Letter from a Suffering Church

Bishop Robert Barron just wrote a short book, Letter to a Suffering Church, in which he confesses the sins of the clergy and shows this is a regular pattern in church history.

He encourages us to stay and fight for holiness in the Church and its clergy. As a permanent deacon, I am a member of the clergy, though ordained only to service. As an investment professional, I am quite familiar how the priests and the bishops are seen by the faithful. It’s not good.

Clericalism is frequently listed as a primary reason for unholiness amongst the clergy, but clericalism seems to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean. So let me speak plainly to a good bishop and priest and formator of priests (we have many Mundelein guys here, and not a dud in the bunch) about the root problem.

For some reason, and I’m guessing it’s from Canon Law, priests and bishops evaluate each other on their administrative skills when considering whether or not to support their advancement. This is the root of the problem.

Why? Many reasons come to mind, but the primary reason is that priests were called by God to their vocation, and their vocation is to serve the sacramental needs of their flock. Pray the Mass and hear confessions: that is the life of a priest. (No priest ever heard the Lord say, “Come follow me. I will make you fishers of money for building projects.”)

Well, that’s supposed to be the life of a priest, but it’s not. In my limited experience in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, pastors and bishops are administrators of staffs, buildings, fundraisers, strategic plans, hospitals, hospices, cemeteries, and they make time for Mass and Confession on their busy schedules. The happiest priests are the senior priests, for they no longer have any meetings, just Masses, weddings, baptisms, and Confessions.

Everything on the administrative list above except Mass and Confession can be better done by a layman or a deacon. And neither a layman nor a deacon can offer the Mass or hear confessions. (Well, we can hear them but we cannot offer absolution. And we’re not bound by the seal, so be careful what you say to us.)

Seminary formation does not include the syllabus one would find at a business school, but priests who want to climb the clerical ladder are evaluated on skillsets for which they do not have training. We can fix this.

Fix number one. Create a parish management committee of at least three persons, one of whom should be the pastor. That committee hires and fires, sets and tracks budgets, plans strategy, pays the bills, and all the other operational activities of the parish. The committee can be volunteers, and it can include deacons. But it should operate in such a way that the presence of the priest is not mandatory. He is free to perform his priestly duties: sanctifying, ruling, and teaching. (There is no munus operandi, so let’s not conflate it with the munus regendi.) If the parish management is going off the rails, nobody should be able to blame the priest. It’s not his job.

Fix number two. The bishop should implement the same structure for the diocese. Let the deacons and the laity administer the temporal goods of the local church. Let the bishops be spiritual fathers to their priestly sons. Change Canon Law as needed to conform with this management structure.

Fix number three. Let the bishop make it clear that the traditional career progression has been upended by upsetting one time the annual priest reassignments. Send the worldly longtime pastor of the rich suburban parish to the countryside where he can revitalize his vocation and replace him with the priest best known for reverent Masses and hours spent in the box. Let your sons know that holiness, not budget size, is what the bishop really values.

Let the bishop lead by example. Sell the house where he lives alone, and move into one of the rectories to live in community with his brother priests. If there are auxiliary bishops, have all the bishops live together or each in a different rectory with the parish priests.

The only paid staff a bishop should have is his driver if he cannot drive himself. Everything else should come out of those management committees described above. If a bishop today cannot function with email, a cellphone and Google calendar, it’s time to retire. Big staffs are a huge problem creating distance between the shepherd and his flock.

When the faithful see that the clergy love Christ more than money, power, or honor, the Churches will be filled with people, the money will come, and the priests will be honored.

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