Pastoral Love

Protestant laymen of phenomenally growing churches and their pastors have completely different views of love. The pastor understands love as a father loves a child. Sadly, this is something most of our priests seem to miss.
We’ve talked about parishes being unhealthy and dying in our introductory post, but up to now we haven’t described a healthy and growing parish. So let’s begin this part of our series by talking about what all healthy, growing parishes have in common—beginning with genuine love.

The first element all healthy parishes have in common is a little thing called love…from the pastor. I’m not talking about the cultural misconception of what love is, but rather genuine love. Genuine love on the part of a pastor isn’t touchy-feely, namby-pamby, or being sweet and nice all the time. Genuine love from a pastor is always telling parishioners the truth from the pulpit and face-to-face. Any pastor who worries about hurting feelings or offending people when promoting the Church’s teachings either tends toward being a coward or he doesn’t love his parishioners as Christ loves the Church.

Why can I say something like this with such force that it may be perceived as arrogance?
Because without exception, every single Protestant church that is experiencing growth we would consider phenomenal is led by pastors who do exactly as I describe herein. I mean it when I say there are no exceptions to this. The reason their congregations respond to this sort of leadership is, it is human nature to want an authority to lead us by telling us what is good and evil, what is right and wrong, and how to live our lives in a way that pleases God and man.

We are all supposed to imitate Christ. This is especially true for priests, because a priest is another Christ (alter christus). So if a priest really values and understands his priesthood, and if he genuinely loves his parishioners, he will imitate Christ in all his homilies, sermons and in the pastoral care of his flock. But I think we need to pay attention to how Protestant ministers perceive Christ so we can refresh our own perception of Him.

When we commonly think of Jesus and how He dealt with people during His public ministry, we tend to think of the meek, humble, and tender Christ. The problem with that is, it isn’t reality. Certainly Jesus was meek and humble and tender when it was called for, but there is another side of Christ as well. He never hesitated to call a spade a spade, He never compromised or watered down the truth, and He never avoided tough topics for fear of driving people away. In fact, the harder the truths were that He taught, the more followers He drew.

The Jesus who beckoned sinners to come to Him also called some men hypocrites, broods of vipers, white washed sepulchers full of dead mens’ bones. He told some people they would never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He drove people from the temple with braided cord, something that had to be very painful for the objects of His indignation. Even when Jesus gave us the promise of the Eucharist, rather than compromise or water down what He was saying, He allowed many of His disciples to walk away when they thought he was promoting cannibalism (a hard saying, according to John).

Did Jesus love those people who He insulted and struck? Of course He did! He’s God, and He died for all of us. But His love was a genuine love. He loved all those people enough to tell them the truth, no matter the cost.

Far too many priests today preach only milquetoast from the pulpit. We mostly hear chanted mantras of love, peace and justice. They do this because they worry about offending parishioners…and that listeners might put less or nothing at all in the collection basket. Do you realize, though, surveys tell us the overwhelming reason why people leave the Church to go to other religions is because they don’t get strong moral and doctrinal direction from the pulpit? It’s true, and this is one area in which we can learn a great deal from the Protestants—especially Fundamentalists. They seem to have no problem calling a sin a sin, telling people they’re going to hell if they don’t repent and seek forgiveness, and in the process they’ve built what have come to be known as mega churches.

By the way, these mega churches don't have congregations where only 10% provide 90% of the church funding, such as our parishes do. No, it's more like a juxtaposition of those figures for them.

So the very first thing a priest has to keep in mind is,
nobody wants or likes milquetoast. It’s wimpy, and nobody respects or responds to wimpiness. If you want your parishioners to grow spiritually and your collections to increase proportionately to spiritual growth, then you have to begin to apply the first common factor of all churches that are healthy and growing. You have to preach the truth unapologetically and with the full authority of the Church.

This is not to say that preaching as I suggest is without its problems. You will experience a few difficulties in the beginning. When a parent decides to finally discipline a petulant child, the child throws tantrums and runs to the other parent in hopes of finding solace. The parishioners who throw a tantrum might very well go so far as to complain to your bishop. I’ve learned through my own experience that most of our bishops will either back up the pastor actively by telling the tantrum-throwing child the pastor is right in what he says, or passively by ignoring the complaint. There are a few bishops who may be inclined to cater to the petulant child, but what can he do? Fire the priest? Even if he would, at the end of the day you have to remember that on Judgement Day, when you have to give an account of your priesthood, the bishop won’t be the judge. Jesus will.

As long as we’re on the topic of bishops and pastors, let’s talk about another common factor among healthy parishes. Healthy large parishes are led by pastors who have been there a long time. A long pastorate doesn’t guarantee a parish will grow, but changing pastors every few years will guarantee that it won’t. Many of our bishops see the wisdom of keeping a pastor in place for a long time, but it’s unfortunate that some do not. From what I’ve been able to glean from the thoughts of bishops on this topic, those who move pastors around every few years do so because they fear the formation of a personality cult. This is a valid fear, because in parishes where the parishioners are part of a personality cult involving the pastor the message of Christ and His Gospel becomes blurred and secondary to the pastor’s personality. However, if a pastor can demonstrate that he can apply the principles discussed herein and make a parish grow in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, then bishops gravely err in moving pastors every few years. This is a point I’ve been trying to make to bishops for years. Alas, since pastors have no control over this aspect of their ministry, we won’t belabor it here. I’ll close this discussion, however, by saying the longevity of the leadership is a critical factor for the health and growth of a parish family. Long pastorates make deep, trusting, and caring relationships possible. Without those kinds of relationships, a pastor won’t accomplish much of lasting value. (I hope when your bishop says he wants to move you to another parish, you will have the fortitude to show him this post.)

Healthy parishes grow because they offer parishioners something they can’t get anywhere else. If your parishioners aren’t regularly inviting non-Catholics or lapsed Catholics to come with them to Mass and parish functions, then chances are real good your parish isn’t offering anything any different from St. Miscellaneous down the street. All healthy parishes grow warmer through fellowship, deeper through discipleship, stronger through worship, broader through ministry, and larger through evangelism. These five elements must be balanced if they are to work in having a healthy and growing parish. We'll begin looking at these fundamental elements in the next post.

While you're here, Father, don't forget to check out
What We Believe...Why We Believe It for the catechetical growth of your parishioners.
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