The National Catholic Review
Michael Heher

Recently I received a flyer in the mail inviting me to a clergy workshop that promised to help me cope creatively. It’s being conducted by a friend of mine, a priest of faultless intentions, and will be given by a presenter known nationally as an expert on what the brochure calls the current crunch. I will not be attending; the last thing I believe I should do is cope, no matter how creatively.

It is well known, of course, that we priestsall across Americaare beset. My diocese is not as bad as others, but it is bad enough. We have roughly the same number of priests active in ministry as we had 25 years ago, a feat unmatched by most U.S. dioceses. But the population of our local church has increased to nearly four times the size it was back then. My own parish now verges on 5,000 registered families, and all these additional people expect marriages, baptisms, funerals and the like. When I finish my morning shower, I often feel like simply tossing an alb over my nakedness, as that’s the garmentespecially on weekendsI’ll be wearing most often that day.

The parishioners I greet at the altar and at parish gatherings come from all over the globe. Throughout December we have extravagant celebrations for La Griteria with our Nicaraguan expatriates, processions for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Las Posadas with our Mexican immigrants and Simbang Gabi Masses with our assimilating Filipinos. Then there’s Christmas, for those with any energy left. Our parishes not only need more priests, but priests able to speak and minister in an escalating variety of native languages and changing cultures. As someone who comes to languages slowly and poorly, I have to force myself out to greet my parishioners at the church doors before and after the Spanish Mass. Reduced to the communication skills of a two-year old, I make many mistakes, and my misunderstandings only increase my sense of isolation and vulnerability. Today I thought a man was asking me about an item in the parish bulletin, only to discover he was really listing for me the schedule of activities for an upcoming feast day. Celebrating Mass and reading my homily in Spanishthere is little chance right now of my speaking extemporaneouslyis the most exhausting and frustrating thing I do, and I’m sure it is no less exhausting and frustrating for my hearers. Our retired bishop is fond of saying, This is not the cruise I signed up for, and every time he does, the whole presbyterate laughs with recognition.

So there are very good reasons why my confreres and I should be attracted to creative coping techniques. Most of us get up each day and do whatever seems most useful, while facing mounting evidence that our pastoral efforts are falling further and further behind. When a Spanish-speaking penitent comes to me, seeking a little consejo with her confession, I fail her; I am lucky if I comprehend enough of her whispered words to ascertain her overarching topic of concern, let alone the details about which she wants advice. Whether you call it a crunch or a crisis, as others have labeled it, it is a tough place to be. We can be forgiven for feeling like victims.

It seems to me, however, that our situation is well past the point where coping will be enough to do us much good. Besides, as a pastoral strategy, coping may well be part of what has brought us to these daunting days. With worthy but misguided intentions, we have been proclaiming a false gospel of fulfilling needs over the years and, to meet these needs, pastors have hired and now must coordinate and supervise a large lay staff. Our burgeoning parishes feel more like social service agencies than the traditional parishes we remember so fondly. When large immigrant populations started to swell our parishes, I suppose we believed, or perhaps hoped (to the extent that we thought it out at all), that the immigrants were not going to be here very long or would keep to themselves if they stayed. We were glad for the assistance of priests from their own native landsor priests who at least were able to speak their languages. Since it seemed so temporary, we eagerly subcontracted out our ethnic populations to them.

The priests who came here to minister to their ethnic communities did what we ourselves didn’t do often enough: they lived across two or more cultures, learning to negotiate between worlds for the sake of themselves and their flocks. But this allowed us to imagine these brothers and sisters as primitive souls who should be preserved in the old traditions, kept pure from assimilation into the larger culture around them.

This is not how most of them saw themselves. More often than not, they and the priests who came with them possessed more pragmatic aspirations. And they surely detected in our romantic stereotype an unconscious prejudice against their self-determination. There were and continue to be many conflicts and misunderstandings between ministers of different cultures. We jump to conclusions about their concern about stipends, stole fees and proper forms of respect; they gape at us, astonished by our fascination with whatever is new, not to mention our materialism and enthusiastic egalitarianism. I show my respect by inviting the priests with whom I work to offer their own opinions; out of respect, the Asian parochial vicars find it exceedingly difficult to differ from me in public, or even in private. Looking back, I have learned to appreciate the wisdom of much of what I first misjudged, and I am not the only one. A lot of us have incorporated useful styles and strategies that we learned from one another. But now the number of priests immigrating has greatly slowed, and, as many of those still here are approaching retirement, we are hard-pressed to find priests from anywhere to take their places.

A friend of mine once announced to his startled staff that the parish is not my fault, and he was right. The challenges we face are clearly bigger than what any of us have caused or can now undo. Since the advent of the jumbo jet, for example, nobody in the world seems to stay put. Pity the poor pastor in rural Indiana; when the local turkey processing plant recruits scores of workers from villages in Mexico, his parish doubles in size and turns bilingual overnight. We have made many mistakes and have committed plenty of sins, but we have not created this crunch. The voice telling us that our present efforts can somehow manage to control or overcome our circumstances is nothing but the barking of our wounded hubris. Can the stresses of this global demographic upheaval be contained if I as a priestor we as a diocesesomehow learn a few new coping techniques? Will vocations mushroom if we put together a clever new billboard advertising campaign? Will priests restore the confidence we lost through our highly publicized scandals by heartfelt jubilee pleas of regret and repentance? Will our ethnic communities feel at home if a Scripture reading and a couple of the general intercessions are read in their native languages at the Midnight trilingual Mass? Not in the long run, they won’t. As places to start, these may be as good as any, but they are far too modest to overcome the inertia that weighs against any forward movement. They don’t inspire, because they don’t penetrate minds and hearts deeply enough. They only keep things moving along.

As my parishioners and staff will tell you, I get tired and am often irritable, and I frequently have no idea what’s coming next. Yes, I fall into a survival mode sometimes and get through many days with the help of a few pet coping devices of my ownnone, I presume, that require a workshop to learn. But I know this is not the way I should act. My most serious sin is probably not so much the ways I try to cope as the attitude that depends on them so willingly. When I blow a fuse, it is not for lack of technique; it is from taking my role and myself too seriously and expecting too little from God or my parishioners. It is because I have been too much the C.O.O. of Parish Incorporated and not reflective enough to help bring our disparate community together to live the Gospel life.

When I look out from the altar at Mass on Sundays, I don’t see a depressing world of diminished possibilities, from which I want to withdraw. I see disciples with a quick and lively energynot all, mind you, but an amazing crowd when you add them up. Together they know all the languages and cultures the church needs. The silver lining of the crunch is that the baptized no longer assist father or serve as sister’s helpers. They are recovering their identity as the ministering Body of Christ. For all the priests God hasn’t sent us, we have been given talented, highly motivated and skilled laypeople who are willing to serve.

More often than not, I find myself grateful for being a priest. I’d be bored filling my days with nothing more taxing than Communion calls and a visit to the eighth grade classroom. Yes, I would welcome a slower pace; and one day it may come, as more and more laypeople grow into roles of leadership. But I believe I am becoming a better priest, even slightly more spiritual, through the frequent experience of being overwhelmed and having, over and over, to let go of the way I want things to work. If anything will cast out the devil of clericalism, I think it will be the poverty required of priests and other ministers in our circumstances. By living messily across cultures and habitually confronting my own and my parishioners’ unreachable expectations, I am fed a daily dose of vulnerability that keeps expanding my heart beyond the narrow-minded and ethnocentric. I call it grace.

I continue to learn my lines so I can limpingly read a Gospel passage in Tagalogone of the major languages spoken in The Philippinesand a eucharistic prayer in Spanish. I also continue to pray earnestly for an increase in church vocations. The laity, in our tradition, do not do it all. But I sense that the graces being offered are other than what I had been counting on or hoping for. They brush up sharp against me with demands and complications; they do not look, at first glance, particularly appealing. Even though I know what they are, they still scare me.

God is not measured. Despite our protestations, God continues to push us beyond our strength; it happens to me almost every day. But in this experience I believe I begin to find the real answers to my prayer and pastoral longing. This I will not exchange for the passing pleasures of easy does it and the measured world of modest goals. I won’t cope. I don’t believe that coping is the best I can do in these circumstances. What I really want to do is thrive. To keep pace with my thriving community, I must somehow thrive.

I am sure of this: leaders who can do no better than cope will attract another generation of leadersof whatever gender or state in lifewho will do no better than cope. And of all the things we don’t need, we most don’t need that. My parish is under the patronage of St. Irenaeus, a master of impenetrable theological prose, but one statement of his keeps coming back to me: The glory of God is the fully alive human being. Fully alive human beingschallenged and overworked, vulnerable and confused, those desperate enough to take risks and passionate enough to suffer whatever is necessaryonly these will attract similar fully alive human beings willing to risk their whole lives on the church’s holy mission.

The Rev. Michael Heher is the pastor of Saint Irenaeus Parish in Cypress, Calif. His essay “Why We Still Need Theologians” appeared in The Convergence of Theology: A Festschrift Honoring Gerald O’Collins, S.J., publis

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