Seven Things Lay People Wish Their Priests Knew


My childhood pastor, back in the 1950s and early ‘60s in Yonkers, New York, was a priest named Msgr. Edward Betowski. It was said that the good monsignor was not much of a people person. He had spent about 300 years teaching at the seminary before suddenly being assigned in his old age to a parish in the middle of the post-World War II baby boom.

The nuns at Christ the King Grammar School were convinced Msgr. Betowski was a living saint, a viewpoint the kids generally shared because he never hollered at us—rare for an adult in those days. The men of the parish thought he was all right; they referred to him as "Holy Ed" for his way of framing even the most mundane pronouncements as if they were the revealed will of God.

Msgr. Betowski was renowned for his 9:00 A.M. Sunday Mass during the school year, which every Christ the King student had to attend. The problem was that the monsignor had a predilection for long sermons that focused on cancer. He’d be talking about whatever topic he’d brought to the pulpit in his homily, but eventually the discussion would get around to your last days on earth:

The cancerous tumor on your neck swells until your skin oozes. The nuns at the hospital will try to help, but the pain will be unrelenting. It is now that you must draw on the reservoir of strength from your Catholic faith. Will you have the power to shout as your neck pulsates in agony, ‘I offer this up for the poor souls in purgatory’?"

And we kids would just sit there, bug-eyed. Scratching our necks.

What Not to Wear

There was a popular book a few years back called Did You Ever Wonder What Your Baby Was Thinking? It was given to first-time parents when they left the hospital with their new babies, as if they were going to have any time to read over the next few months.

But though priests moving into parishes might have even less time to read as they break into their new assignments, it might be a good idea if they were presented with a book named Did You Ever Wonder What Parishioners Were Thinking? The book would have seven chapters, and the first chapter might be a surprise: "Please Let this Pastor Act—and Look—the Part."

One thing that parishioners expect from their pastors is a professional attitude. It might seem a bit mundane, but it’s a good starting point. This means first of all that a priest should pay attention to his wardrobe. Parishioners don’t expect Beau Brummel on a pastor’s retainer, but there have been pastors that have developed a bohemian affectation, which means they dress like a college kid who hasn’t been home to have Mom do his laundry.

Just as overdressing can make a priest seem a little highfalutin’, dressing like a slob gives the impression that he doesn’t care. Just as no businessperson would go to a meeting looking like something the cat dragged in, so a pastor needs to have the same respect for himself and his parishioners by dressing neatly and professionally.

This establishes a sense of mutual respect—and self-respect—that is reflected whenever the parish gathers. It also makes it easier for the parishioners to understand that Mass is not the place for flip-flops or that old plaid shirt that looked pretty good when it was first worn a decade ago.

Parishioners also expect that pastors will conduct parish business professionally. The office of the pastor should show the same professionalism: Letters and e-mails should be answered, calls returned. Parish secretaries should know what they are doing, be capable of answering routine questions, and not respond to calls for the pastor as if the parishioners are violating sacred turf. It’s the little things that mean a lot in creating a professional environment.

I’m in with the "In" Crowd

The next chapter in Did You Ever Wonder What Parishioners Were Thinking? might be called "I Wish the Pastor Didn’t Treat Me Like an Idiot." At the heart of clericalism is the idea that lay people are second-class citizens and that there is some secret, Gnostic-like knowledge of the Church that clergy and clergy alone possess and that makes them inherently superior. It’s annoying when pastors treat lay people as if they didn’t have brains in their heads.

As a card-carrying member of the laity, I can say with complete confidence that lay people have their dumb moments. Many may have tremendous knowledge and education in their chosen fields, but what they know about the faith is stuck at around the fifth-grade level, if that. Yet they believe that secular education and professional success entitle them to a magisterial authority over Church teaching.

But that doesn’t drive only priests nuts; it drives the rest of the laity crazy, too.

Let’s face facts. The laity can be spiteful, jealous, ignorant, petty, garrulous, lazy, mean-spirited, angry, idiotic, and just plain awful to be around at times. This is called the human condition. And it is shared by priests.

But the laity can also be courageous, forgiving, fervent, caring, generous, merciful, loving, energetic, insightful, and just plain great to be around. This is also called the human condition. And it, too, is shared by priests.

No matter the behavior, there is not one among us who likes condescension, who likes to be treated like a small child when we’re engaged in the eternal struggle to live the faith each day as best we can. Most of all, nobody likes to be treated like an idiot, whether the treatment comes from a clerical collar, a fine men’s suit, or a matching skirt and blouse.

Big Fish in a Small Pond

Chapter 3 can be "Give Us a Guy Who Knows His Place." There is an old joke: A religion teacher comes over to the rectory with a little kid in tow. She tells the pastor, "He told me to go stuff it." So the pastor says to the kid, "The teacher works very hard to help you learn about the faith. You can’t talk to her that way." And the kid says to the pastor, "Go stuff it."

The pastor answers, "Well, well, well. Let me explain something. I am a priest of the Holy Catholic Church. In time, it could be that I am named a monsignor. And after that, who knows, I could be ordained a bishop—an auxiliary bishop of this very diocese. And then the Holy Father could decide that I am meant to run a diocese, and I become shepherd of that flock. And then he moves me to a great metropolitan see, and I become an archbishop! Then I am named a cardinal and when the time comes to elect a new pope, it is me, me they elect! And I am the pope! ‘Go stuff it,’ you say? You go stuff it!"

Grandiosity is often the sin of alcoholics and those who take themselves too seriously. It is the sin of self-importance and the hubris that goes with it. It is vital that both the laity and the pastor know that a parish isn’t their own personal fiefdom that exists without regard to the diocesan church or the Church universal. A parish is a part of the whole, intimately connected with the bishop, the bishops of the world, and the Holy Father.

Parishioners don’t want a pastor whose self-image is the lord and master of all he surveys, a little pope who can bend a parish to his own image and likeness. At the same time, parishioners need to have their priests reinforce the fact that a parish is not an island unto itself but part of a diocese of which the bishop is the chief shepherd—just as the diocese reflects the unity of the Church worldwide under the successor of St. Peter.

It’s a practical matter, not just a theological understanding. Parishioners want to see that their parish is comfortably integrated into the life of the diocese and the life of the Church universal. A clear sign that this is being achieved is that liturgical norms and rubrics are met and respected, and the parishioners themselves show a concern for the wider Church, not just the Church as it exists in their own neighborhood.

Nobody wants their parish to have lone wolf status, forced onto it by someone with a chip on his shoulder for the diocesan bishop, or someone who thinks that he has cornered the market on what is right and wrong about the Church.

Takin’ It to the Streets

The next chapter might be "Don’t Play Politics with the Poor, but Keep Afflicting the Comfortable." When I was a little kid, I went to a home for incurable cancer patients. I was there because of a parish apostolate. The women of the parish made bandages for the home, and my old man and other men of the parish in the Holy Name Society delivered them on Saturdays.

I saw a fellow sitting in an easy chair, a heavy gauze wrapped around his neck, smoking the biggest cigar I had ever seen, and even at my young age I wondered if the cigar had anything to do with why he was there in the first place. The guy gave me a wink, and asked if I wanted a puff of his smoke. I must have looked at him like he had a third eye, because he said, "I didn’t think so!" and laughed out loud.

Every parish is a political mixed bag, from the wild-eyed to the apathetic. For the sake of peace, the parish is often seen as a place of escape—the one place in life where lay people can curl up comfortably and wrap themselves in a security blanket. There, no will be offended, because no offense will be given.

But while parishioners might want partisan politics out of the pulpit, they know that their parishes have to be dedicated to serve those who cannot serve themselves. A parish without a healthy outreach to the poor and troubled—a get-your-fingernails-dirty kind of outreach—is a parish living only a part of Scripture.

Catholic social justice is the one area where the pastor is expected to be annoying. Parishioners of all political persuasions or none at all want a pastor who leads the parish into a ministry of service. Grounded in essential Catholic social principles, a parish is a place where the fundamental dignity of human life is recognized and where Catholic action is based on the Beatitudes.

The style this takes should be practical rather than an ongoing campaign rally for Great Social Ideas. The ladies who cook and serve food for families when a member has died, special collections for the poor, a parish food pantry, twinning with a foreign mission or an inner-city congregation, petition drives, pro-life work that covers the whole gamut of life-related issues in our culture—the possibilities are endless.

No matter their political preference, parishioners expect their parishes to live out an option for the poor under their pastors’ leadership. It’s what the Church has to be about, and it’s a lesson in Christian stewardship they want to see passed on to the young. Like going with the old man to deliver bandages to a home for the sick on a Saturday morning.

Armed and Ready

The fifth chapter of Did You Ever Wonder What Parishioners Were Thinking? could be called "Stop Apologizing and Start Apologizing!" A few years back, my parish had an informal weekly study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A group of us got together, with an alternate presenter each week, to talk about a section of the Catechism.

When it was my turn as presenter, I was flapping my gums over the apologetic nature of the Catechism and mentioning how we needed a new apologetics for the faith in our own day. This brought a rather heated response from one of the participants. "I don’t know about you," she said, "but I ain’t apologizing for nothing!"

Good answer.

Parishioners today don’t need apologies for the faith. They don’t need to hear a touch of embarrassment about the hard truths of the faith that contradict conventional wisdom. They don’t need moral truths being treated like a crazy old aunt, acknowledged but hidden away in the attic bedroom. They don’t need the deposit of faith presented as an option.

What parishioners do need is the faith explained and defended so that they, in turn, can explain and defend it. Parishioners are on the front lines. It is they who are asked the questions about the faith every day, they who are bombarded with attacks on the faith from the propaganda of the world every day.

It is rarely the pastor who is grilled at the cocktail party about everything from the meaning of grace to Church teaching on the afterlife, abortion, and the separation of church and state. It is rarely the pastor who is approached by an old buddy from grammar school who hasn’t practiced the faith in years but is at that point in life when his mind has been set to wondering. It isn’t the pastor who is collared by the guy with the big, fat grin, spouting biblical injunctions and looking for a convert. It isn’t the pastor who has his faith sneered at and ridiculed as a hodgepodge of medieval superstition. It isn’t the pastor who has to face the snide jokes and umpteen wisecracks about clergy sexual abuse.

Parishioners have to deal with that kind of thing on a daily basis, from the wise-cracking brother-in-law to the fellow worker to the guy serving a beer at the bar to the broadcaster on the evening news to the sitcom before going to bed. Parishioners are not only the primary evangelizers of the faith in the workplace and educators in the faith at home. They are also the chief apologists and defenders of the faith where the rubber meets the road.

A lot of them walk away from that responsibility not from lack of belief but because they feel inadequate to the task. The pastor needs to give them the confidence—and the answers—to explain and defend the faith in a culture that is not terribly friendly to Catholicism.

Detraction Is Distractin’

Let’s call Chapter 6 "All We Need to See Is Love," a riff on the old Beatles song. Any parishioner worth his salt might spend an inordinate time complaining about "the boss." That "boss" can be anyone—the president of the company, the guy who runs the shop, the patients in the reception area, the members of the board, the person who stalks the data entry department, the customer at the counter—all those people who combine to make our workday life a little bit more miserable.

It may get old, but bad-mouthing the boss goes with the territory of humanity. This does not mean that parishioners are sympathetic to a pastor who complains about the Church. Though in the pastor’s mind he may be complaining about a rule from some overstepping bureaucrat down at the pastoral center, a constant impression that the pastor is irritated at the Church doesn’t do a lot for the laity.

Aside from the danger that exists of setting up the parish as a lonely fiefdom, parishioners need to view the Church as more than an institutional structure that has somehow managed to survive the centuries. Parishioners need to understand the Church as God’s mission and God’s mission as the Church.

Get beyond all the razzamatazz and things can be reduced to their essentials. The Church exists as Christ in the world, here and now, in his sacraments. The purpose of the Church is singular: to lead people to Jesus so that they will know God, will know how to live, and will find salvation in him. It is love for the Church as the sign of Christ in the world that parishioners want to see in their pastors every day.

Replace Yourself

Let’s call our final chapter "See You on the Road to Emmaus." When I was a little kid, Msgr. Betowski got the idea in his head that I was cut out to be a priest. There’s a picture in the family album of me around second grade, a round-headed kid with a fittingly pious expression, standing next to the monsignor, who has an arm around my shoulder and is looking down at me paternally.

I’m convinced he thought that picture would be on my desk down at the chancery when I was named cardinal-archbishop of New York and was explaining to reporters about the priest who inspired my vocation. Many of our pastors give us inspiration, but where that vocation will take us is anyone’s guess.

Pastor and Parishioner

If we can imagine a book for pastors, we can also imagine a book called Did You Ever Wonder What Pastors Were Thinking? because the laity don’t always comprehend what it means to be a priest today. Your pastor would certainly write about how people dress when they present for Mass and the sacraments. He might write about how the priest is isolated at a wedding reception, how people laugh at him at the mall when he is dressed in his clericals, how he gets blamed for not allowing a person in an invalid marriage to be a godparent.

We’re all in this together, pastors and parishioners, all trying to do God’s work in an unwelcoming world. We are all looking for Christ to be with us on the pilgrimage, all turning to the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, for the life of Christ in us and in the Church. What parishioners want to see in their pastors more than anything else is a priest who can help them on that pilgrimage because he is in love with Christ—and in love with the priesthood to which he was ordained.


Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is  the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).

This article appeared in Volume 17 Number 9.