Remember the Legendary Pastors? The Church Grows from the Bottom

The Catholic Church since Vatican II has blundered in attempting to satisfy the modern demand for a more enjoyable and freer life on earth. By decentralizing its administrative structures without proper safeguards, the Church unwittingly gave legitimacy to grassroots activists—within its own institutions—who work against its teaching and way of life. As a result of these internal divisions, parish life in the United States was badly affected, bringing to an end an era of legendary pastors.

The Catholic Church’s internal crisis is fairly obvious. Once upon a time, Catholic family life became stronger and stronger because a remarkable band of pastors created the right kind of parishes. Today, some of these very parishes are half empty of priests, nuns, and youth, and society notices that, as a result, Catholic families are barely different from other families. And today’s legendary pastors in the making are being frustrated.

What follows is a partial account of how a powerful Church, on its own initiative, and without any compelling external pressure, undermined the role of one of its greatest strengths—the neighborhood pastor.

Pastors—The Church’s Center and Head

Shortly before the Council, a bishop-theologian, who was to become a member of one of its Preparatory Commissions impressed an audience by saying: “The three central figures in the Church are the Pope in Saint Peter’s, the local Ordinary in his cathedral, and the pastor of the neighborhood parish.” Yet the Second Vatican Council had very little to say about the pastor of the parish—the one who has more to do with the cura animarum of ordinary people than any bishop or pope. In particular, the American pastor, once called “sweet incense to the republic,” and also his parish, which was a model for the Catholic world, was simply taken for granted by the bishops assembled from 1962 to 1965.

Historians rarely find enough evidence in archives to explain fully why American parishes, during most of the twentieth century, abounded with piety and political influence. Pastors only made history; they seldom wrote it down. But cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco possessed legions of faithful attenders at large schools. My own parish had 1,800 students in its school, almost 10,000 at Mass on Sunday, and ordained at least one new priest every year between 1918 and 1945.

These achievements were commonplace. My pastor died in 1934 after 33 years of service, and his neighboring priest, an even more legendary man, served his neighborhood for thirty years. In another nearby parish, a German pastor still is a subject of conversation though he died in 1943 after 30 years of ministry. In Yorkville, the pastor of Saint John the Evangelist, perhaps greater than all three, went to God after completing 42 years of service.

These priests became mythological figures, not because of their longevity in one parish, but because they were unusual servants of God. In that era, to be a pastor was to be a “somebody.” Once the Archbishop of New York, powerful as he seemed to be, crossed into the territory of the local pastors, he was hardly any more important than these men.

These men were priests of character and ability, and were chosen when seminaries were stricter than West Point. They had risen in their youth above the difficulties imposed by poverty. Good and inspiring teachers had helped, too, because the priests possessed a certain cultivation of mind and manners. And the Church knew who they were. In those days, pastors were “little bishops.” The priests were well known by everyone for years of services rendered. My pastor into his 70s gave out monthly report cards to 36 classes. His curate maintained ledgers which recorded, Mass by Mass, year by year, hour by hour, name by name, all the altar boys from 1918 to 1935 when he succeeded his mentor as pastor, there to die in 1959 after 40 years in that one place. Such discipline was everywhere.

Quality of this kind in the pastorate did not, however, come easily. The United States got its first resident Catholic bishop in 1789 precisely because the handful of pastors here, then, were less than exemplary shepherds. By 1830, priests “hardly knew how to obey,” Church historian Peter Guilday later reported. The Councils of Baltimore, which began in 1810, were really an episcopal effort to bring to priestly life the ecclesial discipline necessary to the evangelization of immigrants who were only nominally Catholic. Forty years later, John Hughes convened a Synod in New York which insisted that pastors reside in their parishes week on end, and administer sacraments in Church, not in homes (Extreme Unction and Viaticum excepted). One of Hughes’s first parishes, on the site where Saint Patrick’s Cathedral now stands, received its first shepherd in 1840 from Ireland via Georgia, the Carolinas, and Harlem. That priest, John Maginnis, ended up as the first pastor of an English-speaking parish in San Francisco where he died in 1864. Stabilizing priestly performance was the major episcopal challenge in those days.

The Way In-Between

Throughout the 19th century, bishops were somewhat arbitrary with their pastors, partly because of pioneering conditions and constant immigration, but primarily because of the poor quality and rebelliousness of many priests. Bishops had the power and used it accordingly, even against highly organized pastoral groups like the Germans. As the priests began to measure up to the bishops’ requirements, they also started to complain of mistreatment, and Rome often sided with the priests. The Holy See sought Permanent Rectors (PRs) for important diocesan benefices, a demand the hierarchy resisted until the end of the nineteenth century. Then the Code of Canon Law in 1918 gave pastors everywhere a measure of stability, a quasi-tenure if you will, even against a bishop. Strong pastors were a formidable balance of power within an ecclesial jurisdiction. Between the two world wars, a pastor could be “removed” only for cause and had recourse to a canonical trial. The new Code seemed to settle the stability question but, as late as World War II, Rome chided the Bishop of Pittsburgh for appointing too many administrators who could be removed at his pleasure. Until Vatican II, therefore, bishops would rather put up with an ineffective or unworthy pastor than stir up a hornet’s nest in Rome.

Understandably that system had its downside. Successful pre-World War II parishes annually turned out so many priests that the waiting time between ordination and first pastorate grew from ten years in 1880 to 20 years by 1910, to 30 years by 1940. This situation became so ridiculous that one priest was sent out on his own for the first time at 55 years of age. Another untoward side-effect was the pastor who did nothing, who was absent for undue periods of time, or who became as arbitrary and dictatorial as the bishops about whom his predecessors had so loudly complained. A third dysfunction was the tendency of some pastors to demand less of curates and to settle into an easy life. Finally, as the parishes became successes, the bishop perforce was impelled to provide the social, medical, and educational institutions necessary to respond to Catholic growth. In this process, his eyes turned away from pastors to priest-bureaucrats.

These defects of the system can, of course, be over-exaggerated, even when the results were larger than life. During the 1940-1960 period, when the Catholic population in the United States grew from 20 to 40 million, priests from 25,000 to 50,000, and religious from 50,000 to 150,000, churchmen hardly noticed any downside. The Church’s literati—those professionals whose vocation is to criticize, not build or maintain institutions—began to notice. But as long as the Church body was prospering at all levels, demographically, educationally, sacramentally, and economically, criticisms were taken lightly. Furthermore, the Catholic system was still intact, its objectives and priorities clear, the chain of authority understood and respected, even by its critics, and at all levels competence could be found, even if it were distributed unevenly. No other institution in the United States, save government itself, could then be found in every nook and cranny of the republic, helping the poor rise out of ghettoes, as was the Catholic Church. And the work of turning out good fathers and mothers, civilized youth, and loyal citizens, was performed by unpaid lay people, and especially by the most underpaid volunteers in the country—priests, brothers, and nuns.

The Way It Is

The hierarchy’s effort during Vatican II to deal more positively with modernity started as a process of updating ecclesial priorities and structures but ended by jeopardizing the role and influence of the hierarchy itself. John XXIII had good reason to believe that the Church in Europe needed aggiornamento, for in Europe the regular attendance at Mass was negligible; but, once the very notion of hierarchy itself came into question, his intended reform became revolution.

The lines dividing the human from the divine, and individual conscience from the obligation of religious assent, and authority from freedom, are not always easy to recognize. In the years following 1965, pastors fell into a trap of their own making, from which they have not yet escaped. For in their rush to demonstrate that the human concerns of the Church were real, that bishops respected people’s freedom, that clergy were servants of the people as much as of God, they watered down the strength of their own pastorate, namely, the power Christ gave them to bind and loose in His name. Today “choice” dominates the conduct of Catholic leaders in religious houses, in Church schools, sometimes in diocesan centers. Terms like “shared responsibility,” “preferential option,” “selective obedience,” “the sanctity of private conscience,” and “academic freedom” have become arguments against any authority beyond the self.

Within the Church since 1965, Catholic usage has given legitimacy to other than assent and obedience. “Little bishops” on the local scene no longer act like hierarchy. If conditions at the pastoral level continue as they are, soon there will be little of the hierarchic Catholic Church left. The denigrated and debased role of the neighborhood pastor eventually could cast practical doubt on the hierarchy at a higher level.

Three post-Vatican II activities sponsored by bishops directly lowered the esteem belonging to the pastorate: (1) Compulsory terms of office; (2) Personnel Boards with authority to decide who gets what appointment; and (3) The forced retirement of priests anytime after 65, usually after 70 years of age. If these new policies are continued, fewer and fewer priests will have enthusiasm for the role.

The priest, especially the pastor, who commits himself lifelong to a divine vocation by placing his hands into the hands of a bishop, acquires a unique dignity and status not unlike Peter, James, and John. If it is noble to desire the episcopacy, as Saint Paul suggested (I Timothy 3:1), equally noble is an aspiration to the pastorate. The pastorate must be seen as a special office with status, rights, and authority. Receiving a mission from on high, the priest should be sent as fulsomely to his apostolate as Christ commissioned the apostles.

In the present dispensation, however, priests are not sent but asked, not even as civil servants or tenured professors are asked, but more as political persons, subject to dismissal after a term, by a Board to whom they did not make any promise of reverence and obedience.

Fixed Terms of Office

Any understanding that a pastor’s assignment is for an indefinite period, subject to review every six years by the priest as well as the bishop, is hardly a burden on either. At a given checkpoint, either may need a gracious way of making a change without embarrassment, or to continue the traditional course without public notice. However, the present law which forces every pastor out of his assignment after twelve years treats the good shepherd as a dispensable functionary.

As a practical matter, very few outstanding pastors become heroes to their people in six or 12 years. The pastorate, like parenthood, is appreciated only in hindsight, and relative indissolubility is its characteristic. Anyone who has done serious parish work in a complex people-center knows that after six years he can speak only of “knowing” the parish. Barely. If he is not a good pastor by then he should be “promoted out.” The good ones, however, only begin to hit their stride at twelve years. By then, the parishioners are the priest’s very life and, likewise, the priest finally has become “the pastor.” Compulsory change also means that pastors, who have ordinary jurisdiction over the bishop’s faithful and who are the main support of diocesan services, have little influence on diocesan policy. A Priests’ Council, elected though it be, is no substitute for an unorganized body of pastors who influence the course of diocesan history. The “giants” of another day were highly respected, even by the strongest-minded Ordinary, due to the parochial esteem in which the faithful held them. Furthermore, from the Faithfull’s point of view, moving pastors in and out is hardly conducive to the Church’s mission. Hurt is inflicted on good priests who wish to stay to reap what they have sown. To force an unwilling priest to begin all over again in new surroundings can be dissatisfying to everyone.

The bishop bears the responsibility of oversight; he should be diligent on behalf of change when he finds a sitting pastor leading his parish astray. Fixed terms simply absolve the bishop of painful burdens that belong only to him.

An old-time priest once described the Chancery Office as a big “Cribbage Board”—plenty of holes with a lot of square pegs. Placing the right priest into the right assignment was never likely to occur infallibly because suitable personnel and available parochial openings rarely appeared at the same time. Still, when the American Church was expanding rapidly, priests went where the bishop or his Vicar General (Chancellor) sent them. It was up to them to make adjustments. Frequently, the larger adjustment was made by the subordinate because his new pastor’s authority was clear and obedience was the expectation, even if it was given in a surly manner. The process was not so difficult as the critics made it sound, because the culture itself made similar demands of everyone. Everyone was socialized according to the prevailing educational practice, which during the early 1900s emphasized self-control, strength of character, habit-formation, and persistence.

Signs of softness in the therapeutic direction were noticed earlier in some Chancery Offices, whenever the bishop or his alter ego began to take into account the wishes, wants, or needs of both pastors and curates, and when requests for transfers were granted automatically. The stated norm might still be “the mission” (in other words, “you go where you are sent”), but priests understood that appeal to the proper official was in order if things did not work out. If the Vicar General (Chancellor) had risen through the ranks of the Chancery Office, the chances were that he or his associates knew every priest in the diocese, where they had been, and their talents or peculiarities.

Vatican II was hardly over when new procedures became the order of the day. Subservience was out, whereas self-expression and personal choice were in. So were Personnel Boards, new to the Church but commonplace in the corporate world. These were intended to remedy one set of complaints, but in practice they revolutionized the entire concept of hierarchy, mission, and assignment. Instead of priests working their way through the Catholic system by adaptation, accommodation, and self-control in the face of difficulty, neighborhood pastors found themselves having to adjust to the wishes or demands of subordinates. In theory, bishops could reserve to themselves any appointments they chose, which they often did (much to the chagrin of the Board members at times); yet the routine developed of “the Board” determining who went where, usually after a good deal of politicking.

A Personnel Board with a fact-finding role does not disturb the hierarchical relationship of priest and bishop. The deformation arises when the bishop himself becomes a shadowy figure, and when political game-playing among board members becomes a substitute for “Go, make disciples in Saint Patrick’s Parish.”

What may be of more lasting significance is the abandonment of required “assent” and “obedience” in priestly discipleship; and the growing conviction that the individual, his needs and claimed rights, even his selfish wishes, hold priority over the common good of the Church and the graced state of the people. Self-assertion has replaced the acquired habits of reverence and obedience. As a result, bishops themselves are looked upon as quasi-equals in a game, subject to the same disrespect that peers give to peers. Psychologically, the social distance that normally prevails between authority figures and those under authority has been virtually eliminated. Demeaning, too, is the practice of those bishops who introduce themselves to subalterns by their first names, and those young curates who address their pastor, 30 years their senior, by his first name. The widening erosion of lines of authority is found, too, in the practice of designating a young priest as an “associate pastor,” when in other walks of life “associate” is a title that must be earned by unusual service.

The belittling of hierarchy is further demonstrated in many other ways. First, by a seminary training that is free-wheeling and hardly formative of disciplined personalities. Second, the practice in some places of asking newly ordained priests where they would like to go for their first assignment. Third, “the mating game” as it is called on the West Coast, in which pastors and movable younger priests are dispatched twice a year to find out who cares to team up with whom. As one pastor asks, “How can I be pastor at all when I have to negotiate the terms under which a priest chooses to come to me?” Another pastor says, “I find myself apologizing for the size of the parish and our multiple programs, lest he think there is too much work here.” A third pastor remarks, “When I found out he had nine parishes in fifteen years, I said ‘Keep him!’ “Of course, a bishop can leave the high ground of office and mission by telling a senior priest, “If you turn this down, I’ll throw you to the wolves on the Personnel Board.” The same bishop may tolerate the practice of a Personnel Director walking into a rectory to arrange the transfer of a curate to another parish, without so much as a courtesy call on the pastor. Sic Transit Gloria Parochi.

The worst thing that God sometimes gives a priest is what he wants. In hindsight, a priest’s greatest accomplishments take place in an assignment he never sought or ever wanted. That spirit of resignation is waning under the present system.

Forced Retirement

“He died with his boots on” will rarely be said anymore of many pastors who have reached the biblical age of three score and ten, certainly once they celebrate the Golden Jubilee of their priesthood. Under the new order, they have to go, even if the bishop, alone or in conjunction with the priest, thinks that retirement is inappropriate. But compelling a healthy, competent, and beloved septuagenarian pastor to walk out on his life is at least uncharitable, and at times an unsound pastoral policy.

Apart from the serious shortage of priests by the end of the century, when only one out of every ten will be under 35 years of age, the new practice contributes to “just-another-job mentality” among priests. Thinking of sabbaticals, leaves, hideaways, eschewing the pastoral role completely, and early retirement, are becoming an unfortunate mindset of many young priests.

The Way Out

When Church historian Peter Guilday described the travail of the American Church in the early part of the 19th century, he attributed the weakness to the lack of discipline in the ranks of the faithful and incompetence in important diocesan settings: “Priests who knew not how to obey and laity who were interpreting their share of Catholic life by non-Catholic Church systems.” It is surprising after a century of real discipline and competent leadership that we have allowed our faithful to drift away ecclesially from their pastors, because they notice that priests themselves hardly live under discipline at all.

John Paul II’s well-known exhortation Pastores dabo vobis (April 7, 1992) insists: “Without priests the Church would not be able to live that fundamental obedience which is at the very heart of her existence.”

If the Church is to be obedient to Christ, priests must be obedient to their bishops who in turn owe obedience to the Pope.

The pastor of any parish, or of a diocese, or of Saint Peter’s in Rome, is the most important member of the Church. He is the only visible Christ our people have. This hierarchical Church is the sole Church Christ instituted. If priests are becoming a vanishing breed in a once vital Church, it is, humanly speaking, because the ideal kind of pastor is not readily evident and because the newer models are not worth replicating. The time has come, therefore, to recover numbers and quality in the priesthood by rediscovering the dignity and discipline of the pastorate. Church authority should admit that the present modus operandi is not working, and should review all the

novelties imposed in recent years. Rome should validate only those institutionalized structures necessary to maintain good shepherds everywhere, men known for their assent to the teachings of the Church, and for their obedience to their bishops united in fidelity with the Pope.

Discipline, which for rugged individualists conjures up images of torture and the rack, is a liberating force for believing first-rate surgeons, marathon runners, and Christians. Discipline is another word for good habits acquired by doing good things time and time again, perhaps painfully at first but almost effortlessly in due course.

The crisis today is most evident at the level of pastors. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, encyclicals like John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor, and more than 50 Roman Decrees since 1967 represent the Church’s global vision. What now is needed is determination to nurture this vision in the Church’s parishes. The Church grew from the bottom, and when it withers it is at the parish level. It is at this level that the counter-reform of the Church must begin.


  • Msgr. George A. Kelly

    A native of New York City, George A. Kelly (1916-2004) was ordained for that Archdiocese in 1942. After receiving a Ph.D. from Catholic University, he worked in parish life, administration, and academia in New York. He was one of the founders of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and author of many books, including The Battle for the American Church (1979). In the 1980s, Msgr. Kelly was at St. John's University in New York City.

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