Letter to Robinson K. Russo, a young seminarian, continued:
In the dim mists of ancient history, when I was a boy, pastors were formidable people. They were the standard bearers of something that seemed utterly unchangeable, and they were not out to win any popularity contests. People actually believed that if you didn’t go to church on Sunday, (unless you were Jewish, and they are very nice people even though they eat a lot of garlic; now stop asking questions, Junior) You went to church on Sunday. Or else. Enough said! If you didn’t like your pastor or if the choir director had a voice disturbingly like Jimmy Durante’s (not making this up either), you didn’t go to the next parish over. No self-respecting pastor in the Catholic Church would engage in “sheep rustling.” You could go to confession or mass in another parish, but last rites, marriage, communion, confirmation, churching (a ritual by which a woman was repatriated to the church after childbirth), house blessings, car blessings, any blessing at all, that happened in your parish. The parish you lived in. The parish that your street address indicated.
And you contributed financially to your proper parish using collection envelopes, thus enabling the parish to publish a quarterly report naming names and disclosing amounts. It made for fascinating reading at breakfast. “I see the Van Skinflints only threw $2.85 cents into the basket at church last quarter. Hm...” It was a truly captive audience. And the pastor! There were two types of diocesan pastors in my youth. The irremovable and removable kind. If a priest was an irremovable pastor, he could only be removed with papal permission. If he was a removable pastor, he could only be removed with papal permission. Yes, you read correctly. The irremovable pastor could only be removed for, heresy, immorality or insanity, proven by a canonical church trial. A removable pastor could be removed by the bishop, but he had the right to appeal his dismissal to Rome. By the time Rome ruled on the case the local bishop might have already gone to his eternal reward, helped along by a novena or two to St. Joseph, Patron of a Happy Death. Priests had what they call tenure in the academic world. It is said that when an old professor finally receives tenure at a university, he is no longer expected to think, or even to teach class for that matter. On occasion the same thing happened to pastors. Most of the pastors of my youth were good and holy men who loved the Lord and the people they served. But every so often you got one who was not as interested in the Gospel as he was in third race at Hialeah.
The Christmas, Easter and All Souls Day collections were the personal property of the pastor, as well as all stipends for masses and other religious services offered to him or his assistant priests. If the pastor was assigned to a “plum,” that is a well-to-do parish, he could become a wealthy man indeed. If the bills were paid, and there were three or four assistant priests, which in those days there were, the pastor whose commitment had weakened over the years could spend much of the year down in Boca Raton, only coming up for the major Holy Days. This was called “hanging up your stole” (The stole is the priestly emblem worn while officiating at sacraments.) If you had a good and zealous pastor who worked himself to death in the care of souls, you could count on never retiring. He intended to die in his rectory. If you had a profligate pastor who was usually “on retreat in a warmer climate” he may not die in the rectory, but his corpse would most certainly be brought back there for burial. You only left your rectory feet first in those days.
This sounds like an awful system. It really wasn’t. If you had a good pastor, you had him for his whole life, 'til death did you part. If you had the other kind, he was hardly ever there, and the religious life of the parish was run by the assistant pastors, and generally they were young and idealistic. There was a certain stability in the system. It was your parish. He was your pastor who probably taught and believed the Catholic faith and that was that.
I remember when it changed. I believe it was in 1972 that the young progressives in the priest senate, petitioned Cardinal Cody to ask the pope for an indult to violate the canon law that appointed pastors for life. The young progressives realized that the changes they thought must happen in the liturgical and moral life of the Church would never happen if the “old barons” as the pastors were called, were not forced to give up the reins of power in the “plum” parishes. They say that Cardinal Cody smiled and said with his slight southern drawl, “If that is what you want my sons, I will petition the Holy Father.” He left the hall smiling, and the pope granted the indult.
This left the diocesan bishop without any check on their practical authority. Before this, the old guys would be playing poker on a Wednesday afternoon, complaining about the bishop. They would decide they weren’t sending in their “cathedraticum” until the bishop saw things their way. (The cathedraticum is the money sent by the parishes to maintain the bishop and the diocese.) In effect, they would unionize and go on strike. Remember, they could be removed only by canonical trial for heresy, immorality or insanity? Refusing to cough up money was not reason for removal. The bishop had to know his pastors well and to hear them clearly.
Thus it was that the stability of the parishes was healthy not only for the pastors, but it was actually healthy for the bishops. The bishops had to listen to the pastors, and the pastors, if they were at all decent, really knew and loved their parishioners. They loved the parish, they did their best to make sure it flourished, because it was their home, their family, and that was where they would die. It was the church from which they would be buried. The parishes flourished, the schools flourished, and the diocese flourished.
As Chicago went in those heady days after the council, so went the nation. As the nation went, so went the world. When Chicago imposed limited terms and mandatory retirement for pastors, the rest of the Latin Catholic world was not far behind. It all seemed to be swept away in a moment, but in fact it had been slowly eroding for perhaps half a century at least.
Next week: things aren’t like they used to be, but then again, they never were.