An old classmate friend of mine was supposed to come by last week for a religious festival of some kind or other which would involve the laying on of food. He cancelled at the last minute because he had what we call a “sick call”. A hospital called and asked him to confer “last rites” or “Extreme Unction”. Never mind that we no longer have “last rites”. We have the “Sacrament of the Sick” which could also be called “Not-so-Extreme-But- I-Have- Been-Feeling-Poorly-Lately-Unction”. People still want “the Last Rites.” This friend, unlike the author, is a good priest and went to the hospital immediately.
The hospital wasn’t in his parish. It wasn’t even in his diocese and the person needing the final consolation of religion wasn’t a parishioner. If nurses and chaplains can actually find a priest who, unlike myself, will actually pick up a phone, and will then actually come to the hospital without asking, “Is the soon to be departed a registered parishioner?” they will call that priest until they burn him out and he has a heart attack or ends up in the St. Dymphna Home for Priests Who Have Fallen Off Their Rocker.
There are such places. They tend to be in cold climates, not in Boca. This brings us to another set of problems. In the old days the average parish had three or four young energetic assistants who were in effect, pastors. It had one business manager, who was called the pastor, who as I have explained might be on a three month spiritual retreat in a sunny climate.
Nowadays there is only one fuse in the fuse box in most places. The pastor is a sort of ordained janitor. People commonly point out to him that there is a leak in the roof, or the toilet is flooding or there is an exposed wire or the kneeler in third pew has a screw loose. The ordained janitor is usually vested at the time and has three minutes until the start of his third Mass of the morning and the concerned parishioner has a concerned look on his or her face that says, “Well, aren’t you going to do something about it? Someone could get hurt!”
The pastor/ordained janitor goes and tries to look at the situation with a knowing and concerned furrowing of the brow. The congregation is getting restive because the Mass is now five minutes late in starting as the pastor goes to retrieve a screwdriver, or light bulb or a sign reading, “caution/piso mojado/wet floor”. In the midst of this the pastor/ordained janitor can hear the sound of his coronary arteries quietly clogging. I have actually stood in crowded parking lots dressed in ancient Roman finery breaking up fights and directing traffic. Why do we do this? Because, heaven forefend, if there is a law suit, a concerned parishioner just might testify, “I told Father about the puddle/burned out bulb/loose wire/ broken kneeler, but he just didn’t seem to care!”
These days if there is more than one priest in a rectory, or even if there is just one, that priest is usually working a few jobs. For about 20 years, I was a pastor of a very poor parish with lots of loose wire, loose kneelers and more than one loose screw. I was also the Cardinal’s liaison for Spanish Speaking Charismatic groups, in which there were quite a few loose screws. I was assigned to a 2/3 pastorate and a 1/3 chancery job. The parish paid 2/3 of my salary and the chancery paid 1/3, half of which I was expected to raise from the people I was serving in the Renewal. I also taught Latin and Greek in the college seminary for all those 20 years. Three jobs, one and a third substandard salaries, but I was young and having fun. In my parish I also had 5 hospitals, and a gaggle of nursing homes for which I was pastorally responsible. All those places called for the “Last Rites” which no longer exist. People were incensed if I didn’t answer the phone when I was, for instance, sleeping.
In the bad old medieval days your parish was a parish which, like the marriage vows, was for better or for worse. You couldn’t shop for a priest who was a better electrician or at least more entertaining. This had certain advantages. The priest knew his people, was often genuinely concerned about them and was not asked to serve perfect strangers who probably hadn’t darkened the door of the church since Jesus’ Bar Mitzvah.
Now people shop. I have actually gotten requests to drive for a couple hours to a distant church to do a baptism because, get this, “You baptized all the other kids in the family and it would look odd to have another priest in the pictures on the mantle.” (This has actually happened to me.)
Or “Father, this is Mary. You remember me from twenty years ago, no? We live in Nebraska now. Anyway, you did my kid’s baptism. My cousin Florinda asked me to be the Godmother for her baby, Tiffany, and the church is asking for a letter from my parish that I am a practicing Catholic. Could you write me one?” (Actual conversation except for the names.) In the bad old days, this would be impossible. You had baby Tiffany baptized in your parish, and if you weren’t going to church you were probably out of luck, or at least grace.
I say, “No, I can’t write the letter you ask for, that would be dishonest. Get the letter from your current parish priest.”
The response is, “But we aren’t going to church these days. We’re going to start going. But the baby has to be baptized this Saturday because she has serious thrombosis of the ear lobe and the hall is already rented. It’s an emergency.”
To which I respond “I’m sorry. I just can’t do it. It would be dishonest.”
Dead silence on the phone for a minute, then a cold voice says, “You used to be a nice priest.”
The coronary arteries clog just a little more as this aging priest realizes that once he might have been nice, but he was certainly spineless, and chances are, I say something like, “Well, Okay.”
In the bad old days of yore, priests didn’t have to be nice. You were stuck with us. That is if you wanted to be Catholic. You see, people really believed that there was a heaven and a hell, and that faith was important. You went to church because, “I dread the loss of heaven and fear the pains of hell,” to paraphrase the old act of contrition. The same young progressives that swept away the security of the pastorate also did away with hell. If there is a hell there is no one in it, except for Stalin and Hitler a few old monsignors.
To lead a religious life in the hope of avoiding eternal damnation is now thought of as insincere. One leads the virtuous life because of the basic goodness of the average human being and an un-coerced love of God and humanity. Everyone goes to heaven because, after all, who is God to judge? He is ever so nice and would never send anyone to hell. Boy, do I hope these guys are right and that the abolishing of hell works out better than the abolishing of the pastorate.
The Catholic faith is a reasonable system of beliefs and practices that give meaning to life. It teaches that the purpose of life is to know, love, and serve God in this world and to be happy with him forever. The Catholic faith can give purpose to life in the world and hope for the eternal survival of the human person. Now it often seems to offer no real moral direction except for a general optimism, a positive attitude toward one’s fellows and a vague hope of going to “a better place” after death. Most people seem to look at participation in the liturgical life of the church, not as the offering of sacrifice for the salvation of the world, but as an optional entertainment and a sort of photo opportunity. Pictures are taken at Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, Weddings, and now at First Confessions.
Confessionals are out and First Confession must be made “face to face” lest the dark medieval confessional frighten the little dears. The little penitent goes to Confession in the sanctuary where Father is seated trying to look concerned while Junior is confessing that he disobeyed his grandma and slugged his little sister. The rest of the class and the parents wait in the pews, or the proud parents are snapping way with cameras and waving to get the little sinner to smile for the camera.
The proud parents haven’t been to confession in years, nor has Junior’s new mommy or daddy. Later, Father stands in the sanctuary for pictures while the children hold up the banners they made in religion class or their “new garment”. More smiling, more pictures, then everyone adjourns to the hall for cake and ice cream. People are even taking pictures at funerals. The mind boggles.
Once it was about the care of souls. Now priesthood has become a kind of modeling career. We are assured membership in the church if we have the pictures to prove it. And in all of those pictures, Father is smiling his frozen smile. He is doing his job, which has nothing to with a challenge to the condition of your soul. His job is to be nice. It strikes me as odd. In the days when we weren’t expected to be nice, the churches were packed. Since the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Nice, the churches are pretty much empty. Strange, isn’t it?
Next week: More whining. I am having too much fun to stop.