In my last two pieces, I discussed how pastors are called to preach the truth of the faith and the laity are called to listen to their teachings. This fundamental relationship between pastors and the laity is a bedrock of the lived Catholic faith. While individual pastors can be weak, sinful, poor speakers, or possess any number of other faults, the Church has not provided “exceptions” to the respective roles of pastors and laity in the event the laity judges their pastors to be unworthy of the task. To put it simply, this fundamental relationship between laity and pastors is not abrogated by mere personal dislike or disagreement. Moreover, there are certain virtues of remaining “attached” to a parish or diocese through thick and thin and bearing one’s pastor with patience and charity.
(I want to be clear that in the event you have reason to believe your priest is causing harm to another, such as though sexual abuse or the promulgation of heresy, one is obliged to contact the relevant authorities. There is no virtue in allowing a man, even one you might love and respect, to destroy the lives of others. This article deals with matters that fall short of these grave sins.)
Assuming that all our pastors are sinful and that at least some of them will fail to live up their calling in some way, one might ask whether there are any “checks” on pastors? You may or may not have had the experience of your pastor being removed from your parish. Just recently, we have seen the bishop of an American diocese removed for what appears to be, at first blush, mismanagement or personnel conflicts. Removal from office is one “check” the Church has. Laicization could be another.
But in the day-to-day, are our choices really to accept our pastor as-is or beg his superior to remove him? After all, the Catholic Church does not subject our pastors to votes by the congregation or by a body of elders. The Catholic Church relies on Apostolic Succession. Christ commissioned Peter and the Apostles to lead his Church. In turn, these first bishops appointed other bishops. Over time and as the Church grew and became more institutionalized, what we call “priests” were commissioned by bishops to help them in their task. Thus, even your local priest has both a historical and mystical connection to Christ himself, through Apostolic Succession and the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Still, all men remain fallible and prone to sin. In this model, in which priests’ stations are not subject to the votes of their flock, what mechanisms are there to ensure a priest remains loyal and faithful? Within Catholicism, one of the most important “checks” on pastors is the Church’s call for them to “listen” to their flock and be close to them, which also enables an active and involved laity. Listening is essential.
One can easily imagine a brusque and ineffective pastor, who manages a parish in a domineering way with little regard to the needs of his parish, their opinions, or convictions. Disconnected from his people, such a pastor would have difficulty even preaching the Gospel on Sunday because of how far removed he is from the hearts of his flock.
On the other hand, there is the pastor who, as Francis has said, takes on “the smell of the sheep.” He lives among them, works to understand their challenges, and provides the necessary support and encouragement to keep his parish or diocese growing in holiness.
Obviously the above two examples are caricatures of men, not real men who will likely do some great things and really dumb things and sometimes even evil things during their priesthood, for example out of pride or jealousy. But it’s clear that one of the keys to being a good pastor is to listen to the laity. This was expressed in no uncertain terms by the Church in Lumen Gentium 27.
A bishop, since he is sent by the Father to govern his family, must keep before his eyes the example of the Good Shepherd, who came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to lay down his life for his sheep. Being taken from among men, and himself beset with weakness, he is able to have compassion on the ignorant and erring. Let him not refuse to listen to his subjects, whom he cherishes as his true sons and exhorts to cooperate readily with him. (emphasis added)
This theme is repeated often by Francis throughout his papacy:
The flock needs to find a place in their Pastor’s heart. If this is not firmly anchored within himself, in Christ and in his Church, he will be constantly buffeted by the waves in search of an ephemeral compensation and will offer no shelter to the flock.
Also, in relation to the broader Church:
A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening “is more than simply hearing”. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).
Listening, of course, has two requirements. First, a receptive pastor but secondly, a laity who is willing to be engaged with a pastor in his work. It is not sufficient for a frustrated layperson to simply abandon a parish due to feelings of marginalization or a feeling that certain priorities of the faith are being neglected. Without replacing the pastor in his priestly work, there is certainly an opportunity for laity to take “co-responsibility” for a parish. As Pope Francis said to the Italian Episcopal Conference:
Love people and communities with generous and total dedication: they are your members! Listen to the flock. Trust in its sense of the faith and the Church, which is also manifest in so many forms of popular piety. Trust that God’s holy People has its finger on the pulse of the Church to identify the right roads. Generously support the growth of lay co-responsibility; provide opportunities for thought, planning and action for women and young people: with their intuition and their help, you will succeed in delaying no longer over pastoral plans based on previous schema which, in fact, are generic, inconclusive, fragmented and of little influence. Instead, you will adopt a pastoral plan that hinges on the essential. As St Thérèse of the Child Jesus summed it up with profound simplicity: “To love him and to make him loved”.
Also, I repeat the quote from Lumen Gentium above, but with different emphasis:
Let him not refuse to listen to his subjects, whom he cherishes as his true sons and exhorts to cooperate readily with him.
Much like a family that has to learn to live together and love each other despite any personal differences, so too are parishes, where a variety of opinions, united in a common creed, create more opportunities to grow in holiness. It would be dangerous for parishes to be constituted merely from self-selecting members of a personal preference (e.g., for folk music, for communion rails, for the Latin Mass, or for great ministries, etc.). Rather, it is better to be attached to our respective geographic parishes where can we form true community, where we learn to love more deeply, beyond our desire for comfort among like-minded individuals or personal advancement, but rather for the true good of our neighbors (meaning in this instance, the people who live next door to us) and brothers and sisters in faith.
Listening, attachment, and co-responsibility, then, are the bedrocks of a lived parish life. The laity listen to their priest as he leads his flock in holiness. The priest listens to his flock and remains close to them in their struggles, sufferings, and convictions. The laity are attached to their parish and to their pastor, bearing his ministry in charity and patience, and the pastor remains attached to his flock, laying down his life for them. And finally co-responsibility, where pastors and laity work together for the good of the parish, helping the parish to grow in holiness through prayer, education, service, and evangelization.
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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.