Letter to Robinson K. Russo, concluded (possibly)
Your life as a priest will be far more sacrificial than mine has been. You will suffer the consequences of the bad decisions and immorality that plagued my generation and the generation that preceded me. I have already mentioned the introduction of term limits for pastors. These have had very far reaching effects in the life of the parish priest. Benedictine monks take a vow of stability. They promise to remain in the same monastery for the rest of their live, unless their superiors send them elsewhere. It seems that the diocesan priest now takes a vow of instability.
As I have written, in times past we stayed on as pastor in the same parish until death, but the presbyteral senate in the days of Cardinal Cody abolished that privilege. We were given a term of six years with the possibility of a second term of six years at the bishop’s discretion.
One increasingly sees letters of appointment to the pastorate that don’t mention a specific term. They simply appoint a pastor, until his successor is named. This means that permanent relationships with most of the people we serve are not really possible. Young men tend to fall in love. I don’t mean this in a physical sense, necessarily. We meet wonderful people and think that they will be our “best friends forever.”
I have served in ten assignments in my forty-six years of service to the Church. I have served: in an orphanage (4 years), a parish during my internship at a hospital (1 year), and a diaconate parish (1 year), 5 parishes (2, 8, 1, 20, and 10 years respectively.) I taught Latin and Greek in the college seminary for just short of 25 years and served as the diocesan liaison for Spanish-speaking charismatic groups for 20 years.
In all those assignments, I have met wonderful people who were very fond of me. They still call me to celebrate their weddings, baptisms, funerals and now the weddings, baptisms and funerals of their children and grandchildren. I remember one “best friend forever” whose face I could not place and whose name I could not remember calling to ask if I would baptize her grandchild. I had baptized each of her children and some other priest in the pictures would look odd on the mantelpiece with all the other pictures.
I remember a priest in my youth, just after the council when the “home Mass” was all the rage. He celebrated a Christmas Eve Mass in the basement rumpus room of my sister’s in-laws. He had already done it for several years and it just wouldn’t have been Christmas without Fr. Niceguy celebrating a Christmas Eve Mass in the in-laws’ basement. I distinctly remember the look of exhaustion on his face. I could almost read his mind, as he thought he would have to do this until his death. He left the priesthood, and the in-laws’ family was shattered by distance, death and divorce. Problem solved.
There is not time or energy enough to be pastor to ten institutions. The whole point is “don’t kid yourself”. Serve the people unselfishly, but remember that this is not your permanent community. In years past, it might have been, but no longer. Make friends sparingly. This may sound selfish. It is not. It is Bible. “A righteous man is cautious in friendship, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.” (Proverbs 12:26) and “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24) There are a lot of people out there who want to be your best friend and more. Because you are a “man of God,” they think they can trust you to be selfless and “there” for them always. They idealize you and think that you will be the answer to their emotional needs, and sometimes other needs which best go unmentioned. If you jump into a relationship because of your need, two needy people are just asking for trouble. I don’t mean to say you should be aloof and distant, just prudent.
I have made many real friendships in the institutions in which I have served, but they have developed gradually and organically. When someone says, “How good to see you!” this is healthy. When someone is huffy because you had Sunday dinner at someone else’s home, this is a danger sign. Drop that relationship like a bad habit. Say something like, “I have to be the pastor (or priest) for the whole parish.” You may have made an enemy, but better an honest enemy than a false friend. When someone enjoys your visits, good. When someone thinks you are they own you, bad. Above all, avoid commitments that are compulsory annual events, except with family. You will be moving in a few years and what seems reasonable now will require a two-hour drive on a Sunday when they send you to the opposite end of the diocese in a couple of years.
Real human intimacy is essential for life. The first psychological insight about humanity in the scripture is that, “It is not good for man to be alone,” but inappropriate intimacies have done more harm in the Church than you can possibly imagine. Therefore, one of the most important things you will have to do as young priest is to establish appropriate relationships. The first set of appropriate relationships is your genetic and legal family.
People regularly ask me what I am doing for Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter. When I say, “I am spending the holiday with my family,” a look of shock comes over their faces and they ask “You have a family?” I always want to say, “No. I was hatched in a nest of alligators.” If you have siblings, get close to them. Invite them over to dinner. Be part of the lives of siblings, nephews, nieces, cousins, and the rest. Be the organizer of family events. Try not to plan Sunday afternoon or Saturday night ministry commitments. Go to Sunday dinner with your family. Invite yourself over to the cousins’ house.
“But!” I can hear you saying, “That’s when important things happen in the parish, on the weekends.” Yes, that’s true, but everything you establish that depends on your presence will wither and die when you leave the parish in a couple years. In the parish of tomorrow – which is here today – events must be established and driven by the laity. Your job will be to establish the theological and spiritual climate of the parish. Someone else should run the coffee hour and the bingo.
Stop by and say hello. Stand in the vestibule after Mass. Meet and greet, but remember, you will be leaving soon. You are there to represent Christ. Someone else will represent Christ for these people in a couple years. Don’t make yourself indispensable, and don’t make the parish the place where your needs are met. If there is a conflict between a family event and a parish event, if possible, choose the family event. It’s better for you and in the long run it’s better for the parish.
A psychologically healthy pastor with appropriate relationships is essential for the health of the parish. You are not Santa Claus. You cannot visit all the children in the world on Christmas Eve and you certainly can’t eat all the cookies and drink all the milk without having a coronary. I thought I could end this, but it’s going to go on for quite a while.