"Are you willing to sacrifice an entire parish for the sake of one incompetent, uncaring priest?"
That's the question presented to me in a letter I received from a parishioner very unhappy with her pastor. I'll attempt to answer the question, but first, a little background.
One of the most important and challenging tasks of a bishop is the assignment of priests. Like most bishops I don't make clergy assignments arbitrarily, but only after careful consideration and consultation with others, including the Priest Personnel Board.
For better or worse, the assignment of priests these days involves the fine art of negotiation. In assigning priests we're obliged to consider, first of all, the pastoral needs of the Diocese because a man is ordained with the full understanding, in obedience, that he will be sent by the bishop to serve the needs of the Church wherever they might be.
We also try to evaluate the personal needs and limitations of each priest. A number of questions are considered: Are the unique gifts and talents of this priest suited for this particular parish? Will he get along with the others with whom he will live and work? Will his health allow him to fulfill the duties of his assignment? Is he the primary caregiver of his parents or other family members and will that affect his availability? Sometimes there are other confidential matters not subject to public scrutiny.
More often than not, the faithful of the Diocese are very grateful for and supportive of their priests. People are understandably unhappy when a favorite priest is moved. Nonetheless, the transfer of priests is a normal and, I believe, healthy practice for the Church as well as the priests.
Sometimes I receive letters from people who are not happy with their priest and they request, even demand, that he be transferred. Once in awhile these requests take the form of letter-writing campaigns that quickly become negative and divisive of the parish.
In some cases, I receive letters from both sides ¬ for and against a particular priest. What's a bishop to do?
As you reflect on the assignment of priests then, I hope you'll consider two points.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that priests aren't perfect. We're all aware of a few priests who have fallen short of the mark, who have not lived up to the promises of their ordination day. And not all priests are the same. They possess a variety of personalities and temperaments, gifts and talents.
Without diminishing at all the special nature of the priestly call and office, we have to be patient when our priests don't live up to our personal expectations. If a priest fails or offends you, try to forgive him. We need to recognize as St. Paul did 2000 years ago, that servants of the Lord are "earthen vessels". (Cf. II Cor 4:7)
The second point is that by Catholic law and theology priests are the leaders of the parish community. The Code of Canon Law says that: "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 whose ministry he has been called to share . . . He carries out for his community the duties of teaching, sanctifying and governing." (Canon 519)
Clearly, the pastor has the duty to form a community that is one, holy, catholic and apostolic; to instill a Catholic vision in full conformity with the Universal Church. In exercising his authority, however, the pastor works most effectively when he listens to his people, when he engages them in a careful process of dialogue. He's not alone in his work, and it's important that he gathers a parish staff and volunteers who will share his vision and work closely with him for the good of the Church.
So to return to the question at the beginning of this article: "Are you willing to sacrifice an entire parish for the sake of one incompetent, uncaring priest?" The answer of course is no, but it's wrong to assume that your priest is incompetent and uncaring. Perhaps he doesn't possess a cheerful personality and ruffles parochial feathers on a weekly basis. Maybe his vision of the Church and style of management clash with yours. And perhaps he makes changes in the programs, practices and schedules to which you've grown accustomed. But that's a little different than saying he's incompetent and uncaring.
The unity of the Church is a precious gift for which Jesus lived and died. Therefore, it's always my prayer that priest and people will work together in the name of Christ and for the good of His Church. I hope that the faithful will respect, support and pray for their priests. And I expect priests to listen carefully to their people, to speak to them gently, and to care for them with love.
God promised His people, "I will give you shepherds after my own heart." (Jer 3:15) The Church does its very best to carry on the work of Jesus the Good Shepherd, by training, ordaining and sending effective and compassionate priests. But keep in mind, short of Jesus Himself, there's no such thing as a perfect shepherd.