By Fr. Edward O’Melia
When I think of 38 years of pastoral ministry (25 and a half with a Spanish speaking component), two images stand out. One is “Father” and the other “fish out of water.”
The parishioners of St. Mary in Davenport still talk about Father “Don’t call me ‘Father.’” One of their pastors who surely thought he was too young to have fathered these elders and preferred to be called by his first name. He didn’t convert the majority of the parish, though, for they were still calling their pastor “Father,” when I came.
To me, though, “Father” has nothing to do with age. It doesn’t relate too well either with St. Paul telling the Corinthians (1Cor. 4:15) that they have one father in Christ, Paul himself, since he brought their community to life in Christ.
Most pastors cannot claim to have “generated” the communities they serve, but we do do the caretaking of a father with our people. Fathers and mothers worry about their kids, and so do pastors (at least I do) when their faithful seem to be getting into the wrong crowd. Of course we have mostly adult children, but isn’t it true that parents don’t stop worrying (even if the Gospel tells us not to) when their children happen to reach a majority (or even seniority)? Fathers and mothers also rejoice at the successes of their children no matter what age they have reached.
So, “Father,” seems to me to be an acceptable image for a pastor. It speaks to the unique and personal relationship that exists between pastor and faithful.
The “fish out of water” image of pastoring especially applies to the first year or two of ministering in a given parish. The community has a history without the new pastor. Especially if it is culturally diverse, the new pastor has to spend time taking the community’s pulse and learning to understand its ways. One cannot lead a people until they have “joined” them. When the culture and language is different from the pastor’s own, it is even more important to be in tune, to join.
I remember one clear example of this when I was talking with a Puerto Rican religious sister about a situation we had in one of our communities where there was a person who saw himself as Christ come to lead them (and half the community did also). I mentioned to the sister that the people “didn’t know what they were doing.” She was indignant that I should ascribe ignorance to them. For her it was worse to be considered ignorant than to be considered culpable. One lives and learns.
When pastors “get it right” sometimes, it is really a grace. So I thank God for whenever I’ve “gotten it right,” these last 38 years. I pray God’s people forgive me for whatever damage I’ve done and trust the angels repair the damage. God is greater than our hearts.
(Fr. Ed O’Melia is pastor of St. Mary Parish in Davenport.)