This is the Real Life of a Parish Priest
Recently at Mass, at the General Intercessions, there was a prayer that went something like “May the priests of the Church always know and experience the support and care of the faithful”.
I nearly choked. The priesthood is a lightning rod for so many emotions and reactions. I’d like you to spare a thought for your very human priests.
You might not like the way we work. You might take exception to our personalities and actions. The best parish priest is always the one who was there before the present one. There is always a comparison with this priest or that priest.
In one of the parishes I worked in, I eventually got so frustrated by all this that I blurted out that all I wanted to be was a personal pronoun!
The priesthood that we live is rapidly changing. The old certainties of a cookie-cutter priesthood have fallen away. The priesthood has become a very contentious position to be in.
The grand priesthood that I remember growing up with, and the certainty to which I was attracted at the beginning of a vocation, has all but disappeared. The black-robed, Roman-collared phalanx is no more. And I’m not sure if we have found a defining metaphor to replace it with.
We generally don’t live in community as diocesan priests. We often serve many parishes and outstations. We are responsible not only for the spiritual lives of a community, but we are also placed in overall charge of all the canonical, civil and statutory requirements of being the responsible person in a community.
We were generally adequately prepared for the spiritual work of the priesthood. We were coached in preaching (oh yes, we were!). We were taught how to validly and licitly administer the sacraments. We had incredible teachers in scripture, dogma, psychology and history.
But we were hopelessly unprepared for the real-life work of priesthood. We were often dumped into situations where we were left to sink-or-swim.
We priests are a class of self-trained management experts and banking, fraud investigation, SARS compliance, labour law, building regulations and all other compliance seekers. We have to train ministers and catechists, be paedagogues, experts in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults—and still find the space for ourselves.
I consider myself a generalist. I’m no expert in anything, just a parish priest. I know that this is what my vocation is calling me to at this point in my life.
There are days I wish it wasn’t my vocation. I’d love to be in rarified academia or in a desk job position. But this is not to be—this is not the reality of being on the forefront of an emerging vision of the priesthood.
The challenges we diocesan priests in South Africa face are formidable. There are nowhere near enough good men to go around. Our lives are stressful and pressurised. We often have to work alone.
Many communities don’t have the wherewithal to employ support staff for simple things like secretarial and financial work—never mind the absolute luxury of catechetical directors or directors of music.
Our bishops desire a collaborative ministry and this is something we actively buy into. But this is not always that easy to do.
In a typical week, I will prepare for Sunday from Monday. I will try to find time to meet with my pastoral team—I’m blessed with an assistant priest and a permanent deacon.
I have to keep an eye on the parishioners in hospital—itself not easy as we’re increasingly not allowed into hospitals except during visiting hours.
I might have one or two funerals to organise. I need not only to watch out for the organisation of the funeral, but also—most importantly—provide a spiritual contact space for bewildered families.
I might do spiritual direction with some, counselling with others, prepare couples for marriages and occasionally for their weddings, meet with the book-keeper, prepare for pastoral council meetings and finance committee meetings.
I also prepare for an hour-long programme on Radio Veritas, which takes about three hours of preparation work, plus my travelling time from Pretoria to Johannesburg and back.
We diocesan priests often come home to no food, no company and an empty space. There’s very little of a caring environment for our own safe space.
I am also guardian of the liturgy, making sure that ministries function and are trained. The noble, simple beauty of the liturgy seldom just happens. Ministries need coordinating, mostly gently but occasionally with a firm hand. Liturgical ministry oversight often is like herding cats.
Add to this the changing face of the Church at large and the Church in particular: the parish. It’s often only the priest who is the full-time parish worker and who has the bigger view of what is happening in the parish.
Sometimes this means that we have to stay the course, choose a direction and hold to it. This might not be the most popular way of being. But it is the best way we know how.
I suppose that we are natural content of your Sunday lunch table talk, your neighbour groups, your messaging. But when we are, just be aware that we too have all the natural and moral rights of persons and disciples.
Often I feel deeply frustrated that we’re talked about but rarely talked to…
Spare then a thought when we also don’t sleep, have family issues, have health issues, are not always perfect examples, are disappointed in you, are short or grumpy or don’t remember your name and entire life story with perfect recall.
We priests are human too, and we’re also on the journey of Christian discipleship.