By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series
Thirty years ago, in the parish in which I am now stationed, there were three priests assigned. In those days, the parish served about 1,000 Catholic households. Today there are twice as many families, and I am assigned here alone.
One result has been a necessary reordering of a priest’s activities and priorities, a challenging and sometimes painful exercise which I would entitle “The Trials of Triage.” I have had to decide, in prayer, which of my duties were simply helpful and productive and which were essential. I suspect that nearly every parish priest across America has been forced into the same kind of difficult choices.
Some examples will clarify. Ten years ago, I used to go around each month to some 30 parishioners who were homebound through age or infirmity. I would converse with them for 10 or 15 minutes, update them on parish activities, listen to their concerns and then give them holy Communion. It was one of the most satisfying parts of my ministry and, I believe, one of the most appreciated.
Similarly, every few days I would visit our local Catholic hospital, look at the patient list and visit with the four or five of our parishioners who would be there in any given week.
When a parishioner died, I would meet with the family for 30-45 minutes, offering my sympathy, learning more about the deceased person, helping the family to select Scripture readings, hymns and participants for the funeral Mass.
Over the last eight to 10 years, because of other daily demands, I have had to forgo doing each of these three activities on a regular basis. I still, of course, visit the homes of the sick for emergencies, stop in hospitals when asked to by patients or their relatives and meet with bereaved families in particular circumstances. But for the most part, those activities are now carried out by a wonderful and pastorally sensitive nun we have been fortunate to add to our parish staff. She has also enlisted a host of lay volunteers to visit homes and hospitals. They identify for me cases of special concern, and I follow up. Once every six months, I visit each of our homebound parishioners and offer them, in addition to holy Communion, the opportunity for confession and the sacrament of the sick.
This sharing of responsibilities is, I believe, a modern necessity in order to leave the priest free to focus on his core responsibilities: celebrating the sacraments, preparing homilies, daily reading and prayer, and answering the ever-present requests to respond to parishioners’ family crises and personal problems.
There are three other duties, though, which I believe it is important for the priest to retain, and so I do.
One is to celebrate a brief prayer service at a wake. I know that this is sometimes done by a bereavement committee of parishioners but I think that a family looks particularly for a priest in such circumstances, and it gives me the opportunity to speak with the family in order to make the funeral homily more personal.
Next is baptismal preparation, especially for couples with their first child. I spend 30 to 40 minutes with each such couple a week or two before the baptism, finding out a bit about their own religious journeys and highlighting their role in sharing faith with a child. Even though I know that many parishes do this preparation in groups, and often under lay leadership, I believe that this contact keeps me in close touch with the young families who are so essential to the church’s future.
Based on the same rationale, I meet twice with each of the 30 or so couples I marry each year, in preparation for their ceremony and their marriage. (They also attend one of our diocesan programs of marriage preparation.) Both the baptismal prep and the pre-nuptial appointments normally take place in the evenings in order to accommodate work schedules; this guarantees for the priest some rather long days, but I view both opportunities as key to our parish’s life.
I fully understand that such priority-setting is personal and subjective, and I would be interested to hear how other priests make such choices and how parishioners view them. My only point is that circumstances have forced such discernment upon us and that it needs to be guided by prayer.
Father Doyle, a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., has served as pastor of a large suburban parish for the last 17 years; he is also chancellor of the diocese for public information. Ordained in 1966, he has also been a high school religion teacher, editor of a diocesan newspaper, bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service, lawyer/lobbyist for the New York State Catholic Conference and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.