In my bedroom, where I can often see it, I keep a brief quote from Pope John Paul II: “God is the treasure that people hope to find in a priest.” The more I reflect on it, the more profoundly it rings true. People want their priests to be many things: good preachers, skilled liturgists, compassionate companions, adequate administrators, etc. But above all people want to encounter the presence of God in their clergy.
Over the years I have welcomed many new parochial vicars. Some have been newly ordained. Some had already served in one or more parishes. My first hope for the new arrival is that he be on familiar terms with God, that he put prayer in first place as he orders his day, that his conversation enables me — and our parishioners — to be aware that God in Christ is always at work among us.
After that I look for what we might call “a heart for the people.”
The episcopal instruction during the Rite of Ordination eloquently limns the multiple ways in which the priest must place the needs of his parishioners before his own. In imitation of our Master, we are called to pour out our lives for our people. Many inadequacies in ministerial skills can be overlooked in a priest who genuinely loves his congregation and continuously sacrifices himself for them.
In third place I would list the quality of collegiality. A parish can best respond to God’s will when its priests resist the temptation to be “lone rangers” and genuinely collaborate. Although I feel strongly that diocesan priests should not be expected to live as if they were religious, some shared life assists the mission. Some regular praying together — whether it be Morning/Evening Prayer or times of intercession for the parish — enables the Holy Spirit to orchestrate the gifts of each priest. Although the pastor bears the primary responsibility for the parish vision, collegiality calls him to listen attentively and often to his fellow clergy, as well as to his lay leaders.
It is no secret that the liturgical churches are not effectively reaching young people. My hope for a newly arriving parochial vicar is that he has a charism for youth and young adults. As I reach the end of my pastoring years, I hope that our young priests can touch the minds and hearts of our youth. If the New Evangelization means anything, it involves discovering ways of presenting the treasures of the Church to a generation that does not find the same value in formal liturgy and organized religion as their forebears.
We hope for many qualities in our incoming parochial vicars. But we pastors also bear a responsibility toward them. We can profitably learn from the importance that the business world places on mentoring. We have a tremendous opportunity to hand on to them the fruits of our 20-30-40+ years of pastoring.
My twin passions seemed to find themselves on opposite ends of the Catholic spectrum. I hoped to share with our people a sense of the greatness of our spiritual tradition. What a feast for hungry souls!
We can introduce them to incredible figures like Ignatius of Antioch, Ambrose and Augustine, Jerome and Bernard, Anthony and the Desert Fathers. We can open for them the writings of great teachers like Benedict, Aquinas and Bonaventure, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales. We can inspire them with heroic saints like Francis and Clare, Dominic, John Vianney, Francis Xavier, Elizabeth Seton.
But we also boast the great treasure that we know as Catholic Social Teaching. Over the last 120 years the magisterium has synthesized centuries of care for the poor and the marginalized, and has begun to tackle the harder issues of justice. Our American bishops have given us a wonderful teaching tool in the seven principles of Catholic social teaching.
If a parish can embrace both of these treasures and seek to live by them, it will easily cover all the bases in between. As I look back on my mentoring relationships with parochial vicars, I wish I had spent more time sharing my passions with them.
In addition, we have a wealth of pastoral knowledge about how to preside at parish liturgies, about how to make the baptismal liturgy a deepening of faith for all the participants, about how to transform a wedding crowd into a worshiping community, about how to involve family members and friends in the liturgy of anointing. As I look back on my own early years, I was left alone to figure out all these things. I pray that our newly ordained can tap in to the accumulated wisdom of their pastors.
We want to share our ministry passions and pastoral experience with them. But they have passions, too, and often experience of the business world. A good mentor notices budding strengths and evokes them by praising efforts and by encouraging new initiatives. I have often invited new parochial vicars to involve themselves in adult formation. Our people want to benefit from their years of seminary training. Nothing is more affirming of our vocation than the excitement of our people discovering new aspects of their faith.
Visiting parishioners confined to their homes remains one of the best ways for a new priest to introduce himself to the parish. He can pick up all kinds of parish history, as well as announce that he is available to the needs of all. People’s gratitude for such visits goes far beyond the time and effort expended.
The arrival of a new parochial vicar is an important moment for a parish. Both pastor and people eagerly await him, hoping for some of the qualities I have mentioned. Our people are eager to shower their love on their priests. Hopefully we are not too busy, too stressed out, too stretched by the demands of ministry to receive it.
Human life requires love. While celibacy precludes certain types of loving relationships, it invites us to bask in the affirming love of our people. That is the treasure that we hope to find in our laity. I hope our newly ordained quickly discover that gift and allow that love to shape their priesthood. TP
Msgr. Kirk, ordained in 1968, is a very active retired priest of the Diocese of Memphis.