By Judith Costello
The woman leaned over my shoulder as I studied the religious picture on her wall. In a conspiratorial voice she asked, “What do you think of our priest?”
I didn’t respond right away so she took the pause as an invitation to share a laundry list of complaints. Her criticisms expanded from his sermons to the overall running of the parish and I started to squirm. My children were standing nearby and they were certainly picking up the negativity.
It was one of those times when I wished my brain was quicker. I had no clue how to turn the tide of this conversation. I just wanted to be somewhere else. Eventually, I mumbled something about, “Father tries hard. It’s not an easy job.”
Then I steered the talk to another subject. But my response was inadequate and the problem of a better response stayed with me.
Our priest was the one who gave me the answer at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. He talked about living the Christmas message of hope and sacrifice all year long. He was going through a list of things he hears people complain about.
“You may say, ‘My husband doesn’t listen and there is no love between us anymore.’ If you feel that way it’s time to be more patient and compassionate with him.”
He continued. “You may say, ‘Our priest isn’t very good. I wish he was better.’ You can be sure your priest wishes he was better, too!” He patted his chest and smiled meekly. Then he said, “Don’t gripe about him to everyone you meet. Instead, pray for him. He needs your help.”
I could picture the woman in my mind again. What if I had said, “If you see his faults, then your prayers are especially important for him. You recognize his need for grace. So help him find that light by your prayers.”
Being a priest is a hard job and getting harder all the time. Our priest makes the rounds of four churches. He faces lonely nights. There are those who hold the priest up as superhuman and those who denigrate every priest as a pedophile. It’s an always-on-call job. There is no other work that requires such dedication and has such high expectations held by the community and by the man himself.
Criticism comes too quickly. And prayer is often a shallow offer. We say, “I’ll pray for you” and then don’t do it. Or we don’t feel it.
But prayer, when it is heartfelt, mostly surely receives divine attention. God’s great heart longs to hear our hearts pour forth compassionate concerns. Then there can be heart-to-heart sharing.
If we could just imagine all the priests who are at this very moment traveling, counseling, administering, teaching and sharing the sacraments. And they are criticized both from the world, the community and, as Father admitted in his Christmas sermon, when they recognize their own shortcomings.
They need us to pour forth prayers of compassion and longing for God’s light of truth and love to shine through those who take on the role of priest.
The next time someone criticizes my parish priest, I hope I can say, “Let’s pray for him right now. He needs our help.”