Sunday, November 05, 2017

When Priests Don’t Meet Your Expectations

The Bishop's 'Cathedra' in the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Providence.

(Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on November 5, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 23: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-first Sunday 2017]

Some of you have probably heard this before, but it bears repeating today:

If a priest preaches more than 10 minutes, they say he’s long-winded.  If his homily is short, they say he didn’t prepare it well.  If the parish funds are in the black, they say he has business savvy.  If he mentions money, they say he’s money-mad.  If he visits his parishioners, they say he’s nosy; if he doesn’t, they say he’s a snob.  If he has dinners and bazaars, they say he’s bleeding the people; if he doesn’t, they say there’s no life in the parish.  If he takes time in the reconciliation room to advise sinners, they say he takes too long.  If he doesn’t, they say he doesn’t care.  If he celebrates Mass in a quiet voice, they say he’s boring; if he puts emphasis in his words, they say he’s an actor.  If he starts Mass on time, they say his watch must be fast; if he starts late, they say he’s holding up the people.  If he’s young, they say he’s inexperienced; if he’s old they say he ought to retire.

I guess that last one applies to me now (probably a few of the others do as well—but we won’t go there!).

The point of this little reflection, of course, is that sometimes people have expectations of their priests and religious leaders that are excessive and unrealistic.  Not even St. Peter or St. Paul could live up to them.

And sadly, these unmet expectations sometimes cause people to leave the Church and abandon their Catholic faith—and, in certain extreme cases, to lose their faith in Jesus entirely and perhaps even to abandon their belief in God.

Just the other day a woman emailed me about a priest who embarrassed and humiliated her publicly (this didn’t happen locally—let me make that clear), and she was honest about the fact that she was hurt so deeply by what he did that she was tempted, for a moment at least, to abandon her faith entirely.

Thankfully she didn’t.  But others have in similar circumstances.

This problem of religious leaders who don’t practice what they preach is nothing new, and it’s certainly not something that’s peculiar to the Catholic Church.  Every religious group has experienced it—including the Jews of the first century (as Jesus makes clear in the gospel text we just heard from Matthew 23).  Our Lord says there, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.”  One note of clarification here: This wasn’t literally an old chair from the time of Moses that the scribes and Pharisees took turns sitting on!  The “chair” in this text is a symbol: a symbol of authority—a symbol of the legitimate religious authority that the scribes and Pharisees had in the Jewish community of the time.

We employ the same symbolism in the Catholic Church today when we use the word “cathedral” to describe the principal church of a diocese.  The English word “cathedral” comes from the Latin word “cathedra” which means “seat”.  A cathedral, therefore, is the place where the bishop has his “seat”—which is literally a chair (the big, presidential chair in the sanctuary) which only he is allowed to sit in during Mass.  If I or any other priest celebrates Mass in a cathedral, we have to sit in another chair—because only the diocesan bishop possesses the authority that the “cathedra” (the big chair) symbolizes.

The scribes and Pharisees taught the people the Mosaic Law, so in a certain sense they possessed the authority of Moses in the first century Jewish community. And because they had this legitimate authority Jesus tells his disciples, “You must obey them!”

“The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.  Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.  For they preach but they do not practice.”

I think Jesus would say something similar to us today when we encounter an uncharitable priest (or bishop or deacon) like that woman did whom I mentioned earlier in my homily. 

He’d say, “Yes, you must obey them when they tell you to live the Gospel, but don’t do the things they do.”

This is a very important message for you to take to heart, my brothers and sisters, because God does not want your faith damaged or destroyed by an unpleasant encounter with “Father Pharisee”—or when your parish priest fails in some way to meet your expectations.

And it CAN be damaged or destroyed in such circumstances, as I said earlier—especially if your expectations are excessive and unrealistic.

Which leads to this very interesting question: What should you expect of your priests?

What are some realistic expectations that you should have of your clergy?

Well, here are a few that I think you should have …
  •  You should expect them to believe—not just in God and Jesus, but also in everything the Catholic Church teaches and professes to be revealed by God.  Basically that means everything in the Bible and the Catechism.  That’s what we expect of converts to the Catholic faith, so it shouldn’t be too much to expect the same thing of our clergy.

You should also expect them to teach these doctrines—and not their own personal opinions—to their congregations.
  •  You should expect your bishops, priests and deacons to acknowledge the fact that they’re sinners on the same pilgrimage that you’re on—like Pope Francis did when he was elected to the papacy and was asked to describe himself.  He said, very simply, “I am a sinner.”  That kind of humility goes a long way in ministry.
  •  You should expect your clergy to avoid scandalous behavior, and to pursue holiness in their personal lives.  That’s just basic Christianity 101!
  • You should expect your clergy to be obedient to the authorities that God has placed over them—especially their bishops.  Some priests, unfortunately, are not obedient to their bishops, and yet they expect their parishioners to be obedient to them!  That’s wrong!
  •  You should expect your bishops, priests and deacons to have the courage to address the hard issues of the day (like abortion and euthanasia and so-called “gay marriage”).  In other words, you should expect them not to be spiritual wimps!
  •  You should expect them to avoid opulence and materialism.
  •  You should expect them to live simple, detached lives.
  •  You should expect them to care about the poor and those in need.
  •  You should expect them to be men of prayer—who even pray about their ministry, so that God can help them to see what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong, and what he wants them to do next.
  •  And, of course, you should expect them to be men devoted to the sacraments of the Church.

Those are all reasonable, realistic expectations.  There’s nothing outlandish or excessive about them.  So in closing I ask you to pray for us!  Pray for all bishops, priests and deacons in the Church today: pray that we will meet or exceed all these expectations in everything that we do.

And if we fail to meet them from time to time because of our human weaknesses (like the scribes and the Pharisees failed), don’t give up on your Catholic faith, and certainly don’t stop praying for us—because that’s precisely when we need your prayers the most.