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I'm Not the Entire Congregation

07/16/2013 Comments (94)

Last Sunday, our retired pastor (who does an awful lot of work for someone who is retired) gave the sermon.  It was hot, the kids were squirrelly, and I gave a little sigh when I realized that he was planning to focus on something fairly pedestrian:  the idea that everyone is our neighbor, even if they look different from us.  We, as the people of God, should be accepting and welcoming of all peoples, and must love and care for them just like the Good Samaritan did for the  man who fell victim to robbers.  Racism is bad. 

All true, I thought to myself, but not exactly groundbreaking.  Come on, Father!  There are no lynch mobs in this congregation.  Tell us something we actually need to hear.

He continued on, urging us to be patient with our new priest, who's from Uganda.  He explained that people from other countries have different accents that might be hard to understand at first, and that we should give him time.

Again, I groused in my head:  of course we'll be patient!  If anything, I was impatient and disappointed that we hadn't heard more from our new priest, because I am a sucker for any kind of African accent.  He concelebrated Mass last week, but we didn't hear much from him on his own.  But we're a friendly congregation.  I was pretty sure nobody was going to complain.

Thus I complained in my mind.  This is not what we need to hear, Fr. D.  Tell us something we don't already know!

Then it occurred to me, our retired pastor has been a priest for over fifty years.  If he thinks something needs to be said, then it needs to be said.  Heck, he was glaring at us -- something I've seen maybe twice in the seven years we've been going to Mass at this parish.  I realized, with a small shock, that some members of the congregation probably had complained about the Ugandan priest -- said they couldn't understand him, or that he wasn't doing things in exactly the way they were accustomed to seeing them done.

In short, he wasn't tailor made for them.  They were behaving as if their needs -- to be comfortable, to be catered to -- were the needs of the entire congregation.  Never mind that we desperately need more priests to give us the sacraments!  Never mind that a priest from Uganda is likely to be young and orthodox!  They were so stuck in their ways, they wanted to keep on hearing what they expected to hear

Then, with a sickening mental thud, this thought landed:  me, sitting there in the pew, sighing at the sermon?  I'm doing the same thing.  Maybe I'm not a racist, but there I was, grousing because the sermon wasn't tailor made for me.  I was expecting to file in and have a message delivered according to my desires, as if the Mass were a vending machine and I had just put in my quarter. 

I'm not the entire congregation.  There are some things we all need, and which we rightfully expect to receive when we go to Mass:  a reverent liturgy, a valid sacrament.  Then there are other things which we would like to get, but which we are by no means guaranteed:  a style which is familiar and unchallenging, a sermon which hits home and ignites our hearts with just the message we needed to hear.

Here's the thing:  just because it's not what I needed to hear right now, that doesn't mean it didn't need to be said.  I'm not the entire congregation.  So if you're sitting in the pew and feeling disgruntled with what the Church is delivering to you, remember that:  you're not the entire Church. 

The priests realize this.  They know that, when they preach something, their words won't hit home for everyone.  But last Sunday, our retired pastor was doing a remarkable thing: he was reaching a brotherly arm out to his new fellow priest, showing the congregation that they are united, that they are engaged in the same work -- that, even if their styles or emphasis diverge a little bit, they serve the same heavenly master. 

Sound familiar?


Listen, maybe the new guy isn't telling you exactly what you feel like you need to hear right now.  Maybe, when you tune in for the Sunday sermon, you're hearing a message that seems beside the point, or disappointingly mundane, or maybe you groan to yourself, "I already know this!  Can we kick it up a notch?  Tell us something we actually need to hear!"  Well, suck it up, Catholics.  You're not the entire congregation.  There are plenty of people out there who do need to hear what the pastor saying -- who need it desperately, and haven't heard anyone else saying it. 

And while you're acknowledging that the Church is full of people who aren't you, you could dig a little deeper ask yourself:  do I treat the Church like a vending machine?  Do I plunk myself down, deposit my quarter, and expect to get what I paid for?  Maybe not hearing what you need to hear can tell you something you need to know.

And here's something else to ask yourself:  if I'm disgruntled about the new guy and his unfamiliar style, what would the old guy would say if he heard me complaining?

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About Simcha Fisher

Simcha Fisher
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Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs at I Have to Sit Down. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and nine children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.