Dueling Priests: A Religious Adventure

You would think everyone could get along at church. But, it turns out, people get as political and competitive as they would in the corporate setting. Here’s why these human imperfections actually strengthen my faith.

Mood music:

First, a little history: In September, our beloved pastor, Father Dennis Nason, passed away, leaving a gaping hole in the church community. The parochial vicar, Father Michael Harvey, performed practically every Mass from that point until a new pastor, Father Tim Kearney, joined the parish in late January.

I like Father Kearney a lot. He’s a hands-on kind of guy. He personally directed a Passion play Sean performed in on Palm Sunday and took an active role in the R.C.I.A. (Right of Christian Initiation for Adults) group I helped out with this year. He’s very good with the kids. He remembers names. That’s what I want in a pastor.

Father Harvey is much more conservative in his approach to Mass. He doesn’t like dramatizations of the Holy Word at all. A couple years ago he changed the Easter Vigil Mass around so lectors had straight readings instead of the different lines for God and the three narrators that had been in place before. Father Kearney put the lines back in this year. One one hand, I always thought Biblical dramatizations were a good thing. It brings the Word of God to life for younger folks in ways a simple reading won’t pull off. In this age of Web 2.0 and superior computer graphics, it takes a lot to suck a kid in at church.

That said, I really like Father Harvey, too. He’s fabulous with the kids and spends hours upon hours at the school. I also respect the rigor he puts on himself. He talks often about not being a particularly nice guy when he was younger. I think he’s been beating himself hard over that ever since becoming a priest. The thing is, it leads to some very inspiring homilies. He’s also a very gentle, mild-mannered guy. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything he says, as I make clear in this older post. I also bristle when he gets uncomfortable with Duncan’s pink hat and overall love affair with the color. You’d think it was a gender or sexual orientation instead of just a color.

But in the bigger picture, I think the clashing styles of these two priests is good for the church. Father Kearney’s approach will reach a lot of younger people — not just children, but 20-and-30-somethings who might be enticed to come to church again. Father Harvey’s approach satisfies the more conservative part of the church. Together, they can serve a wider collection of families and individuals.

But not everyone is happy with this new dynamic.

For the folks who had taken on a lot of extra work between pastors, Father Kearney’s hands-on style is uncomfortably jolting to those who were used to Father Nason’s more laid back approach.

Meanwhile, some parishioners are getting prickly over Kearney’s longish homilies, especially during Lent. Some Masses ran late, which really gets to those who think there’s an 11th Commandment: Masses Shalt Not Last More Than 1 Hour.

It never takes much to rattle a parish. People get set in their ways and are easily scandalized by anything new and different. People who have had certain roles for many years don’t want to give up their turf. They know what’s best, and everyone else is a dope who should keep to themselves. They absolutely hate being told what to do, especially when a suggested change of tactic is implied.

Some would say the church deserves this because of past injustices like the priest sex abuse scandal. I know one guy who refuses to go to confession because he confessed his sins to a priest that was later convicted and imprisoned for sexual misconduct.

For those of us who have Faith, hanging on to it can be a real bitch. We constantly let human personalities and Earthly struggles get between us and Jesus. I’ve done it many times.

For years after my best friend died in a suicide, I wasn’t receptive to anything a priest had to say. Suicide is supposed to be a one-way ticket to Hell, and I didn’t want to believe that my friend was going there for being mentally sick and not even close to being in his right mind. For a very long time, I got more comfort in  my addictive impulses than in anything related to faith.

We constantly hear about people leaving the church, and sometimes it feels like priests would do just about anything to get people to come back. You see elaborate campaigns like “Catholics Come Home” and run into priests who don’t want to offend anyone over anything. One of the things I’ve always liked about Father Mike is that he doesn’t care who he offends. The word of God is the way it is. Period.

But to me, a guy who only recently learned what it means to Let Go and Let God, the biggest problem is that we all let our egos get in the way.

We place personality over everything else.

We’ll grab onto any excuse to stop trying to be good Christians. The sex abuse scandal was a perfect example, though I personally believe you’d have to be whacked in the head not to have been outraged by that. Nothing shakes a person’s faith from its moorings like anger and rage.

That’s our big challenge, to remember every day that it all comes down to one simple thing: The relationship we as individuals have with God.

It should be a relationship impervious to human bickering, though it never really is.

I consider myself lucky. A few years back, I’d let everything to do with church politics consume me with rage and worry. In working the 12 Steps of Recovery, I’ve learned that the only way to move forward is to let that stuff go. My ego still resurfaces periodically to mess it all up, but for the most part I’m getting the hang of this “surrender” thing.

The other thing, and this might reveal a sinister side of me, is that I enjoy a good clash of personalities. A little drama is always entertaining, and I like seeing people with widely differences forced into a small space where the only way they can survive is to work together.

The best of what’s in us can come out in those circumstances.

In the end, I think the priests in my parish will have to learn how to work together. It’s their problem to work out.

In time, I think they will.


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