulous pastors than Fr. John were not quite as generous.  The less it took to maintain the household in the parish, the more one had for the winter retreat in Boca. I remember a pastor whose life was determined by his housekeeper, famous not for food, but for frugality. The young assistants used to come down to my mother’s kitchen frequently. It seems that the rectory housekeeper’s specialty was boiled chicken feet. I am not making this up. I remember another great story of a young assistant moving into his new assignment and being greeted by the pastor who handed him a bag of nickels and pointed to the pay phone on the wall. He then turned and went into his room and shut the door. “Welcome, Father New Guy.” A lot of pastors never gave keys for the rectory to their assistants. The doors to the rectory were locked, and if you weren’t home by ten you were on your own. The rectory and its revenues were the property of the pastor, not of the assistant.

Assistant pastorate was a kind of indentured apprenticeship. Young priests were not allowed to drive for the first five years of their ministry; they were expected to “take the pledge”, that is to abstain from alcohol for the first five years of priesthood. They did the baptisms, the weddings, the funerals of less important parishioners, and said the later Masses. Remember that in the old days one did not eat or drink — even water — before Mass. If you had a Mass at 11AM on a hot summer day, chances are you would have heat stroke, especially if it was a high Mass involving incense. The Pastor said the 6AM Mass and then returned to the rectory to tuck into a sumptuous breakfast of chicken feet….that is if he were in town. Remember the house in Boca?

If a pastor had a real “plum” of a parish he could leave the work of ministry to his assistants and, loosely interpreting the injunction that he live in his parish, go where he pleased or do what he wanted. I remember an old priest under whom I served as a deacon. When he was asked, “How are you doing?” He invariably responded, “Pretty much as I please. I’m a pastor.” Actually he was a very good pastor who loved his flock and worked very hard. Died young as I recall.

To leave the ministry to your assistants and the money to your personal accountant was called “hanging up your stole.” I remember a story from the days of old Cardinal Cody back in the sixties. When he first arrived in Chicago he was very hands on. He would go from parish to parish all by himself without handlers and without warning. He wanted to get to know the diocese first hand. He was death on alcoholism among the clergy and if he suspected you tippled a bit, you were off to rehab in a New York minute. 

One afternoon he was making a sweep of parishes on the south side, and after leaving a parish, the assistants quickly called the next parish over to warn the assistant priests there that the boss was on his way and they had better get the pastor, old Monsignor James Beam, in presentable shape. It seems that Monsignor Beam enjoyed a glass of sherry now and then….mostly now. 

They got the beloved old coot showered, combed and dressed in a clean cassock. They poured black coffee down his throat until he could hold no more, and sat him upright in his study. Cardinal Cody walked in and said to old Monsignor Beam, “Monsignor, I have heard complaints that people can smell alcohol on your breath at baptisms.” To which the old priest responded without losing a beat, Your Eminence, I haven’t baptized a baby in twenty years!” This is what was meant by “hanging up your stole.” 

I can hear you harrumphing, “Well, How shameful!” Remember that the great majority of priests I knew and under whom I served were true servants, especially the ones who went on to be bishops. I suppose my point in telling these stories, of which I have many more, is that the priest felt absolutely secure once he had been made a pastor. This was for two reasons. 
First, there were such things as irremovable pastors and moveable pastors. An irremovable pastor has the right of perpetual tenure, not unlike an incompetent university professor. He cannot be removed or transferred except for a reason laid down in canon law. Even if he is accused of criminality he could not be removed except by a canonical trial!

A movable pastor was one whose office did not have this right, but the bishop must have some just and proportionate reason for dismissing or transferring him against his will and, should the priest believe himself wronged in the matter, he could appeal to the pope and the pope usually ruled in favor of the pastor. So, a removable pastor was in effect irremovable.
Second, people living within the parish boundaries could not go to another parish or another priest other than their pastor, except with his or the bishop's consent.  This means; no baptisms, no last rites, no anointing of the sick, no holy communion, no marriages and no funerals outside their parish and no permission to be buried in a Catholic cemetery next to Grandma Gewurztraminer, even if you had already bought and paid for the plot and the perpetual care grave package with waterproof coffin included!  If you didn’t like your pastor, it was pay, pray and obey. That or move or join the high Church Anglicans.

People really respected this system. In 1947, my parents moved out of a parish on the south side of Chicago because the pastor was a horrible man. They thought their children would not grow up Catholic under his influence. He was the pastor of Five Holy Tombs, a parish you may have heard about in the book, Last Catholic in America. They moved into a suburban parish after convincing the realtors that — despite my father’s family name and the fact that he was in the retail garment business and the only gentile in his company Morris B. Sachs — they were not Jewish. 

They went to meet Monsignor O’Brien who always stood on the church steps after every Mass. They introduced themselves as new parishioners and started the usual small talk, at which point Monsignor O’Brien broke in and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m not here to chat. I’m only here for parishioners who need to talk to a priest.” 

They nodded and decided to stay. They never regretted it.

Next week: How the dark ages ended in 1972

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