Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The crisis of pastoral leadership

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 26, 2017

Some weeks ago, a friend told me about his reactions to an ETWN movie about the life of St. John Paul II. In particular, my friend responded to a scene in which the young Father Karol Wojtyla confers with his bishop. The conversation was remarkably pious, he said; the young priest and his bishop carried on an earnest discussion about the care of souls, with a sense of spiritual urgency.

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Was the scene an idealized version of the real conversation? Maybe so. But as my friend observed, the conversation sounded very much like what we all grew accustomed to hearing from Pope John Paul II. It wouldn’t be surprising, would it, if his manner of speech reflected his years of formation under great men of the Church like Cardinal Adam Sapieha, who ordained him to the priesthood.

My friend, who is a priest in one of America’s healthier dioceses, went on to make this mordant observation about the scene that had provoked him:

It occurs to me that nothing (or almost nothing) of this kind of piety actually occurs today between bishop and priest. Everything is administrative, psychological, or sociological—or simply problem avoidance. Very little is religious or truly pastoral, stressing the urgency of the salvation of souls. Of course there is the pietistic framing of issues, but little substance.

Now again we face the question: Is this an accurate portrayal of the situation? Is my friend too cynical? Maybe so, but unfortunately his report matches what we have grown accustomed to hearing from chancery offices.

Pastors regularly tell me about the pressure they feel to balance budgets, to comply with mandates, and to promote the latest diocesan programs and fundraising schemes. Only rarely—and then only in vague terms—are they urged to reach out to the young Catholics who are drifting away from the Church.

For that matter, only rarely (and again, vaguely) are priests urged to attend more carefully to their own spiritual lives. Surveys show that a solid majority of American priests are “happy” as priests. Yet surveys also show that less than half are regular in their practice of the Divine Office. Those surveys suggest that nearly half of our priests could be in a state of serious sin for ignoring their breviaries, but still happy about their status. That is a sign of a spiritual crisis: an indication of an urgent need for pastoral leadership.

The same need is equally evident among the laity. Mass attendance keeps falling. Church weddings and baptisms are also declining. Confession is almost a rarity. The indications of a crisis are evident everywhere. Where is the response?

There are programs, to be sure, introduced each year with great ballyhoo, designed to bring people back to the Church. But this year’s program looks very much like last year’s edition—involving a great deal of energy and paperwork, organizational meetings and small-group sessions. The shiny new programs produce the same old paltry results. And why is that? Perhaps because the creators of those programs have not directly addressed the root problem, acknowledging the manifest pastoral failures of the past fifty years. Perhaps because the programs are an organizational answer to a spiritual crisis.

“I really can’t imagine approaching a bishop today and pleading, ‘We really need to do something about getting the parents of school kids back to Sunday Mass,’” my friend reports. “It’s known to be a problem, of course, but the urgency is not there.” He knows that if his parish lags behind its quota in the next diocesan fundraising campaign, he will be fielding worried calls from the chancery. But if teenagers disappear immediately after their Confirmation ceremonies, never to be seen in church again? No one will call him to account.

Over the years I have heard many bishops speak about the need for greater reverence in the liturgy. Good, good. But what steps are taken to curb liturgical abuses, or to encourage practices to promote reverence? Recently I was told about a diocesan bishop who announced that he would implement a certain pious liturgical practice “if I had my way.” Well, why doesn’t he have his way? A diocese is not a democracy. If a bishop believes that an approved liturgical norm would be beneficial to the faithful, he has the authority to enforce it. In this case, unfortunately, he doesn’t.

A bishop’s job involves fundraising, organizing, planning, managing, and community leadership. But these are only incidental roles. His all-important responsibility is to serve as a spiritual father for his people. Fulfill that function, and the other needs will fall into place; fail at spiritual leadership, and the other roles won’t matter.

St. Paul did write about fundraising; it’s a legitimate concern for an apostle. But look at the entire body of his epistles: the doctrinal instruction, the practical advice, the encouragement and exhortation and even scolding. That’s pastoral leadership, and that’s what we need today.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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