Thursday is one of the most significant days in the calendar of the Catholic
Church. It is the day on which we
celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, the sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood which has been given up and shed for our sake. It is also the day on which the Church commemorates the institution of the sacrament of Holy Orders, recalling the words of our Lord at the last supper: "Do this in memory of me...", Jesus said. Knowing how important the priesthood is to the life of the Church, the following piece has been prepared as a response to current concerns which have been raised about priests.
Many Catholics, and others, are understandably concerned about several widely publicized accounts of scandalous behavior among some priests. An unfortunate consequence of these true stories is a tendency to paint all priests with the same brush. Other articles have also been published which suggest that large numbers of Catholic Priests are not in tune with, attentive to, or concerned about the needs of their parishioners.
The stories we have all read are not the common experience of most Catholic Priests. Most priests just keep on doing what they were ordained to do in spite of the misconduct of some of their “brethren”. Most priests are genuinely saddened and are themselves scandalized by what has occurred. Most priests are very concerned about the effect those stories have among ordinary people---Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The general sense among priests is one of profound regret that the trust people put in Catholic Priests has been violated and abused.
In view of this, it may be helpful for people to read another angle on the lives of priests, and the thought came to mind that a description of what one week in the life of one priest is like would be helpful. Although I speak about my own situation, I know that my experience is duplicated in parishes all over the Archdiocese of Boston.
In my parish, Saint Theresa of Avila in West Roxbury, I spend most of my time experiencing the goodness of the parishioners, trying to encourage them in the practice of their Catholic Faith. This is a large parish. I am assisted by two priests, Father Charles Higgins, full-time and Father Richard Bradford, part-time. Two other priests, Father Raymond Helmick, S.J., and Father James DiPerri, with full time assignments apart from Saint Theresa’s, live in the rectory. We average 2300 – 2500 people at the six Sunday Masses we have on Saturdays and Sundays. We have a Catholic School with 660 students from pre-school to grade eight. Our Religious Education Program has about 500 children and teens participating. We have a CYO program (Catholic Youth Organization) offering monthly meetings and activities, and we have a significant sports program which attracts kids of all ages. In addition, we have programs of adult education, a Moms, Pops, and Tots program, social events for the parishioners, evenings of prayer, parish missions, weekly periods of devotion and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We have three choirs---adults, high school students, children. Each choir rehearses weekly and provides music for Mass and other religious services. All of this, and other activities too numerous to mention, is made possible by an incredible number of parish volunteers. These volunteers, in cooperation with the priests and members of the parish staff, make it all happen!
As the Pastor, I am in constant contact with good and faithful Catholic people. I am conscious of the fact that they look to me for leadership and example, but the fact is that I am daily impressed and inspired by their example and their dedication, goodness, talent and generosity. They make me a better priest, they help me to be more faithful to God and to the Church. Their example of faith-filled lives inspires me to make sure that my life is faith-filled as well. They keep me on my toes, in the sense that I would never want to disappoint them!
Catholics use the image of the Body of Christ to describe the Church. Saint Paul wrote that all the members, many and different as we are, having different offices and talents and responsibilities as we do, nonetheless work together for the good and the health and the integrity of the whole body---the whole Church, the whole parish. And so, I don’t have the sense that the entire operation of this parish depends on me. I know for a fact that a whole group of priests, women religious, lay women and men, young, old, and in between, keep this all together and keep it moving in what I hope is the right direction. For me, it is a privilege to be the person who helps maintain the focus---in our case, the focus is on the Word of God, the teaching and the example of Jesus as it is found in the Scripture and in the tradition and the teaching of the Church.
On most weekends, I celebrate two Masses on Saturdays, often a funeral or wedding in the morning, and, in the afternoon, a Vigil Mass for the Sunday obligation. Also on Saturdays, there is an opportunity to hear confessions and bring people the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord. This is the same in most parishes: Saturday confessions and weekend Masses. As much as I know that I should be at my desk on Monday morning preparing the homily for the following weekend, the sad fact is that ordinarily I write the homily sometime on Saturday. I do make it a point, however, to make sure that the homily is prepared and typed --- it has a beginning, a middle, and an end! I also make sure that I preach what the Catholic Church teaches and let that teaching stand on its own. I cannot improve on it, but I can try to explain it.
all of this, I try just to make the Scripture as meaningful as possible, to
apply it to peoples’ lives, and to encourage them. I learned early on that the
people at Mass don’t need to be made to feel bad about themselves. They need
to feel good about the fact that the Lord loves them,
that Christ died to save us all.
We just need to keep doing the best we can to live as He has taught us.
mornings ordinarily include the celebration of two Masses, assisting with the
distribution of Holy Communion at two other Masses, greeting the parishioners
after all the Masses, and when possible, getting over to the grammar school
Religious Education classes or dropping in to the choir rehearsal between
Masses, or even squeezing in some wedding arrangements for couples who are hard
pressed to get to the rectory during
the week. Three or four Sunday
mornings in the year I take my turn with the RCIA instructions (Rite of
Christian Initiation of Adults)---speaking to adults who are preparing for
Baptism or wish to come into the Catholic Church,
or those who are already baptized Catholics but have not received a
formation in the Catholic Faith.
Sunday afternoons frequently include parish baptisms, and often a wedding. Sometimes we have special events on Sunday like a youth choir concert or an Advent Evening of Reflection for high school students or a Day of Recollection for the Students in the Confirmation Program.
During the week, there are usually several funerals to celebrate, and I share these with the other priests here. In 1999, there were 174 Funerals at Saint Theresa’s. These are occasions where we can comfort people who are mourning, helping them in the midst of sadness and grief to maintain their hope and trust in the goodness of God. The Catholic Faith assures people that in death life is changed, not ended---that eternal life in the presence of God is a reality not a dream. We try to help people focus on what is unseen, not only on what is seen. All of this happens in the course of three services: the wake, the Funeral Mass, and the burial. Each wake and funeral is an opportunity to bring people to a deeper understanding of Christ and His gift of salvation for all of us.
In our parish we have two daily Masses, one at 6:45 AM and one at 4:00 PM, and I share the offering of these Masses with the priests of the parish. Once again I am impressed by the large number of people who attend daily Mass. Their prayerfulness can only move me to be more prayerful myself and to appreciate more the great gift the Lord gave the Church when He instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
As often as I can I visit the classrooms of the school and, on Tuesday evenings, the high school Religious Education classes. In both situations, I find that the kids are receptive to a word of encouragement from a priest and open to any instruction in the Faith I may give them. For all the talk about how alienated high school kids are from the Church, my experience here is that they are connected to the Church despite the busy lives they lead and the pressure they experience to leave the Church behind them. I am always impressed by the large number of high school youth I see at Sunday Mass. They are not only there, but they are very prayerful in their own quiet way. Here is another instance where I am encouraged and supported by the very people I am here to encourage and support in the Faith of the Catholic Church.
We have a large number of older parishioners who remain faithful to Sunday Mass and the reception of the Sacraments. We can only hope that their wisdom and fidelity to God and the Church will spark the consciences of people who excuse themselves from Sunday Mass and help them realize that God is worthy of their attention. Our coming together for Mass every Sunday is a public acknowledgment of our dependence on Him for everything we are and have and do. The present generation of older Catholics has a great deal to offer our parishes through their fidelity to God and to the Church, the example of virtuous lives, faithful marriages, and a sense of the fitness of things.
At Saint Theresa’s Parish, I see large numbers of young parents coming to Mass, bringing their children with them. These families show me that the Faith is important to them. They have a hunger for the things of God and the things of the spirit. They value the life of the Church even as they sometimes experience the human weaknesses that mar the face of the Church from time to time.
I want to make sense to all of these people - young families, children and teens, senior citizens - when I stand in the pulpit of Saint Theresa’s Church and speak as what Saint Paul once described as an… “Ambassador for Christ, God as it were appealing though me…” I would never pretend that I satisfy their need for a coherent appreciation of the teaching of the Church every Sunday, and I would guess that some of them are trying to count the number of pages they may see me place on the pulpit before Mass, but the fact is that they are there at Mass and I do the best I can to encourage them in their understanding and practice of the Catholic Faith.
Parish priests and lay ministers of the Eucharist bring Holy Communion to the homes of the sick and disabled. This is a beautiful reminder to me of how deeply people appreciate the visit of a priest at times of sickness and how much they love the Eucharist. I never cease to marvel at the reverence and the devotion with which they receive the Eucharist in spite of a weakened physical condition. The ministry of a parish priest provides unique opportunities to bring the Lord with him wherever he goes. People receiving the Sacrament of the Eucharist also experience something of the charity and compassion of Christ by the way the priest acts and speaks, by his attitude and bearing, whether the priest is visiting someone who is house bound or visiting someone in a hospital or nursing home.
addition to all of the above, I find myself, as the Pastor, responsible for
an annual budget in the neighborhood of two
This is just a sample of priestly life as I experience it. I know that countless other Catholic Priests in the Boston Archdiocese and all around the United States experience priesthood in the same way. As we live among the people for whom we have been ordained, we do the best we can to serve them. And in doing this, we are constantly motivated to do better because of the goodness we see in the people we try to serve.
When I was a young priest, I had a fabulous pastor, who had been ordained for about as long as I have been ordained now—38 years. His name was Father John Cunningham, and he had the wisdom---and the courage---to put me in charge of several parish organizations. In my youthful brashness, I often told my friends that I was in charge of everything that was organized and Father Cunningham was in charge of everything that was not organized. Years later I know how important both the organized and the unorganized parts of a parish are. I and hundreds of other Catholic Priests here and elsewhere will continue to do the best we can with both, happy to be doing what we were ordained to do, happy to be doing what the Church asks us to do.
Monsignor William M. Helmick
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