A Visit to the Complaint Department

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Recently I was greeting people at the door of the church following a parish Mass when a lady approached me and said, “Bishop, would you please tell our pastor to put the daily Mass back to 9:00 o’clock instead of 8:00 o’clock where it is now?

He moved it, you know.” “Well, that’s really a local decision that has to be made by the pastor,” I said. “You mean you won’t intervene?” asked the incredulous lady. “Nope,” I said. “I usually don’t get involved in things like that.”

That encounter followed closely on a letter I received from a distraught parishioner demanding to know why I was forcing her beloved pastor into early retirement at the age of 70. “With the shortage of priests you should be encouraging them to stay, not forcing them to go,” insisted the correspondent. I responded that her pastor retired at his own request; that in fact the “official” retirement age in the Church is 75, not 70; that we have a number of priests who are serving well beyond 70; and that her pastor certainly could have stayed on if he wanted to.

It’s not unusual for me to receive personal concerns or letters of complaint from unhappy parishioners. It’s part of the job, as they say. But sometimes, in voicing their complaints, people don’t understand the relationship between the diocese and the parish, the bishop and the pastor. Permit me a few observations, then.

First, it’s almost always impossible for me to get involved in a personal dispute between a pastor and his parishioners, especially since there are two sides to every story and I’m usually not familiar with all the circumstances. For example if someone writes to say that they didn’t like the demeanor of the celebrant of a funeral, there’s not much I can do about that. If someone complains that the pastor was grumpy and scolded them after Mass, there’s not much I can do about that either.

Then, there are many decisions for which the pastor is responsible. If a pastor wants to change the company that prints the Sunday bulletin, or try a new procedure for taking the Sunday collection, or use incense during Mass, or schedule Confirmation on a different day of the week, or plant some flowers or trees on the parish property, etc., etc., he has the discretion to do so. All this presumes, of course, that the pastor isn’t a dictator and that he has a good working relationship with members of the parish.

In short, as the Code of Canon Law reminds us, “the pastor is the proper shepherd of the parish entrusted to him, exercising pastoral care in the community entrusted to him under the authority of the diocesan bishop. . . . In accord with the norm of the law he carries out for his community the duties of teaching, sanctifying and governing,” (Canon 519)

So, the pastor does have lots of local discretion, but with conditions: his authority is exercised “under the authority of the diocesan bishop” and “in accord with the norm of the law.” There are times, then, when a complaint will come to the bishop and he has to intervene.

For example, if the pastor (or any priest) is violating the moral, civil, canonical or liturgical law, the bishop will intervene. If a pastor is violating the rights of the faithful as determined by the law, the bishop will intervene. If the pastor is causing scandal, neglecting his parochial duties, or is derelict in administrating the parish, the bishop will intervene.

Some specific examples might be helpful.

A priest is not free to make up his own Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. A priest cannot decree that in his parish everyone must receive Holy Communion in the hand, and not on the tongue. A priest is not free to violate the tax code, or ignore fire and safety laws in the parish. A priest cannot allow his parish to sink into debt. A priest is not free to be absent from his parish beyond the vacation, retreat time, and days off allotted to him. A priest is not free to embrace a life style that causes scandal. In these situations, and in many others, the bishop can and will intervene.

A few other comments about complaints sent to the bishop’s office might be helpful.

Anonymous letters will almost always be ignored. If people expect the diocese to do something, they have to be willing to identify themselves and stand behind their complaints.

It’s very seldom necessary to send correspondence marked “personal and confidential.” Rather than facilitating a response, such a designation makes the mail more difficult to handle.

When I receive letters of complaint I frequently respond that the concern is a local matter and should first be addressed at that level. Similarly complaints I receive will often be sent to members of diocesan staff to handle, since the staff represents the bishop and has the diocesan history and personal expertise to investigate.

In receiving complaints about diocesan matters, parishes or pastors, I am never swayed by threats of litigation or media coverage. Sometimes disputes will go to court; sometimes the media will be interested. But those possibilities never move me or guide my response.

So, dear readers, if you have complaints and concerns, please don’t hesitate to let me know, but remember that there are limits to what I can and will do. And in sharing our correspondence and conversations with one another, let’s always be guided by the words of St. Paul: “Never have grudges against others, or lose your temper, or raise your voice to anybody, or call each other names, or allow any sort of spitefulness. Be friends with one another, and kind, forgiving each other as readily as God forgave you in Christ.” (Eph 4:31-32)