I’ve come to realize through recent discussions with friends that a lot of parishioners are intimidated by their parish priest. Typically this is not caused by some form of domineering clericalism or because the priest is unfriendly. Since there is a natural division between priests and the laity — a division that exists at the very levels of being — many parishioners self-impose an even greater separation between themselves and their parish priest. It is true that there is a marked difference in character, mission, and role between ourselves and the ministerial priesthood, but that difference is not meant to separate the different vocations in the life of the Church.
The ministerial priesthood has its role in teaching, governing, and sanctifying the Mystical Body. The primary role of the priest is to make present the Sacraments, most especially the Holy Eucharist. The priesthood preserves, protects, and brings forth the sacred. They are our spiritual fathers who guide us on the path in a role of authority, but that does not mean that we should be isolated from our priests.
Priests are also our brothers and fellow sojourners on the path to holiness. They are human beings too who need not only our prayers and support, but also friendship. As in all human relationships, friendships will form more easily between some people and an individual priest, but even if the relationship is only an occasional meeting or gathering, then it is a greater movement towards our shared goal.
Spending time with our priests is also essential for our children. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these (Matthew 19:14).” The priesthood is a visible sign to the world of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. They stand in persona Christi in the Mass and the Sacraments. This reality is something that our children should come to understand, so that they can enter more fully into the mysteries present, while also freely gravitating towards their spiritual fathers who are guides pointing them towards heaven.
Multiple friends of mine have expressed their nervousness, sense of awkwardness, or fear of embarrassment in relation to their priest, but they also have a great desire to have their priests over for dinner on occasion. They want their children to spend time with their spiritual fathers and many families want their parish priest to be more than a passing acquaintance they say “hello” to after Mass. This is a noble and good desire. In our aspiration to grow in holiness, we are going to want to spend more time with the holy people in our lives and a great many of the holiest people we know are priests.
My husband and I have made a concerted effort to invite priests into our home since our daughter was a baby. We both want her to know her parish priests well and to be comfortable in engaging with them both at the church and in other settings. She understands the separation that exists between the priesthood and the laity — it is an intuitive difference — but she is completely comfortable going up to both of our parish priests and telling them almost anything. In fact, she has taught me a lot about my own assumptions about priests that I need to stop making.
Don’t make assumptions
We are members of the largest parish in the area. This keeps our priests very busy. Knowing this fact is important for it teaches us patience and charity towards them. In our culture of instant communication, we can become frustrated if our priests get busy or forget something we have asked them in passing, in an email, or even a phone call. In all of my ministries I have heard people lament how difficult it can be to communicate with the priest. I always tell people to be patient, pray for our priests, and then to try asking them again or to change up the mode of communication. They are human, and just like us, they forget things. Figure out the best mode of communication that fits that individual priest’s needs over your own. They have thousands of people to take care of. The vast majority of priests are not intentionally ignoring requests or questions from their parishioners.
Along with the knowledge that our priests are extremely busy, we can also make the assumption that they are too busy for something we need, for a friendly visit, or to come over for dinner. A lot of the time they are too busy, but that is not the same thing as never. My daughter has taught me a lot about the assumptions that I make about both of our priests. We go to daily Mass 3-4 times per week as our schedule allows. She always wants to say “hello” to the priest afterwards. She’s done this for two years now after daily Mass and she’s always done it before or after Sunday Mass. These post-Mass visits seem much easier at smaller parishes. We were in a smaller parish for years, but after a few years of discernment we formally switched to the larger parish in our area over a year ago because the 7:30 am Mass they offer fits our family’s needs.
Since the parish is quite a bit bigger, I kept on assuming that Father was too busy for the chats she wanted to have after Mass. I would tell her we should get going, but she insisted on going to see him after every single Mass. I made the same assumption about our Parochial Vicar who only does Monday Mass and the occasional 7:30 am Sunday Mass, but I finally acquiesced and told her that she can say “hello” really quick in the Sacristy on the rare Monday we are at Mass. I made the assumption — and many other parishioners do the same — that I was burdening them with our little visits.
What I learned is that my assumptions did not equate to reality and had more to do with my own erroneous concerns or fears in burdening others. Yes, priests are busy, but they want to engage with their parishioners, especially children. Since my daughter is stubborn — just like me — and pushes me repeatedly to visit with our priests, she has developed a friendship with both of them that is a great blessing to her and to my husband and me. She freely engages with them and tells them all about her life, both her joys and her sorrows. It gives me great joy to watch her so effortlessly engage with her spiritual fathers. In the process, we have been able to become greater friends with our main parish priest who baptized our daughter, but who left the area for a few years and then was assigned to our current parish mid-last year.
If we assume that our priests are too busy for us, then we will never develop a relationship with them outside of pleasantries following Sunday Mass. Yes, they are busy and there will be times when they will be more engaged elsewhere, but that does not mean that they won’t be able to join your family or my family for dinner or at an event when time permits. We do a great injustice to our priests by making assumptions about them. We also become a stumbling block to ourselves and our desires to have our children spend more time with them, as well as our own eagerness to spend time with them. They are our spiritual fathers, brothers in Christ, and can become wonderful friends too.
Many of my friends have expressed concern that they will say or do something they shouldn’t or that is embarrassing when their priest is around. I talked to a friend about this recently when a group of us went on an outing with both of our parish priests. Two priests at once, how are we suppose to act?!
I told my friend who was a bit nervous to just be yourself. I also pointed out that both of our priests have amazing senses of humor and that it’s okay to laugh and joke around. Laughter is a very important aspect of fellowship and community. The majority of people who are looking to spend time with their parish priest are probably less likely to discuss something that is wholly inappropriate. As a person who analyzes things to death, resurrects them, and then analyzes them to death again, I say stop worrying about it. Don’t let pride get in the way of a greater good, which is spending time with your priest.
The more we get to know people the more we come to see the good and the bad in each person. This is a part of learning to love unconditionally as Christ loves. We all — including priests — have areas where we need immense work through the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit. If there is one group of men in the world who understands human weakness, it is priests. They listen to Confessions every week and they have heard it all. They aren’t sitting across the dinner table from you or me contemplating the sins we confessed on the previous Saturday or thinking about what terrible Catholics we are because we said or did something.
If we do say something erroneous or that violates Church teaching, more-often-than-not, they will offer some type of loving guidance and correction. It helps to keep in mind that chances are we will all say something stupid or pointless in front of a priest if we spend enough time with them. I’ve done it multiple times! I often realize me error later, reprimand myself for it, and then try to be more prudent, humble, and charitable in the future. Like I said, we are all works in progress. Be yourself and do not be afraid that the priest is judging you during the salad course. He’s not.
Do not let fear or assumptions get in the way of the good of your parish priest’s company. Think about it this way, new relationships always have a level of awkwardness in the beginning. We all have to get our footing in new relationships whether it be co-workers, friends, or priests. These things take time to develop naturally, but they can’t develop if we stay locked up in fear or our own preconceived notions. Pray for fortitude and then find out the best way to set up dinner or some other event with them. It’s a great good for both the laity and the priests. Remember to be patient in the process with them and yourself. If we get out of the way, God will bless us immensely in the process.