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How priests want to be treated by laypeople.

Father Joe McLaughlin, S.S.E. was hurrying to catch a train in Montreal when a man spit on him. He's still not entirely sure why.

"The guy came up to me and just let loose," says McLaughlin as he recalls that day. "I was walking through Place de Ville Marie to get a train to Toronto. I was preoccupied and didn't realize what was happening until the last minute. He yelled at me in French spit at me in disgust, and walked away."

Fortunately few priests suffer that sort of dousing in their daily contacts with laypeople. And McLaughlin, 49, associate professor of history and religious studies at St. Michael's College in Winooski Park, Vermont, is inclined to write off the moist encounter more to a wave of anticlericalism that's sweeping Quebec than to any widespread animus among the laity toward priests.

But make no mistake, he says, the social status of the priest has changed. People feel freer to question and challenge him, to critique his lifestyle and personal behavior.

"There's certainly no longer a sense of |Father knows best,'" says McLaughlin. "You're not on a pedestal anymore."

The descent from that pedestal in a fast-changing world, aggravated by a severe drought in vocations, has led laypeople to demand more from their priests than ever before--and certainly more than most priests can deliver.

They want their priests to be holy, but they also want them to be "regular guys." They want them to be present at all parish council meetings, church picnics, school assemblies, youth groups, seniors' clubs, basketball games, and the Knights of Columbus meetings. Father must preach like a prophet and handle parish finances like a Harvard MBA. He must comfort his people and call them to be better but accept them for what they are. And most of all he must be there, day and night, always and cheerfully on call. It's a tall order.

But what do priests expect of lay Catholics in return? That question, posed to a number of priests around the country, drew a rousing chorus of "We thought you'd never ask." Here is their wish list.

Understand what my job is all about. Many priests feel that their role is misunderstood. "Those who are deeply involved in the church have a good understanding of what we do," says Father Gregory Sakowicz, 39, of St. Mary of the Woods Parish in Chicago. "But I find the typical Catholic has the mentality that priests wait around from Sunday to Sunday with nothing to do all week."

"There's an expectation," says Father James Micelli, 43, of St. Mary's Parish in Rome, Georgia, "that the office is always open; that you're always at your desk and |on the clock' 24 hours a day; that you roll out of bed in the morning, say Mass, and you're free. They don't realize all the organizational, administrative, and financial matters you're expected to participate in."

Father Edmond M. Derosier, 45, parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, sometimes feels more like a firefighter.

"When they need us, they expect us to be there," says Derosier. "When they don't need us, it's 'stick around the firehouse, wait for the bell to ring, and don't bother us.'"

The "firehouse syndrome" frustrates Derosier. With more and more parishes forced to function with only one or two full-time priests, no one man can spend all the time he'd like with every group and everybody's problem. He has to set priorities, and when he does, some people invariably resent it.

"Is it more important for me to be waiting for the doorbell to ring," asks Derosier, "or to be at the hospital visiting the sick? Is my time better spent filling out Mass cards or guiding the youth group? What were we ordained to do?"

Treat me as a person, not a functionary. Some priests feel as though they've swapped a pedestal for a pigeonhole.

"People bring all sorts of ideas of what a priest is," says Father Ray Tillrock, 52, of Chicago's St. Barnabas Church. "They lay all that on you when it's not what you really are."

Priests dislike being thought of as "company men," with heads full of canned answers and "correct" attitudes and no minds of their own.

Father George Kane, 66, pastor of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Schaumburg, Illinois, sometimes is made to feel that way at parish gatherings and wedding receptions.

"People will come up to me and say, |Of course, you believe in Our Lady's appearance at Medjugorje because you're a priest.'

"Well, I don't! People act surprised when a priest comes up with an interpretation or opinion that varies from the conventional or that takes a different approach to tradition.

"They have to understand that we are different," continues Kane. "Father Richard McBrien at Notre Dame is a free spirit. Cardinal Bernard Law [Boston's archbishop] would be on the other side of the fence. And there's an infinite variety in between."

Listen to me. While it's fashionable to deplore the state of preaching in Catholic churches--Father Andrew Greeley has suggested that particularly horrendous homilists should be sued for malpractice--many priests do invest long hours, a torrent of prayers and meditation, and a great deal of pride in preparing good homilies.

Father Don Skiba, 42, preaches every weekend at St. Athanasius Church in Evanston, Illinois, where he is associate pastor. Skiba works hard on his homilies. Sometimes he wonders whether anybody is listening.

"I look out from the pulpit and realize that people are there," says Skiba. "But they're not there. Or they're standing along the sides or sitting in the back of church. Sometimes you finish, and you wonder, did anything click?"

Other priests find that while people may listen with their ears, they "harden their hearts" and reject both the message and the right of the priest to proclaim it.

Father Dan Kenna, O.F.M., 59, a pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Brant Beach, New Jersey, agonized over the morality of the Persian Gulf War.

He prayed over the issue, discussed it with fellow friars and concerned laypeople, and finally decided that the war could not be justified in the light of the gospel message. One Sunday he climbed into the pulpit and said so.

"Most people listened," he recalls. "But a number of people became very agitated and reacted with anger. Some even left the parish.

"I was not taking political sides," says Kenna. "I was doing my job. I must speak out on moral issues even if the whole country is out waving flags. The feedback was very painful."

Talk to me. Priests who are realistic don't expect to be everybody's best pal. But they do like the give and take of everyday conversation.

Skiba gets frustrated when laypeople act as though he can't, won't, or shouldn't talk about anything but church things."

"I have a life," says Skiba. "I go to the theater and listen to music. I root for the Chicago Bears. My whole life isn't spent sitting in a corner contemplating."

Skiba, who ends each autumn Mass with "Go Bears," says it's fine for a priest to aspire to be an "alter Christus." But Christ, he points out, became one of us.

"Let's face it," Skiba says, "Christ wouldn't have gotten 12 tough, sweaty fishermen to drop everything and follow him if he'd just sat around saying holy things all the time."

Likewise Derosier is so tired of being stereotyped that he rarely wears his Roman collar in public because "as sure as God made little green apples," he says, "someone's going to come up and start telling me his life story."

When Derosier is on vacation and someone asks him what line of work he's in, he's often tempted to make something up.

He still fumes when he recalls the day he visited a friend at work and spent some time chatting with the friend and several fellow workers in the lunchroom. After a while, his friend said "Oh, by the way, I'd like to introduce Father Derosier."

"The change in that room was incredible," Derosier recalls. "All I got for the next five minutes was |Hey, sorry for the way we've been talking.' I could have killed my friend."

But Derosier concedes that laypeople who insist on talking about religion whenever they're within earshot of a priest are not always stereotyping. He has a close friend who does it all the time.

"Sure," says Derosier, "sometimes I feel like saying, |Can't we talk about football or cars or something?' But my friend can talk about the Bears with anybody. He can't express deep thoughts about the church or religion with anyone he knows but me. The local bartender doesn't know a lot of theology."

Let me get angry. Derosier can't shake the memory of the day he snapped at a member of his parish who confronted him in the middle of a difficult day about an issue he'd asked the parishioner not to raise with him again.

A young woman who saw it happen was outraged to see a priest blow his top.

"She kept saying, |You're suppose to be a priest.' I tried to explain, but I couldn't get through to her. There was no reasoning with her. She couldn't accept the fact that sometimes we lose it and that day in and day out we can't always act the way we're supposed to."

Give me a break. skiba and some priest friends in the Chicago archdiocese bought a summer home on Lake Delavan in Wisconsin. Skiba mentioned it in his homily and talked proudly of how he and his friends were fixing it up.

After Mass, a parishioner came up to him and said, "I'm glad you have a house. Now you're going to know what it's like to pay a mortgage, cut the lawn, and wash windows."

"Like I never heard of those things before," says Skiba.

Skiba smiles as he recalls an outdoor rummage sale at his first parish. The sale was winding down, and it was time to clean up, so he grabbed a broom and began to sweep the parking lot.

"They were just amazed," he says, "that Father was out there with a broom sweeping. Well, God gave me two hands to work with. Why's it such a big deal?"

Father Tom Radloff, S.J., who counsels priests at the Jesuit retreat house in Cleveland, Ohio, says one of the most common frustrations he hears is from priests who feel they're treated as though they were out of touch with reality, especially when it comes to family life.

"People act as though priests lived in a plastic capsule before they were ordained," Radloff says. "But all of us come from families, and many of us from large families. We weren't hatched. We know what it is to have ups and downs."

Respect my need for time off. Priests need time off, says Radloff. They need to pray, to study, to relax. Religious such as Franciscan Friar Dan Kenna and Edmundite Father Joe McLaughlin are "family men" with duties to their religious communities above and beyond their pastoral and professional chores.

But everyone needs to get away from the office and recharge his batteries. And priests would like parishioners to remember that when they aren't in.

"Sometimes," says Skiba, "they demand to know, |Why do we have to have just a Communion service today? Why can't we have Mass?' When I tell them it's my day off, they say, |Nice. I don't get a day off in the middle of the week.'"

A former priest who served in a large, affluent Midwestern parish remembers getting an angry lecture from a parishioner who said, "I was knocking on the rectory door at 4 o'clock on Sunday afternoon and there was nobody there. What's the story?"

"Well the story," says the former priest, "is that we have families, too. Why shouldn't I spend Sunday afternoon with my family?

"We priests are not personal servants. You take your day off, you take your vacations, and you're entitled to it. Well, so am I!"

Priests often deal with this problem by setting a regular day off--"Holy Thursday," the former priest calls it--and guarding it with good-natured but jealous zeal. If priests don't do that as a minimum, says Father Laurence Connelly, 60, pastor at St. Laurence Church in Sugar Land, Texas, they have no one to blame but themselves.

"I think priests who say that people won't let them have time off are afraid to draw the line," says Connelly.

"They're afraid of being unpopular. Well, love and self-respect begin with self. You can't be loved by everybody."

Catholic writer Tim Unsworth agrees. A columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, editor of U.S. Parish, and author of The Last Priests in America, Unsworth has written extensively on priests and the priesthood in America. He says the priest has to make it clear to his parishioners who he is and what he does--rules, limits, and all.

"The priest has got to face the fact," says Unsworth, "that if he projects the image that he's all things to all people, that's how people are going to see him. If he tries to do everything himself and be larger than life, they'll see him as larger than life. If he lets them think he's at their beck and call 24 hours a day, they'll come looking for him 24 hours a day."

Unsworth says many priests allow themselves to be overburdened.

"I check with Protestant churches on this," says Unsworth, "and they look at me as though I had square eyeballs. They say it's just not a problem. They have office hours, clear as a bell, with plenty of time for people to call. At other times, the minister is simply not available."

Perhaps priests need a job description, possibly carved out by the parish council in consultation with the bishop, that spells out the duties of the pastor and his assistants. Protestant ministers have had job descriptions for years.

A good Catholic example is the Pax Christi community in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. Father Tim Power's job is spelled out by the parish council. He works 60 hours a week, with Mondays off, and lives in his own home, two miles from the church.

Other parishes are hiring laypeople as business managers and administrators. Their pastors have learned to delegate responsibilities and to share leadership with talented men and women in the parish. This frees the priest to meet and minister to people, often in creative and innovative ways.

One priest with more than a few tricks up his sleeve is Msgr. Dermot Brennan, pastor at St. Patrick's Church in Jackson Heights, New York. Brennan is a magician.

He makes people float in midair and $100 bills disappear. Brennan is a pro who has done his act on TV's "Entertainment Tonight" and written and lectured on magic. He works his onstage miracles to raise money for his own and other parish schools, to bring Bible stories to life for young people, and also to show that priests don't spend all their time on their knees in darkened cells.

"Sometimes in my shows," Brennan says, "I'll tell the audience that I first got interested in magic when I was a little priest. And you know, nobody laughs! Nobody reacts! They think I was born in a black suit and collar!"

Brennan wears his Roman collar on stage because, he says, "I want people to see a priest having fun."

Father Greg Sakowicz of Chicago also believes that priests shouldn't take themselves so seriously.

"When I was newly ordained," says Sakowicz, "I really had this idea that I was the new messiah. Now, I've learned to lower my expectations that I can be all things to all people, all the time. I thank God for the gift of my priesthood. I've been blessed by God and by the love of the Lord's people in ways I never dreamed possible. It's been a fun ride."

John Whelan is a television newswriter and freelance reporter in Chicago.
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Author:Whelan, John
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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