“In a democracy, a people get the government they deserve.”
So said Alexis De Toqueville…or Thomas Jefferson…or some guy named Joseph de Maistre. History isn’t quite clear on that point. Nevertheless, the point holds. The people we elect to govern us, for good and for ill, are a reflection of us.
The point also holds when talking about the Church. At least to an extent.
The Church, obviously enough, isn’t a democracy. Which is a downright excellent thing. For as many problems as there are in the priesthood and episcopacy right now, just imagine the problems we’d have on our hands if the same Catholic majority who voted for Barak Obama also got to elect their local pastor and ordinary.
The soul shivers, no?
At the same time, our priests and bishops aren’t like Athena, springing forth, fully formed from the head of Zeus. They are born and formed and tempered in a specific time and place. Who they are as priests reflects that time and place. Who they are as priests, at least to an extent, also reflects us, the people they pastor.
Which is to say that if we want our priests and shepherds to be better than they are, telling them that isn’t enough. It can be good. It can be necessary. But alone, it’s not sufficient. No, if we want them to be better than they are, we also have to be better than we are. We have to be better Catholics, and we have to be better children.
The “better Catholics” part requires growing in holiness—a process which entails equal parts repenting for our sins, seeking knowledge, and pursuing virtue. See here, here, and here for a more specific game plan in that regard.
As for the better children part, well that requires supporting, encouraging, and helping our priests and bishops as they strive to live their vocation as spiritual fathers.
How we do that depends on our own circumstances and abilities, as well as the person we’re trying to help. But, just for starters, if we want better priests and bishops, we should try to…
1. Say Thanks
When a priest gives a sound catechetical homily that took some guts to deliver (on contraception, divorce, pornography, same-sex marriage, etc.) make a point of praising his preaching. A simple, “Great homily, Father” or “Well done,” when you shake his hand after Mass will do just fine. A positive email or phone call to counter-balance all the negative emails and phone calls such homilies generate wouldn’t hurt either. And every once in a while, an email or letter to the chancery, praising your priest’s preaching or pastoral skills, makes a nice change of pace for the bishop, who far more often receives letters of complaint about his priests than letters of praise.
While you’re at it, do something similar for your bishop. When he takes a stand publicly against contraception or makes a solid statement about traditional marriage, let him know how much you appreciate his courage and fidelity. Send him an email. Thank him on Twitter. Call the chancery. And do it all with more noise and vigor than the naysayers sending up complaints. Drown out the sounds of ignorance and hate with knowledge and love.
2. Go to Confession
From what my priest friends tell me, there are few things more discouraging than sitting in the Confessional, week after week, and only having a handful of folks wander in. Given that, it’s little wonder so few make room in their schedule for more than 30 minutes of Confession on a Saturday.
It’s also true that if Confession were more readily available throughout the week (and especially before Mass), more Catholics might go. But the best way for us to change that isn’t to complain about it. It’s to show up at the inconvenient times. It’s to make clear, through sheer numbers, the need for more and better time slots for Confession.
In doing that, we’re showing our priest just how great our need for both him and the sacrament is. We’re also giving him insight into the real struggles and questions of his congregation. In the confessional, we’re helping him better understand where we, as a parish, are. Which means outside the confessional, he can better give us the guidance and formation we, as a parish, need.
3. Get Involved
Priests need help. All priests need help. They need help teaching religious education classes, running adult faith formation programs, managing the parish office, decorating the church for holidays, and much, much more. Sure, some have the budgets to hire help, but no matter how big the parish budget, it’s never big enough for all the help needed. In every parish, volunteers—faithful, knowledgeable, capable volunteers—are a must. Which is where we come in. Or, at least, it’s where we should come in.
All too often, Catholics (myself included!) treat our parishes like spiritual gas stations, places where we go to fill up on grace, then quickly drive off. But parishes aren’t supposed to be sacramental Speedways. They’re supposed to be our spiritual homes, where all the family members do what they can to enrich the lives of their brothers and sisters.
Yes, we’re all busy, and no, we can’t change our parish single-handedly, but most of us can do more than we’re doing. We can teach a CCD class, take on a holy hour, volunteer for the parish finance committee, lead a woman’s Bible study, bake cookies for the youth group, join the parish prayer team, or just plant a few rose bushes next to the parking lot. If you need more ideas, go here.
The more faithful Catholics that step up to do those things, the more supported and encouraged our priests will feel and the less overwhelmed they’ll be. Likewise, the more opportunities they’ll have to build relationships with strong lay Catholics and see the fruits born of fidelity in a family’s life. Remember, it’s not always just the culture that needs our faithful witness. Sometimes, our parish priest needs that witness too. Volunteering at our parish is our chance to give it.
Pray for priests. Pray for bishops. Have Masses said. Offer Rosaries. Do Holy Hours. Fast and do penance.
No matter how busy or overwhelmed we are, we all can find the time to say a Hail Mary or two. And no matter how recalcitrant or wayward our pastor might be, he can’t stop us from asking God to pour out grace upon him, grace that can mold and strengthen him into the priest (or bishop) the world needs him to be.
And make no mistake, there’s not a priest or bishop walking this earth that doesn’t need those graces. As C.S. Lewis so rightly noted, Satan never tempts more craftily or mightily than at the foot of the altar. Which is to say, on a daily basis, priests undergo a type of spiritual attack that few lay people can imagine.
Over time, those attacks can wear down even the most faithful of priests. So, if we don’t want the good ones to fall and the more troubled ones to fall farther, we need to join them in that battle. We need to pray and suffer for them, so that they can better pray and suffer for us.
5. Send Re-enforcements
Have babies. Take them to church. Pray with them at night. Talk to them about Jesus. Teach them to love his name. Teach them to love his Church. Catechize them. School them in theology and philosophy. School them too in the virtues—in faith, hope, and charity, in prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. Most of all, school them in love. Model for them the love of Christ and help them learn to show that to all people.
Then, invite priests to your house. Tell your children how important the service he renders is. And encourage your boys to emulate them. Buy them toy Mass kits. Make them homemade vestments. Hold up the priesthood as an honorable and noble vocation. Don’t presume marriage. Encourage discernment. And if they discern the priesthood, rejoice. They’ll be giving you spiritual grandchildren galore.
Again, that’s just a start. You know your priest and bishop better than I do, so you know better than I what they need. But no matter who they are or what challenges they face, they do need our love. They do need our support. And they do need our help.
Maybe they can be the priests they need to be without us, but that assumption is a dangerous gamble, one that given the state of the Church and culture today, none of us can afford.