Every once in a while I find myself sitting down with someone who wants to talk to me about a problem they have with their church. They don’t like their parish and they want to know whether or not they should start going somewhere else for Sunday Mass. I rarely give them a “yes” or “no” answer. What I try to do is to guide them through their feelings and to see if their transfer is warranted. Let’s look at just a few of the common reasons people use:
1. “I don’t like our pastor.” That’s a very common reason. Fair enough. My first question is always, “What is your reason for not liking him?” Was it because of something he did that wasn’t wrong but with which you were not in agreement? Seven years ago here at St. Ann’s we repainted the church and reappointed it with tile flooring, chandeliers, new paintings, new furniture, and recently a new memorial piazza in front of the church and chapel where people may purchase bricks in memory of loved ones or for special events. Before beginning the work, I shared my plans with the Parish Council and sought their opinion. I did nothing without consulting them and the people beforehand. While the response to our efforts was overwhelmingly positive and I received tons of accolades over the end results, nevertheless, there were some people who didn’t like it and even left the parish over it. No priest is ever going to get 100% agreement on any project and there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like it. That’s just a part of life! (Actually, we did get 100% approval on one thing: when we first did a feasibility study to find out if the people of the parish agreed that there was a need to replace our leaking roofs, the responses to the survey were unanimous! 100% of respondents agreed that the roofs on the church & rectory needed to be replaced, and only one person did not agree that the same was true of the school roof!) Sometimes pastors need to make decisions for the well-being of the parish, and not everyone will agree with him. If your pastor made changes you don’t like, my advice is to accept it and move on without ruminating over it and letting it eat away at you. Maybe the next pastor will make changes you will like!
Is your dislike of the pastor due to something you yourself experienced or from a story you heard from another? Before you form an opinion, make sure you have your facts straight. I have had people not like me for reasons that were totally untrue. Sometimes they heard gossip or rumors that took a kernel of truth and so distorted it to make it sound like something horrible which was in fact quite innocent. For example, I once mentioned at a funeral that when news first broke of a particular person’s death, the phone began ringing off the hook with people wanting to know the arrangements. The point I was making was that the man had obviously been loved by many people who wanted to come and pay their respects, and I told the widow from the pulpit that I regretted not ever having met him, as I seemed to have missed meeting a very special person. Well, someone with a grudge against me twisted what I said and began telling people that in my homily I complained to the widow that when I got the phone call about his funeral, “the phone was ringing off the hook” with so many other demands that I was annoyed that I had to do his funeral! (I’m not making this up! This REALLY HAPPENED!) Sadly, there are even some people who are also not opposed to stooping so low as to create conflicts that never in fact took place. One person once actually accused me of stopping the Mass and publicly chastising a lector for mispronouncing a word in the reading. I assure you that never happened! Other times stories are told in a manner that, while in their core are true, are missing critical information that changes the whole nature of an account. I remember a woman once complaining to me about the neighboring pastor who “refused to do her daughter’s wedding and threw her out of the rectory.” Since that didn’t sound like something that priest would ever do, I asked him about it. What happened was that the priest informed her daughter that her fiancé needed an annulment before she could validly marry him and that he could not perform the wedding without it. According to the priest, the woman’s daughter got angry at him and the Church for their “stupid rules” and stormed out of the rectory. Big difference! While some criticisms of priests are spot on and the priest did in fact act badly in a certain situation, make sure you have all the facts before deciding you don’t like someone. You could be reacting to faulty information and turning against someone unjustly. Remember also that priests are human and we too have our bad days. I’ve had to apologize on occasion for being a little short with someone, so one bad day should never be used to mar the otherwise stellar reputation of a very compassionate priest. Would any of us want to be judged by our behavior on our worst day?
But let’s not be naïve: there are some nasty priests out there. I am appalled by the behavior I have at times experienced from pastors and parochial vicars with whom I have worked, who often behave that way on a regular basis. I feel sorry for good people who have to endure the rants of an angry curmudgeon or of an insecure pastor whose only method of dealing with people seems to be to intimidate them so terribly that they will fear to ever question him. What do you do then? Well, some people respond by saying, “Hey! I’ve been here for thirty years and he’s not chasing me out of the parish I love!” They decide they can endure his term, knowing he will eventually leave and perhaps be replaced by a more kindly soul. Others find his very presence an obstacle to their ability to pray and worship effectively, and they decide it’s time to change parishes. If your parish has a nasty pastor, can you withstand him, or do you need to leave in order to encounter Christ? Only you can make that decision.
2. “I don’t like what my priest/pastor preaches.” My response to this statement is always the same: “What does he say that you don’t like?” Is he preaching heresy? Then you have a valid gripe. You have a right to hear – and the priest has a duty to preach – the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Church and nothing else. So if you are certain that the priest is preaching heresy or his own personal view of what he’d like the Church to teach; if he preaches that the Church is wrong in its position on moral issues, flee! He is a false prophet and he will have to answer to Christ as he stands before the Lord in judgment as to why he dared to preach as the Gospel something other than what Christ has revealed through His Church. As St. Paul said, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:8)
But how about if what he’s preaching is the Gospel and authentic Catholic teaching but you don’t like hearing it? Now the situation is different! Father has a duty to preach the Gospel and to not withhold the truth just because some people don’t like it. As St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:1-5) So if you leave your parish because you only want your priest to speak “sweet nothings” and what I call “marshmallow theology” – nice and sweet and fluffy but no nutritional value whatsoever – then you have a serious problem! Your argument is not with your pastor but with Christ! You are looking for a priest who will not tell you the truth for fear of offending you and who will never say anything you don’t want to hear. That would be like going to a doctor and telling him never to tell you that you are sick or that you can’t eat certain foods. “I want you to tell me I can eat all the junk food I want and not exercise and still lose weight and be healthy!” Well, if the doctor tells you that just because that’s what you want to hear, he’s not doing you any good at all; on the contrary, he’s harming you. The doctor’s job is to tell you the truth about what you need to do to be healthy even if you don’t like it. The same is true of a priest. I’m not saying a priest has to beat people over the head with moral teachings constantly (he has to be sensitive and give the truth in appropriate doses), but any priest who is afraid to say something the people will not like is not fulfilling his duty before the Lord. Whenever I find out that someone has left my parish because I spoke the truth of the faith, especially if they’re bad-mouthing me, unless I know I was unduly harsh in my delivery of the truth, I rejoice! As Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12) So be very careful when criticizing a priest’s preaching. Ask yourself honestly if he was wrong or if he is right but you just don’t want to accept it.
3. “There’s no life in my parish.” That may be true. While sometimes I’ve discovered that people claim there is nothing going on in their parish when in fact it’s a hopping place, some parishes do lack activities. Have you suggested anything to your pastor? Are you willing to work on the project? Lots of times people are full of ideas but no one wants to help out. If the pastor were to say yes to everything without anyone helping him out he’d be burned out very quickly! He can’t do it without volunteers. If you’re eager to belong to a group or an activity that your parish doesn’t or cannot provide, see if a nearby parish does. There’s usually no rule that says you must be a parishioner in that parish in order to participate, and you don’t always have to leave your parish just because a nearby parish is more active.
On the whole I try to encourage people not to leave their parish but to try to do something to make a difference. Sometimes we exaggerate the problems in a parish, and other times we give up too easily and don’t attempt to do things that are well within our power to change. Don’t think that by leaving you are spiting the pastor. He may not even know you’ve left! If you feel you must leave, don’t leave for his sake; leave for your own! Try and see if you can make a positive difference. Have you talked to the pastor about your complaint? Many times people gripe, complain, and leave, but never once speak with the pastor. Maybe he will listen to you. If, however, you have tried your best or things are beyond your ability to change, you feel a warmer connection with another parish where the Gospel is more faithfully proclaimed, where the Mass is celebrated with greater dignity, where’s there’s a greater spirit of family and a Catholic life about this parish, then I would think in good faith you should not hesitate to join that parish and become an active part of it.