Parish Life Seen Through the Eyes of our Priests
This first week in July is a very special time in our archdiocese. Our eight newly-ordained priests begin their priestly ministry at the parish to which they were assigned. Pastors and associate priests, formally called “parochial vicars,” who have received new assignments also this week move to their new parish home.
As I noted at our ordination Mass on June 25, no one comes to their ordination to the priesthood all alone. These men come surrounded by family, friends and the whole Church. Furthermore, in a very profound sense they will never be alone in their priestly ministry. Joined now in the brotherhood of priests, they will also have with them the love of the rest of their spiritual family, including in a special way the faithful whom they will serve.
For all of these priests, there will be some difficult “goodbyes” and some nervous “hellos.” Yet, some of our more senior priests who have made this move a number of times know that while every parish has a unique personality, the rhythm of parish life is a constant.
In fact, since the time of the Acts of the Apostles, when the first Christian community was formed, the life of the Church has revolved around prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist and worship, the preparation of people to be baptized and on-going formation in the faith, the gathering of the community for fellowship, the outreach to the widows and the poor and the administration of the goods of the community (Acts 2:42-47).
These are the five core areas of parish life: worship, education, community, service and administration. In each of our parishes, within these five areas there are numerous ministries that are vital to vibrant community life. It is the role of the pastor, working collaboratively with the parochial vicar(s), pastoral staff and parishioners to see that the educational needs of parishioners are being met, that the outreach provided is meeting the needs of the most vulnerable people in the community, that the worship is varied and rich, that there are opportunities for the community to come together to celebrate as a family, and that the parish pastoral council and finance councils are meeting regularly and keeping an eye on the mission of the parish.
Through the eyes of the newly-ordained priests we can gain insight into the rich variety of ministries that take place in all of our parishes every day, each of them a ministry of Christ’s love and truth. Recently, I was speaking with a pastor who said that he thinks that what is most important for a new “Father” in his first year of priestly ministry is to concentrate on learning how to preach effectively and how to administer the sacraments. In his mind, rather than diving into the more administrative aspects of parish ministry, he gives the priest as much time as possible to administer the sacraments and to accompany people as they seek to live out and continue to grow in their faith.
Through this lens, we see the rich variety of priestly ministry – in preparing homilies for daily Mass and for the Sunday liturgies, in daily visits to parishioners who are hospitalized or homebound, and in offering the healing grace of Anointing of the Sick and Reconciliation. These young priests begin to gain invaluable experience in seeing theological concepts such as the meaning of suffering or the burden of sin or in the transmission of the faith come alive in the unique experience of a particular individual.
These experiences become invaluable in informing the priest’s preaching and teaching. These young priests begin to learn how to say something in a homily, but also how not offer a homily when sitting at the bedside of a parishioner! One young priest shared that his preaching at the school Mass has improved because he started packing a lunch and going over to the school to eat with the school kids and learn what was on their minds, what questions they were asking about the faith. In many ways, the parishioner or young student is as much a teacher to the new priest as he is to them.
Newly-ordained priests also have the luxury of accompanying parishioners as they carry out their ministries, making a retreat with the youth group or offering a day of reflection for the Knights of Columbus, serving as chaplain for the young adults group or packing groceries at the food pantry. Time spent with parishioners involved in parish activities is time spent learning good collaboration skills.
Hopefully, this first year of ministry will be a year of great joy for our new priests. As Pope Francis said at the ordination of a group of priests: “Remember that you are taken from among men and appointed on their behalf for those things that pertain to God. Therefore, carry out the ministry of Christ the Priest with constant joy and genuine love, attending not to your own concerns but to those of Jesus Christ” (Homily of April 21, 2013).