Presented The 2001 Distinguished Service Award to
Monsignor John J. Enzler
Pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish
October 26, 2001
The Parish ---- Where Church Happens
While I am very gratified by this honor, I am even more pleased that the Washington Theological Union recognizes the importance of the parish priesthood, and has allowed me to represent my brother priests who work daily for the good of their people.
As you may suspect from the title of my talk, I firmly believe that church happens in the parish. No one doubts the influence of church teachings, papal encyclicals, and the importance of our own archdiocesan guidelines. For most people, however, it is primarily the parish that fosters Christ’s presence among parishioners, not these documents. The parish is the heart of everyday spirituality. While some may find their fulfillment in other institutions, a particular ministry, or in a religious community, it is the parish that foremost makes Church present to us.
Its importance was especially evident in the recent terrorist attacks. The religion section of the Washington Post reported that more people approached their clergy for assistance than sought help from psychologists, social workers and other care-giving institutions during the crisis. Attendance in most of our churches has risen noticeable, and people are searching for answers. If we don’t deal well in responding, a certain letdown is sensed. Although most priests aren’t outstanding theologians, they are a very sought-after resource in troubling times. Hopefully with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we will meet the challenge.
Let me begin by posing the question: in our busy, active world, how can we respond to each other, collaborate, and thus create a fruitful relationship between a pastors and their people?
Three principles I personally use help answer this.
Say, “yes” in every pastoral situation where it is possible, and “no” only when you must do so.
Let the laity take their rightful place. After all, they do share the priesthood through their baptism.
There is a priestly identity. Let’s not lose it in the effort to encourage more lay participation.
Regarding the first principle, I have to wonder if we priests and lay ministers have lost our ability, or our desire to find good ways to say “yes” in daily situations, and only say “no” when we have to? I believe that in many ways we have become nay Sayers! One reason is that multiple, difficult expectations make it easier to say “no” than “yes.” This leads me to further ask: how really open are we as pastoral ministers to the needs of our people?
I am in no way suggesting that we disregard church teaching in moral and doctrinal issues. What I suggest is that there are many events in everyday ministry that challenge our flexibility in responding to people’s needs. I am sometimes shocked about hearing of a person desperately looking for support and compassion who is turned away by a pastor, the associate, or a pastoral minister. Now I know we can’t do everything for everyone, but in many cases the appropriate response to a request on our time and talents should be a straightforward and simple, “yes.”
When I was ordained twenty-eight years ago, the Church was in, what you might call, “a seller’s market” because of the high esteem it enjoyed. Few people would dream of not following the leadership of their priests. It was taken for granted that people responded to everyday parish life in this way. Even if you disagreed with the Church’s teachings or the pastor’s interpretations of them, you either followed those teachings, or felt you were removed from “the club.”
Today, we live in a “buyer’s market”, which means that anyone fifty or younger is scrutinizing the Church. It’s more common for parishioners to leave the Church because they don’t like a pastor’s mode of operating; they feel more welcomed in other parishes, or they find a better sense of community in other religious denominations. People aren’t always buying what the Church is selling.
Personally, I believe people primarily turn away because they don’t feel welcomed. They leave because when they ask to have their child baptized and aren’t practicing their faith, as they should, they receive an emphatic “no!” People leave because they are told “no” they can’t be married because of not meeting parish requirements. This important time in their life requires we find some create way to be more accepting and take them where they are at, even if they don’t fit our criteria.
Let me share with you an example on this point. Let’s say you grew up in a community where you and your family always went to the same store. Your parents shopped at Hecht’s when they bought your baptismal robe. They purchased your first fancy shoes there for your First Communion. When it came time for you to graduate from grade school, they found the perfect gift in the ‘Teen Department.” When it came time to get married, you “registered” for your wedding gifts, and the attendants at your wedding shopped for shower gifts at Hecht’s. After your marriage, you move away from where you grew up to another neighborhood not too far away. When your first child arrives, you return to Hecht’s to buy a baptismal garment, but are told that since you haven’t used your Hecht’s credit card for some years, they cannot honor it.
If this sounds ridiculous, it is! But don’t we do the same thing in parishes when we refuse a family the chance to receive the sacraments because they have not been active in our parish for some time? In a “seller’s market”, the Church could call the shots and very few would leave. But in today’s “buyer’s market” many young people don’t come back to church. A simple “yes” to a couple not practicing their faith may be the most important means we possess to touch them at this most vulnerable moment in their life.
A true story will help us better understand what I mean.
Recently, I received a call from a former parishioner who had been asked to be a godparent, and needed verification that she was a practicing Catholic. When I questioned her about this, she said she didn’t practice it. I then asked what kind of godparent she would make if she didn’t go to church on Sunday? How could her goddaughter depend upon her good example? After further challenging her, I struck a deal. I would write the letter, if she would promise to live up to her obligations as a Catholic, as well as the new obligation of being the spiritual guide for her goddaughter. She confided that she wanted to return to church, and also added she had a sixteen-month old baby. She ended up promising me that she would do her best to practice her faith.
I wrote the letter, stating that I knew she had been married at our parish, and had promised to be a faithful Catholic in the future. The letter was not exactly what her parish priest wanted, but I suspect it sufficed.
Many priests might have said, “no.” Who could blame them? Yet, by saying “yes”, and spending a few precious moments in conversation, I learned that her family had the potential for being good Catholics, and active parishioners.
I want to emphasize that I am not talking about waffling on church doctrine, or downplaying church requirements. I am speaking about the many decisions that require a “yes”, or “no.” Our vibrant and ready “yes” is one of our most important tools for evangelization.
Let’s now turn to the principle: let the laity take their rightful place.
As saying “yes” can enrich ministry, so too, we must say yes to those who are seeking more personal involvement in our parishes. Priests need to be open to sharing their workload with the laity. Here, I am talking about empowerment. “Yes” means giving power to the laity when they have the skills, charisms and gifts to accomplish the work of the Church.
Sometimes, church leaders employ subtle little tricks that hurt the parish like responsibility being given without authority. Often this is done unconsciously. This results in micro-management, frustration, hard feelings, and worst of all, diminishes the work of the Church.
I truly believe leadership is the habit of making other people successful. In our parishes this means empowering lay people to reach their full potential.
The Archdiocese of Washington has just begun an effort to enhance our stewardship in response to God’s gifts, and we hearing the three “Ts” --- time, talent and treasure. When Cardinal McCarrick instituted this renewal in Newark, he identified more than twelve thousand volunteers and invited them to join in the ministries and apostolates of the archdiocese.
When we reflect on how Jesus chose twelve apostles, and then how Newark identified twelve thousand, it raises the question: what new efforts should the Church make in inviting laypersons? One suggestion this surfaces is a model in which power and control shift from the pastor to thousands of volunteers. If this were done ever so little, we would have all the workers we need in the vineyard to buildup God’s Kingdom. People need to be given a direct invitation, and then empowered! When this is accomplished, it results in an awesome collective force of parishioners stronger than ever for spreading the gospel.
One reality check needs to be addressed here. More often than not our work and problems are increased when we invite more assistance. New ministers require training and the work this requires. The dividends, however, far outweigh the work, resulting in the realization that the Spirit is calling us to a new awakening.
Now to my final principle: there is a priestly identity, let’s not lose it in the effort to encourage more lay participation.
Recently, Fr. Stephen Rossetti spoke on priestly identity and began with this story.
As a newly appointed pastor was vesting for Sunday liturgy, the head Eucharistic minister who was assigning Eucharistic stations turned to him and said: “Father, you will be giving out Communion in the choir loft”, and then added in a loud voice, “That’s so people will see there is no difference between the priest and everyone else.”
I strongly believe that the dramatic decline in vocations is because young men and women see no difference between the priesthood, religious life, and working actively in the church as a layperson. If you are held in high esteem by parishioners, and are perceived to be exactly the same as the priest or religious on staff, why make additional commitments like religious vows and promises?
Fr. Rossetti then went on to say: being equal doesn’t mean being the same.
Often in our democratic society we equate equality with being the same. We are also quick to reject discrimination. This carries into our parishes and creates the feeling there’s no difference between the priest and everyone else.
Yes, God created us all equal, but our equality doesn’t take away our differences. In the scriptures and tradition we learn that God chose certain people for special roles in salvation history. When Jesus chose the apostles, he didn’t suggest that they were better than others. In fact, it might be argued that they were occasionally all too human. Yet, they were chosen to take on special responsibilities.
To quote Fr. Rossetti: “Throughout sacred scripture, we see evidence that some men and women were called to unique relationships with God, not because they were better than others, but simply because God chose them. Take, for example, Amos who says, “I am no prophet. I am a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores. The Lord took me from my flocks and said: ‘Go prophesy to my people Israel’.” This principle of being chosen by God is also repeated frequently in the lives of men and women mystics who were recipients of unique revelations.
If the priesthood is to recover a sense of its own identity, it must eschew the mantra that priests are the same as everyone else. While they are decidedly human and thus inherently flawed by sin, priests enjoy a unique grace for working for the good of the People of God. Priesthood has a specific identity, and unique gifts needed for the good of the Church. This doesn’t make the priest better, but different. Let’s not lose sight of his special role.
In conclusion, I would like to say how privileged I feel in working with more than twenty theological students from the Washington Theological Union. I have been very impressed with the quality of their discernment and their theological formation. My hope for each student assigned to pastoral ministry is that they apply the excellent theology they received from an outstanding faculty who see that the Church really happens in the parish. I hope that the experience of each student will prepare him or her for an active, holy and full ministry. The excellent teaching they received combined with theological reflection and pastoral work is a combination that’s hard to beat.
It is truly a pleasure to be honored by the Washington Theological Union. While giving lectures is not my forte, I feel very fortunate to be able to speak on these three hopes and dreams for the Church. I am proud of my priesthood, and all priests strive to do in the name of Jesus. I am proud of our lay people and the way they continue to increase their services and outreach to others. May all of us find more ways to say, “yes” in the image of Jesus. Let us find a way to say “no” only when we have to.
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