On Thursday, February 17, 2022, Pope Francis spoke to a conference of priests exploring the foundations of the priesthood, a conference organized by the Congregation of Bishops.    If there was a theme to the Pope’s message it would be that of “closeness,” closeness to God, to fellow priests, to the Bishop, and most importantly, to the people.  It is a talk that everyone involved in ministry should read, for while it can be challenging, it can highlight what is lacking in those parishes and ministers where the label of successful would hardly apply.  We need not look very far for such an unsuccessful parish, for St. Isabel is a fine example.

In the view of most, 5.4 years ago St. Isabel was a vibrant, active, and loving parish, which was the envy of many in the diocese.  Sadly, now it has become empty, and devoid of all those things that truly make a parish great.  Recently, a laywoman who knew I had attended St. Isabel came up to ask “what is going on at St. Isabel?”  Asking what she meant, she went on to say “it is a terrible place.  It has no soul.”  Even those who continue to attend the parish because of some emotional attachment, admit that “there is no feeling of warmth, no feeling of welcome.”  They describe a parish which is going through its sacramental obligations, but a parish which truly has lost “its soul.”

The Italians have a proverb, “the fish stinks from the head,” and indeed, in St. Isabel’s case, this is so true.  The pastoral leadership of the previous administrator and the present pastor would find much in Francis’ words that would challenge their exercise of their ministry.  Pope Francis emphasized the importance for priests to be close to the people in their care, all of the people, saying “our relationship with the holy people of God is of each of us not a duty but a grace.”  Francis went one to say that “for this reason, the proper place of every priest is in the midst of people, in close relationship to others.”  Francis stressed the importance of being involved in other people’s lives, saying closeness to the faithful is an imitation of God’s own style of closeness, compassion, and tenderness.  Pastors are meant to act “not as judges,” says Francis, “but as Good Samaritans who acknowledge the wounds of our people, their silent sufferings, their sacrifices.”

The people of God are looking for a pastor who imitates Jesus, not “clerical functionaries” or “professionals of the sacred.”  Francis says, “priests must be men of courage, ready to draw near to those in pain and lend a helping hand.”  That is not the impression people of St. Isabel have when they view their pastor walk in and out doors, or take refuge in the off-limits sanctity of the sacristy.  Indeed, the present pastor’s tenure will be forever marked by his lack of compassion and mercy when he dissolved the forty-plus year old Woman’s Guild, no doubt with the advice of the parish secretary.

The bulletin and emails make it clear that the most important thing happening at St. Isabel is the raising of funds, or what they would call good stewardship.  Yes, Fr. Martin, we know that times are tough, but quite frankly, you are not the man to bring it all back together; you are not the pastor St. Isabel needs at this time in history.  Francis points out that “when a priest forgets that his life is owed to God and the people he serves, it is the root of clericalism,” and clericalism is a distortion of the priestly vocation “because it is based not on closeness but on distance.”  The closeness of a pastor, “makes it possible to gather a community and foster the growth of that sense of belonging” that is at the heart of any genuine parochial community.  You, Fr. Martin, appear incapable of that closeness, and so St. Isabel is destined to continue being “without a soul.”

We admit, Fr. Martin, that you are not the cause of the original upset, for that upset can only be laid at the feet of Bishop Frank Dewane.  We would like to think that what Bishop Dewane has done to St.Isabel is the result of sheer ignorance, but sadly we feel it is more the result of sheer malice.  Francis is clear that priests are meant to be close to their bishop, and the relationship is not meant to be one-sided.  The obedience a priest pledges to a bishop is meant to bring about a communion of persons, marked by listening and discernment, a listening and a discernment that causes both “to find the way that leads to truth and life.”  The obedience a priest promises can, says Francis, also be discussion, attentive listening, and in some cases tension.”  There surely has been no shortage of tension, but since October 28, 2016, there has been little to no “discussion or attentive listening.”

Francis reminds bishops, who share in the same priesthood as the clergy,  that “a bishop is not an instructor doling out orders, but is a ‘father.’  The bishop is intended to be a help to his priests “in discerning God’s will.”  Of this we are certain, what has happened over the past 5+ years is not God’s will, and all of those responsible for allowing/making it happen will have to answer for it before the throne of the most just and merciful God.


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