Interfereniks in the parish
When I was an altar server more than half a century ago, there were so many priests at my parish I could hardly remember all their names. Those were the days when parish priests could pop in every so often and have tea with parishioners, spend hours at sickbeds, and generally live a pretty peaceful, unhurried life with oodles of time for prayer and contemplation.
Itís different now. Any parish that can boast a permanent parish priest can count itself lucky. Priesthood today is a tough, all-consuming job that carries with it all the stresses of corporate life. Priests not only have to juggle parish finances to survive, but have also to be involved in regional and diocesan work along with serving on myriad other committees, advisory boards and charities.
The aforeging is why South African bishops have been calling on the laity to pitch in and help wherever they can to try to take some of the load off overburdened priests.
The problem here, of course, is that too many lay Catholics confuse simple helping out with staging a hostile takeover bid.
A few decades of serving on parish councils and committees has left me with the conclusion that, in wealthy parishes particularly, there are three kinds of parishioners: Those who are completely apathetic and simply go to Mass on Sunday and nothing more. Those who genuinely knuckle down and quietly get on with doing whatever they can to help. And those who involve themselves in parish life with intensity and fervour that is not far short of fanaticism.
These are the parishioners that give priests the biggest challenge of all. Not only because they are volunteers who are by their nature difficult to discipline, but also because a by-product of their often innocent over-enthusiasm is a combination of pettiness and one-upmanship.
Calling for volunteers among parishioners unfortunately also tends to draw out control freaks who inevitably end up going beyond the original notion of fixing broken windows,†tending gardens, doing the flowers, and working in the soup kitchen or at†the bring-and-buy tables.
These are the zealots who take parish priests under their wings, sometimes pretty forcibly, and appoint themselves either his mother, father, sister, brother, spiritual adviser, financial counsellor, social secretary, moral guardian, scriptwriter, and worst of all, have delusions about becoming his concubine, mistress or even wife.
These are the same self-appointed custodians of Catholicism who act as uninvited policemen or secret service agents for the Vatican, making notes of what they consider to be breaches of the dress code, order of the Mass and any vaguely perceived hint of heresy that might be hidden away between the lines of a homily or sermon.
Then, of course, there are those few pillars of the church who indulge in everything from rumour-mongering and frenetic gossip to seriously advocating changes to the ten commandmentsóor worse, adding a few of their own.
There is no question that being a Catholic priest in South Africa is a lot more challenging and stressful than it was when I was a kid and would cycle past the church on my way to and from school, wondering at the serenity of all those priests pacing slowly about the parish rose garden in peaceful, prayerful contemplation.
Some will accuse me of painting such a terrible picture of modern priesthood that the vocations campaign will take a nosedive. Not at all. I believe that one of the things that put a lot of youngsters off the priesthood these days is the perception of a lonely, boring lifestyle bereft of any social interaction or secular challenges.
It is not. Todayís parish priest along with those who work at diocesan level or in seminaries or schools, has everything and more that the average corporate chief executive has, with the only possible exception being a home filled with yelling kids and a wife to turn to for consolation and support.
While the priesthood is and always will be a vocation in the service of God, it does nowadays have the same attributes, challenges and rewards of any secular career one wishes to mention. Including things like holidays, going to the movies and golf.
Todayís priests donít have to be hermits in sackcloth, but it helps a lot if they have enough people-skills to keep over-enthusiastic volunteers under control. Perhaps itís time to give just a little more emphasis at seminaries to giving prospective priests tuition in business management, modern communication techniques and other aspects of marketing involving positive motivation of human beings.