This past summer, I was assigned to assist at Christ the King Catholic Church on the northside of Indianapolis. I began in June expecting to learn about the day to day life of the parish priest and to better grasp his role in the parish. Here’s what I learned:
1. The parish priest ought to be versatile.
In July, I helped teach the parish’s Vacation Bible School, where I taught pre-schoolers through fourth-graders about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Being the third of eight children, I have consistently been around every age group under the sun. Teaching Vacation Bible School should have been easy. It was not.
I forgot that I have not spent the last three years around children. For a year and a half, I studied Industrial Engineering at Purdue. During that time, I became more attentive to God’s call and decided to transfer to Bishop Brute Seminary, where I have been for another year and a half. If all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, then so much highfalutin study away from the simple world of children makes a seminarian balk at what is rudimentary. Afterall, solving a second order linear non-homogenous differential equation or writing a fifteen-page metaphysics paper defending mathematical nominalism is astronomically different from teaching pre-schoolers about the Ten Plagues of Egypt.
Herein lies a reality of parish life that I did not expect to learn. Certainly, priests study philosophy and theology so that they can understand the faith inside and out. However, it means little that a priest understands a concept if he cannot explain it in a variety of ways to parishioners of various ages and states of life. A pastor is the shepherd of a pre-schooler as much as he is the shepherd of Sunday’s lector or the parishioner who struggles with the Church’s teaching on same-sex unions. Therefore, the priest should be able to meet everyone where they are at and challenge them to seek the same goal: union with God in Heaven.
2. Be kind, be kind, and be kind.
On one of my first days at my summer assignment, the pastor told me, “I’ll give you three words of advice that a wise priest imparted on me years ago: be kind, be kind, and be kind.” I did not grasp the words’ significance immediately, but after spending an entire summer at the parish, this simple repetitive command has provoked two thoughts in particular.
First, nowhere in the words, “be kind, be kind, and be kind” do they even remotely imply, be tolerant at all costs. It is not kind for a priest to lead a parishioner into error, as to not offend their sensibilities. Our Lord Himself let prudence dictate whether He should teach by word or example, but He nonetheless always taught the Truth. His ultimate goal was neither to simply correct error, nor to “just be nice”. He willed the good of the other, seeking to lead every last soul to heaven. Sometimes, kindness calls for “intolerance,” in a sense. If a priest’s goal is to help his parishioners become saints, he must encourage good and be intolerant toward evil (while obviously still loving the one in error).
Second, a priest whose heart is soft, and whose demeanor is gentle conveys the love of Christ very well. It is terribly important for people today to know that they are loved by God. A kind priest makes for a good confessor, because his heart resembles Christ’s by virtue of Holy Orders, but also by virtue of his charity. It is easier to talk to a kind priest and easier to heed a kind priest’s teaching. After all, just as sheep recognize their shepherd’s voice, we recognize Christ’s voice, particularly in the charity of kind priests.
Pope Francis has been calling the Church to dialogue with each other, particular about controversial subjects. While dialogue will never and can never do the job of the Magisterium, it can open the door to some, helping them to more deeply encounter the faith. This summer, I noticed just how conducive a kind priest is to dialogue. Parishioners are typically willing to speak with him. And when they do, he lowers their anxiety, welcomes conversation, and listens. The kind priest reflects Christ who always hears us and is always willing to help us to Heaven.
I thank God for the chance to assist at Christ the King this past summer. I learned a lot, but most importantly, I learned that I do not know a lot. Before all else, I hope to know and practice the charity of our Lord, the Eternal High Priest. The reality is that we do not need hard-hearted priests. We need loving priests, because if more of us would love as Christ loves, our world would embrace our Father in Heaven instead of fretting over the vanities of the world.
Benjamin Popson is a seminarian studying for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and s member of the class of 2020.