Religious Priests and "Their" Parishes

(From CSMS Forum, Fall, 1995,15-22)

Does that read, "priests and their parishes?" No, religious priests and "their" parishes. My subject is not the generic relationship between generic priests and generic parishes. Rather, I wish to probe some realities involved when a body of male religious assume the responsibility for pastoring an American parish. Or, when they are compelled to confront the possibility --- or, more likely, the painful probability --- that they will no longer be able to carry that responsibility and must entrust it to others.

That the subject is timely and in need of exploration will be evident to anyone who has participated in a chapter in just about any clerical institute in the last three to five years. Though the question can be formulated in a variety of ways, the issue is frequently posed in more direct terms: "What are we going to do with our parishes?"

Any organizational consultant worth his or her magic markers knows that in assessing social realities the nouns used in the question are frequently only the hors-d'oeuvres. The entree, the meat, is in the pronouns. When a group asks, "What are we going to do with our parishes?", who is the "we?" And what is meant by "our?" The perceptive reader will quickly note that by raising such questions, we have left the appetizer tray and moved on to the meatier issue of ownership: Whose parish is this?

Some History

Before putting the fork into the meat, we must first retreat into the history of the origins of these relationships. How did most religious congregations get into the business of pastoring American parishes? It turns out that, in many instances, we know just what happened.

In response to the insistence of Vatican II that religious communities reclaim the glory of their charism by returning to their sources, their founding energies, many religious congregations have done impressive research into the lives of their founding heroes and heroines. They have unearthed material that has lain unexamined in archives for years. They found letters from pioneers, sent here by European superiors to explore the lay of the land and its opportunities for mission. There were accounts of conversations with bishops; there were assessments of political realities, both in the civil and the ecclesial realms. There was evidence of tradeoffs to be weighed and hard-nosed negotiations

consciously to be entered into.

Often, the discovery process revealed that the original mission of the community did not include the leadership and staffing of that institution that we have come to know as the "American parish." Communities came to our shores from Europe --- or were established here by charismatic American founders or foundresses --- to carry out a whole panoply of missions. They were to be evangelizers or itinerant preachers of reconciliation. They would catechize the unschooled or keep the faith alive in ethnic enclaves that were in danger of losing their identity in an anti-Catholic environment or combat unjust social conditions created by an emerging industrialized society. They would aim to fight ignorance or illiteracy by setting up schools, or they would fight disease by establishing hospitals. The pastoral management of an American parish, if it were on their screen at all, was often not the focal point of their interest.

The bishops of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were, of course, about something else: the institutionalizing of the faith in a milieu that was foreign, if not openly hostile, to the experience of this great stream of immigrants. They were church builders, in both the organizing sense of the expression and the more pedestrian sense of putting granite blocks upon granite blocks. The institutionalization was, to be sure, in the service of mission. The overarching purpose was to enable the Church to preach and teach and sanctify most effectively in this new country, with its emerging culture. Nevertheless, the more focused objective within that broad goal was institutionalization. And the dominant strategy was the gathering and forming and defining of the canonical parish. Oh, and with a parochial school, thank you.

So the two parties began to talk. For their part, the religious wanted a site or center from which they could express their unique charism and mission. And, of course, they desired episcopal approbation, without which one could scarcely be credible to the Catholic people of the day. The bishops, for their part, needed clergy to pastor the communities that were being erected into canonical parishes. Looking back at that era, and using more contemporary language, it can be said with validity that the leaders of religious congregations were responding to the needs of the people by accepting pastoral responsibility for parishes. But the statement calls for a farther nuance: The need of the times was, more precisely, an organizing need, not merely the exercise of the group's charism.

From the correspondence, it is clear that in many instances the covenant that emerged from the matching of the two interests was a matter of good old-fashioned horse-trading. Two highly motivated churchmen were working out the conditions under which a particular religious community would be given permission to exercise their charism within the territory for which the particular ordinary had pastoral responsibility. "Assume responsibility for running the new parish in Coledale and your men will be allowed to give missions across the diocese." Showing a willingness to pastor a parish was the way to credibility with the ordinary, and therefore with the body of the faithful.

Honesty requires that in some cases we change the image from horse-trading to arm-twisting: 'There is no way your men will ever be allowed in my diocese if you do not take a parish."

In those missionary days, it would take a long time before local churches could generate the number of diocesan clergy sufficient for the pastoral staffing of their far-flung network of parishes. Religious were needed, and they continued to accept parishes as sites for their mission, despite the ways such institutional commitments might fray the edges of their unique charism.

So, over a period of time, Benedictine monks from stable abbeys in Switzerland or Bavaria were "out" pastoring parishes. So were Franciscans whose founding impulse had been so far removed from, if not antithetical to, organizational administration. So were Passionists and Jesuits and Dominicans and most of the other monogrammed bodies.

A Disclaimer

This may be a good place to clarify my intent. In recounting these stories of origins, I am in no way suggesting that the course of action chosen by religious superiors in accepting the care of parishes was --- or is now --- misguided, or a betrayal of the community's charism. The fact that a particular form of ministry was not foreseen in a community's initial definition of its mission and was undertaken largely because of contingent circumstances need not indicate that a betrayal of the fundamental charism was at work. Only the members of a given institute are qualified to make such a judgment, and then only with the most subtle discernment. I am not assessing the wisdom of such choices. My purpose is simply to unearth buried assumptions about the past and the present, so that the questions confronted by religious with respect to the care of contemporary parishes may he properly framed and their choices solidly grounded.

What Happened?

When human beings relate together in a gathered community over a period of time, regular patterns of interaction became institutionalized. Group identity develops --- even when the relationship is one characterized more by love-and-hate than by totally positive mutual change. And the identity is more or less consciously adopted by both members and leaders. "We," and "our," language inevitably develops. The reality of shared experience over time bonds people together, sometimes in spite of themselves. Even the Hatfields and the McCoys constitute a single social system; neither would be who they are without the other.

So it was only natural that religious would gradually refer to a parish they had pastored over many years as "our" parish. The individual men who pastored in that parish rotated in and out over the years; other members of the province may never have served there; some may never have even seen the place --- but to the men of the province it was "theirs." Canonical responsibility evolved into psychological ownership.

The Risk of Inappropriate Levels of "Ownership"

One way to appreciate psychological "ownership" is to realize that it comes to expression in expectations; where we have no expectations, a human enterprise is not "ours." Long periods of cohabitation generate expectations willy-nilly. Because we have related to one another in a certain way for an extended period, it is only natural that we expect the relationship to continue on the same trajectory without end. And, unfortunately, if those expectations are left unexamined, there is always the possibility of inappropriate forms of expectations being created.

We may get some insight from an analogy drawn from a counseling relationship, while admitting that the analogy limps in some respects. In the interaction of a counselor and a client, it can happen that as the relationship progresses the balance of needs shifts: Whereas in the beginning the client needed the help of the counselor, with time it can happen that the relationship is serving more the needs of the counselor than those of the client. In such a case the client is no longer being helped to grow in self-responsibility but is rather being subtly convinced that he or she cannot survive without the continued ministration of the counselor. Instead of maturation there is increased dependence. While I would not be so brash as to infer that such an unhealthy evolution necessarily occurs whenever a religious community pastors a parish, it would be intellectually dishonest to avoid the possibility that such a dynamic is at work when the community finds it difficult to hand over the pastoral responsibility for a parish to others.

Back to the Issue: Whose Parish Is this, Anyway?

Even where psychological counter-dependence is not in evidence, the issue of ownership, the meat of the question, remains: To whom does a parish belong?

Perhaps the clearest indication that things are confused in this area takes place when we hear a religious community debating whether it will have to "close St.

Bernard's" (you will hear the phrase a lot in such deliberations). We need to be clear here: Religious communities do not "close" parishes. It is not within their power. The most dramatic thing they may do is to withdraw their personnel from pastoring that community. A parish is by nature a canonical entity and, as such, its erection or suppression is the result of action by an ordinary, not a decision by a religious congregation.

When religious use the expression that they will have to "close" a parish, there is more than terminological mischief afoot. At the very least there lurks a mis-perception, not to say inflation, of the role and power entrusted to the community when it accepted pastoral responsibility. A diocesan pastor would be misguided if he were to fall into the illusion that his power includes the possibility of closing a parish; the same is true of a body of religious called to the pastoring role. (Curiously, we never hear a diocesan priest even imagining that he might "close" the parish; they are evidently clearer in their consciousness that they are only the temporary holder of pastoral responsibility.)

In reality, the language of ownership of a parish can be applied only in an attenuated way to the religious pastors (as distinguished from the parishioners). The parish can

never belong to the religious in the way it belongs to the body of the faithful themselves. To put it bluntly, it is their common life; their collective participation in the Paschal mystery; their parish.

A humorous, pre-Vatican II incident illustrates a similar displacement of the language of ownership, in the area of liturgy. The pastor had decreed that there would be no singing at this Mass. As he came down the steps to begin the prayers at the foot of the altar the organist began a hymn. Whereupon the priest told the congregation to stop singing, with the words, "Whose Mass is this, anyway? Yours or mine?" Unwittingly, he offered an excellent formulation of the question. Unfortunately he also had exactly the wrong answer.

The truth of the matter is that in its role as pastor, a religious congregation is totally in service to the life of "a stable body of the faithful" (which, incidentally, is the new Code's definition of a parish). The stable community, in most instances, existed before the pastorate was entrusted to the religious congregation, and it will probably continue long after the religious pastors leave. Even in the case where a congregation was asked to found a parish, its role can be compared to that of a midwife, and midwives remain outsiders to the family once the delivery has been completed.

Then What About the Congregational Charism?

Having named the fact that the parish faith-community has an ownership of its own life that takes priority over any level of ownership by those who pastor it for a time, we have not yet done justice to the complexity of the situation we are trying to understand. The principle that those who pastor are to find their identity as servants of a body that has a life that preceded and will follow after their tenure applies equally to the diocesan clergy, after all. From an organizational perspective, what distinguishes the pastoring of a parish by diocesan clergy from that exercised by a religious congregation is the fact that, even though in both cases individual pastoral faces follow one another over time, the successive faces in the "religious parish" are shaped by something common. In some sense they constitute a sort of corporate person quite different from the body of diocesan priests. As each one files by in procession, the people will probably notice different theologies among them; quite likely, different orientations toward governance and the sharing of responsibility; and, for sure, very different personalities. And yet, and yet. There is "something" there that makes them, collectively, different from any other body of religious pastoring a parish, or from the diocesan clergy of even the most cohesive diocesan church. As elusive as it may prove to discover the words to pinpoint the differences, an "Augustinian parish" is not a "Capuchin parish," which is not in turn a "Servite parish" or a "Dominican parish," and the particular parish faith community can sense the differences, because its ethos is transformed by them over time.

The terms and images we use to express this reality are secondary to the fact itself. The languages of "charism" or "family" are frequently heard. These languages can, of course, become highly inflated and used in an ideological fashion to protect turf. But, that possibility aside, there is too much evidence of perceived differences and distinct identities among parishes pastored by different religious bodies for the phenomenon to be shunted aside as pious pretentiousness. Whatever language we use, the fact remains that there are common characteristics, tiny shards of behavior and attitude, subtle resemblances emanating from the whole string of religious pastors --- all of which are the cumulative effects of experiences and interchanges that the bearers themselves probably cannot even name.

We religious, however incontrovertibly unique we may think each of us is as we look at ourselves from within the boundaries of the tong, are pack rats: embodied animals that take on the spots and colorings of the crowd we have rubbed shoulders with for so long. (An interesting manifestation of this reality can be found in the life orientations that continue in those who have long since separated from the body canonically.) Thomas Wolfe voiced a significant truth when he said that we could never return home; a deeper truth may lie in the possibility that we can never really leave home in the first place.

Charism and Continuity

Once we have acknowledged the unique bonding force generated between a religious congregation and the faith community it serves, perhaps we have simply raised to greater consciousness the difficulty and pain involved when the time comes for the congregation to pull up stakes and commit its personnel to other ventures. The parish does not belong so much to religious as it does to the parishioners, but the attachment that emerges after years of common experience is real, and can be deep on both sides. All separation is painful. When the people hear that a community is withdrawing, images of betrayal, of unilateral divorce, even of death may surface.

How the situation is worked through becomes crucial. The experience can become either a maturing one for both parties, or an occasion for bitterness and recrimination, perhaps directed against those who have the burden of making the painful decision. It is a sobering thought to consider that it is the outcome that may expose the authenticity or disorder in the "charism" or motivation all along. To be pained yet free to let the other party go (on both sides) bespeaks the authentic detachment of death-and-resurrection; to be pained and allow that pain to turn into a recurring cancer of bitterness is not redemptive, it is just sad. Perhaps the process by which the congregation helps the parish to stand on its own feet with gratitude for all that has preceded and trust that the same Lord will continue to walk with them, is its final form of ministerial service.

The Issue is Finally Spirituality

This is not the place to suggest actions the community might take to further a maturing separation. I have been about the task simply of exploring unexamined assumptions to ask more foundational questions.

Perhaps these ruminations have led us back, once again, to where so many serious questions take us if we allow ourselves to be led: to spirituality. In this case, to a spirituality of mission. What were we there for in the first place? Whom are we serving, and to what end?

In a corridor at Maryknoll there is a banner with a quotation from one of their founders. It reads: 'To be a missionary is to go where you are needed but not wanted, and to stay until you are wanted but not needed." Lasting cities are so attractive. No less so for religious communities than for secular folk. Having left the nest of the biological home, we should not be surprised that we are continually drawn to create other kinds. Yet it is precisely the nature of our pilgrim existence that we are called to bring home to the people we minister to. And as Paul VI reminds us in the letter on evangelization, teaching without witness will be ineffective. They must see us do what we tell them the Gospel calls them to do.

Will they be able to carry on without us? Will our vision and charism continue if we leave? We have no way of knowing; we live in faith. Perhaps the pastoral approach of Jesus may help us to grasp what that might mean. As Luke tells us, "The people went in search of him, and when they came to where he was they pressed him not to leave them. But he said, 1 must go to the other towns also, for that is what I was sent to do.'" He was apparently secure enough in his own mission to trust that the effects of his preaching would last, because he left us with the words: "If you loved me you would rejoice that I go . . . the things that I do, you will do. And greater than these"