Friday, July 19, 2013

Pastoring By The Book?

Many parishes have  priests who are pastoring by the book.

Upon receiving their new assignments they undertake a ministry of correction. Their first foray is usually a reaction to liturgical practices which they deem contrary to the standards of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM).

The old pastor, in their estimation, was lackadaisical about rubrics and unresponsive to directions from the Curia or the diocesan Liturgy Office. His sloppy rule-keeping has diminished respect for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

He has even allowed the laity to participate in roles that are reserved to the clergy.

The new pastor must now come in and clean up the mess, often in the face of misunderstanding, opposition or even hostility from parishioners.

He is, however, willing to endure the tensions that follow from his corrective measures for the sake of doing it right, of getting things back to the way they should be.

He quotes documents in support of his changes. He is simply asking parish members to respect his office, accede to his education, accept his sincere efforts to establish a liturgy and a parish that is united in its uniformity to the directives and decrees. He can justify by the book what he says and does.

This pastoring by the book, however, is only one side of a pastor's role. The  late theologian Bernard Häring, C.SS. R., in his book Priesthood Imperiled balances the picture.

Häring advises priests to "concentrate all your attention and energies on becoming, as it were, a kind of sacrament, a visible and convincing sign of healing, forgiveness, and nonviolence as much as is possible!"

He continues, "The priesthood is not at all a step upward on the social ladder, but rather a particular commitment to descend, in humility and service, to where the people are..."

Priests who govern by the book, however, may cringe at Häring's reservations about ritualism: "Some fifty years ago, ritualism was one of the major plagues in the Church...Ritualism in any form can simultaneously become a humbling and self-exalting sickness...Even though extreme cases of ritual scrupulosity and mean-spirited control have greatly diminished, ritualism still remains a most serious obstacle to inculturation and liturgical spontaneity."

Häring did not oppose laws or rituals. He was, after all, the author of the groundbreaking The Law of Christ  (1966, English edition), a three-volume work on moral theology for priests and laity. Two decades later he issued a new three-volume comprehensive presentation on Catholic moral theology titled Free and Faithful in Christ.

No, Häring proposed a balanced approach to morality and to priesthood, but he would suggest that those who choose to "do it by the book" must include the Scriptures as the balancing book in their arsenal of pastoral practices.

"Priests," Häring insisted, "can never meditate enough on the four songs of the Servant [Is 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12], considered by Jesus to be his program for life and service, and, therefore, also the plan for his followers."

Pastoring by the book is only half the practice. The Gospel and Jesus' style of pastoring are equally if not more essential guides for being faithful to the role of priest/pastor.

We priests cannot pastor by the book --we can justify what we say and do only by the books!

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