There is a damaging lack of stability in the US Catholic Church. The changing of pastors has become a ritual of parish life. Every six years or so, awkward announcements are made, goodbyes are said, and the parish priest heads off for a new assignment. He is discouraged from keeping in touch with parishioners or visiting his old parish, for fear of generating a power struggle. He is replaced by a stranger, who generally has a totally different set of tastes and ideas and a very different pastoral style. In many cases, the incoming pastor knows nothing about the parishioners, the parish staff, and the parish culture. He is thrown into the deep end one fine Sunday morning, and has to learn the workings of the place while on the job. Everything is a mystery to him, from the storage arrangements in the sacristy to the dynamics of the parish council. Those who stay abreast of the local Catholic news can watch this process unrolling all around the diocese, like a giant game of musical chairs.
This constant shuffling of priests, which causes so many problems, is actually a rather recent development. Elderly Catholics can still remember the days of “father so and so,” who pastored Saint Joe’s for forty years and baptized two generations of parishioners. In fact, the current practice can be traced to the promulgation of the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983. Canon 522 emphasizes that a pastor must possess stability and therefore should be appointed for an indefinite period of time; but it goes on to say that “The diocesan bishop can appoint him only for a specific period if the conference of bishops has permitted this by a decree.” The USCCB did just that in 1984, allowing bishops to set six-year term limits for the pastors under their authority. It is notable, however, that according to their own decree the possibility of indefinite appointments remains in force. This being so, any bishop could abolish the custom of term-limited pastors and frequent transfers.
Not only is the practice changeable; it should be changed. The supposed benefits of the practice are all illusory; it is promoted as a band-aid for pre-existing and more fundamental problems, problems that require their own solutions. In some cases, it is even used to cover up clerical abuse and other scandals.
Leaving aside these obvious problems, such constant transfers are disastrous for the health of the parish community. A lack of stability keeps pastors from truly getting to know their people. This lack of personal understanding and relationship makes their pastoral ministry ineffective and shallow. It also prevents them from exercising true, Christ-like leadership. Similarly, it discourages parishioners from investing in their parishes; they treat them as a mere “Mass Stop” since they know everything will remain in a constant state of flux. No wonder our parish families are dysfunctional, and no wonder we’re unable to build authentic Christian community under these circumstances!
Some would argue that the “detachment” promoted by these constant moves is spiritually beneficial. Such an argument is a symptom of a wider problem in the Catholic world; the creation of spiritual justifications for problematic practices. Certainly, Christians are called to be detached; we’re not supposed to let anything stand in the way of following Christ. This detachment, however, does not mean that natural ties should be broken without a good reason for doing so.
Such natural ties actually provide the foundation for the supernatural. Community is natural to human beings, and in Christ community is raised to a whole new level. In the Gospels, Jesus uses the analogies of a vine with branches and a head with members to portray this community. We’re supposed to be as tightly joined to Christ and to one another as the members of a living organism are bound to one another. Obviously, we wouldn’t want the members of our bodies to be “detached”! Rather, we want the members of our bodies to work together for the good of the whole. By practicing detachment from our own selfish desires, we can build truly Christian attachments to one another, so that, like living stones, we can become built up into the spiritual temple of God. (cf 1 Peter 2:5)
But I Don’t Like My Pastor…
Of course, many Catholics fear that if pastors weren’t moved, they’d end up stuck with a bad one. This is a real problem. Some priests just don’t seem to be cut out to be effective pastors; to paraphrase The Wizard of Oz, they may be good men, but very bad pastors. Such priests can seriously damage a parish community. This problem is not solved by moving priests around, however. Tearing down and destroying a community is faster and easier than building one up. A destructive pastor can easily tear down a parish in a few years and then move on to destroy the next one, while good pastors aren’t given enough time to really transform and revivify the parishes under their care.
Obviously, a bishop shouldn’t leave a problematic priest in place, even if permanent pastors are the norm. (And I would add that if a pastor has been disastrously unsuccessful at one parish, maybe bishops should be a little more cautious about reassigning them! Maybe there’s a chancery job that would fit the bill…) Still, with more continuity, priests and people would have more of a chance to adapt to one another. Some people are instantly charming, while others need more time to build up friendships. This applies as much to pastors as to the rest of us. And of course, there is always the possibility of “voting with one’s feet.” Parish shopping may be a bad thing, but it is the reality of life in the USA. With more stability of leadership, such parish shopping would be less destructive, since it would allow individuals to stick with a parish that suited them.
Renewal through Change?
Another claim made in favor of transferring pastors is that change is beneficial. According to this theory, the change of pastors can shake up settled habits and can breathe new life into a stagnant parish. Certainly, such transfers do shake things up, but their spiritual utility is doubtful. In the modern world, are we really suffering from an overdose of stability? The modern world overvalues change and tends to promote a rootless existence in which individuals constantly reinvent themselves. By contrast, traditional Christian spirituality values stability. St. Benedict condemned the wandering “Girovagi” as the worst kind of monks.
A certain amount of change is beneficial, but for it to produce desirable effects it needs to occur against a backdrop of stability. Such changes can be produced by rotating assistant pastors, parish missions, and other initiatives, without compromising the stability of parish life. As it is, changing the pastor frequently does not keep other aspects of parish life from becoming ossified. In some large suburban parishes, the staff basically run the place; pastors come and go, remaining largely subservient to the bureaucratic machinery.
The Smell of the Sheep
In the first Chrism Mass of his Pontificate, Pope Francis said:
Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, “has already received his reward,” and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad – sad priests – in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with “the odor of the sheep.” This I ask you: be shepherds, with the “odor of the sheep,” make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men.
Becoming a true shepherd takes time. Anyone can be trained to be a bureaucratic manager, but becoming a true shepherd of souls requires direct experience and knowledge of the sheep. How can priests take on the smell of their sheep if they are constantly moving around? Six years isn’t enough time to really get to know all the parishioners, let alone start effectively shepherding them. And the very prospect of moving on may sap a priest’s motivation to gain the kind of deep, personal knowledge and relationships necessary for the task. So we’re stuck with managers instead.
Priestly Kingship or Tyrannical Autocracy
Every Christian is called to participate in the threefold ministry of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. Transfering pastors hampers the effective exercise of a priest’s “kingship.” The metaphor of “kingship” might call to mind the exercise of despotic power. In fact, transferring pastors is sometimes promoted as a solution to such clericalism and autocracy. Properly understood, however, “kingship” has a lot in common with the metaphor of a shepherd. True leadership is not autocracy. Rather, true leadership consists in bringing out the best in those under one’s care. Pope Francis has often insisted that we see others, particularly the poor and marginalized, as having their own agency rather than as being mere subjects of our guidance or benevolence.
According to Presbyterorum Ordinis, priests should recognize this agency in the laity who are entrusted to their care. A priest should “work together with the lay faithful…acknowledge and promote the dignity of the laity and the part proper to them in the mission of the Church… willingly listen to the laity…recognize their experience and competence in the different areas of human activity…acknowledge with joy and foster with diligence the various humble and exalted charisms of the laity…confidently entrust to the laity duties in the service of the Church, allowing them freedom and room for action…invite them on suitable occasions to undertake worlds on their own initiative.” (P.O. 9)
Without stability of assignment, pastors become autocratic by default. They don’t have enough time to really get to know their people. Without this knowledge, they are unable to properly nurture the skills and gifts of the laity. They also are under pressure from the eventual reassignment; if anything is to be accomplished, it will have to be initiated quickly. And so priests tend to function as little dictators in their parishes. They fire and hire the staff, remodel the buildings, launch initiatives, reshape the choir, and retrain the altar servers—all without really getting to know their people. For their part, parishioners try to resist all these upsetting innovations, creating factions and gridlock in parish life. Good priests may try to initiate many commendable projects and initiatives, but without being deeply rooted among the people of the parish such projects are doomed to eventual failure. Self-serving priests frequently embark on a narcissistic and heavy-handed quest to reshape the parish in their own image, or simply throw up their hands and allow things to go as they will. True leadership is rare, because the continuity, personal knowledge, and stability necessary for it to flourish are absent.
Of course, all pastors will eventually die or retire; replacing them will involve some loss of continuity. As the pastor grew older, however, an assistant pastor could be assigned to gradually take on the burden of pastoral ministry. If such a priest eventually became the pastor, a greater level of continuity would be maintained. Aso, this would allow a bishop to gauge a priest’s compatibility with a given parish before permanently assigning him as pastor.
There are drawbacks to any arrangement. Leaving pastors in place would not give rise to perfect parishes or solve every problem, any more than the current arrangement does. More stability, however, would at least be more natural. We’re not angels; we’re embodied human beings who build friendships over time and who become attached to particular places. It is in the human and the particular that God meets us. Grace builds on nature. Restoration of stable parish communities would provide a foundation upon which grace could build, and would clear the way for a true renewal of the Church.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Wheat field.