Being Good to Our Priests

Four years ago last Tuesday, the Papal Nuncio called me, the content Archbishop of Milwaukee, to tell me that Pope Benedict XVI wanted to appoint me the Archbishop of New York.
After a moment of silent shock, I replied, expressing a sense of honor and gratitude, but also an honest reservation about my worthiness and capability. Archbishop Pietro Sambi brusquely responded, “The Holy Father is not asking if you’re worthy or able. He’s asking if you’ll go!”
You know the rest of the story. But I then asked the Nuncio if the Pope had any counsel for me. “Be good to your priests,” he answered. I recalled that was the same advice I got from Pope John Paul II when named Archbishop of Milwaukee.
So, with God’s grace and mercy, I’ve tried to “be good” to our priests. I know I’ve stumbled on occasion, and Lord knows our priests are aware of my imperfections.
It’s easy, though, to “be good to our priests” because they are such good men. Everywhere I go, I hear you brag about them, extolling them for their zeal, fidelity, and pastoral care. I love them.
One of the best ways I can “be good” to them is in a fair, effective policy of assignment. While the “buck stops here” when it comes to decisions about appointments of priests, I depend heavily upon the personnel board they elect, the vicars, my auxiliary bishops, the director of priests’ personnel, and the chancellor, as well as counsel with you, the parishioners, and the priest himself.
Assignment of priests is not arbitrary, but guided by a policy. I’m told this goes all the way back to Cardinal Terence Cooke, and has been used by his successors, Cardinal John O’Connor and Cardinal Edward Egan.
Because it’s such an important document in the life of our clergy, about two years ago I asked our Council of Priests to take a look at it and see if it needed any fine-tuning. They, in turn, suggested I ask a smaller committee to do the study. I did.
This review committee did fine work, and reported to me that the current policy was sound. The only recommendations they made were, one, that I be more rigorous in holding our pastors to a maximum of two six-year terms as pastor; and, two, that a priest give up the administration of a parish at eighty.
I ran it by the personnel board. They agreed. Then I took it back to the Priests’ Council, and they approved both recommendations by a two-to-one majority. I have promulgated both of them.
Both rules make a lot of sense, although there is always some controversy. It’s healthy and renewing, for both the priest and his people, for the pastor to move on after a dozen years. This can guard against staleness and ennui.
Yes, parishioners understandably are reluctant to see a beloved pastor go, and some of them let me know. Last year, for instance, dozens of people in such a parish let me know that they wanted to keep Father, even if it had been twelve years. I checked his files, to find out that, twelve years before, the people in his former parish had campaigned to have him stay there. “Aren’t you glad that Cardinal Egan did not listen to them, but instead moved him to your parish? Isn’t it now time for you to share him with another parish?”
The letter writing halted.
A bit tougher is the second rule, that a priest cannot stay as pastor/administrator in his parish upon reaching eighty. (Our pastors can retire at seventy-five. If they wish to stay on, and a physician’s report indicates they are able, they can remain until eighty). Thank God we’ve got devoted priests who can and want to stay on. And, thank God, many of them, even at eighty, can still be a parish priest, just no longer the man in charge. It’s sometimes a tough call, because there’s always going to be an eighty year old who can run laps around a fellow fifteen years younger! But, almost always, it’s good for the health of the priest, and the good of the parish, that a man steps down from administrative demands once he reaches eighty. And most of our priests want to.
I just share this with you because you love your priests as much as I do.
I would wager that almost all of you are nodding your heads that this policy makes sense…unless you are in a parish where a pastor you love will have to leave!
That’s where the Catholic dimension of our faith comes in: we’re always concerned about the well-being of the wider Church, recognizing that the particular needs of my parish or my priest always must be second to the needs of the bigger Church.
Our priests admirably acknowledge this. Whenever I discuss a move with one of our priests, he is honest about the pluses and minuses of the proposed change. But, unfailingly, his “bottom line” is, “But, Eminence, I’m at your service and want to do what is good for the Church.”
Thanks for understanding. Pray, please, that I can be “good to our priests.” God forbid I let them, you, or Pope Benedict down.