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On being a father to the fathers

Nine years ago I made an appointment with Archbishop Charles Chaput to talk to him about a parish concern. Archbishop listened very patiently to me, and then he told me that he was going to ask me to become the Vicar for Clergy for the archdiocese. It came as a total surprise to me and I was unable to respond.

Over the last nine years I have learned a lot about what it means to serve as Vicar for Clergy. When people ask me what I do, and I tell them that I am the Vicar for Clergy, the expression on their faces is usually one of bewilderment. Often times I tell them that I’m like the Human Resource person for the priests and deacons, and that seems to satisfy their curiosity.

Certainly, in a certain sense that does explain the job of attending to the health, education, placement and general employment concerns for priests and deacons. However, I have discovered that the “job” is much more than applying policy to particular situations or advising priests about their health insurance or what they should do to prepare for retirement, all of which are important.

This ministry is really about trying to be a “father to the fathers.” Even as I write those words they seem strange to me: how can one possibly be a father to the priests of an entire archdiocese? It also seems presumptuous on my part to think that I could be formed, educated, mature, and sufficiently wise to be a “father to the fathers.”

It’s about accompanying them in their journey. The challenge of being a priest in today’s world is a great one indeed. A priest in a parish faces many challenges that touch on almost all aspects of human life.

On a daily basis the priest can find himself as the “first responder” to a family in grief over the loss of a loved one. He can find himself placed in the role of ethicist as he tries to advise a family that is trying to decide about life support for a dying family member. He can be a catechist as he teaches a group of young people about maintaining a life of purity. He is often the “confessor” as he listens to the broken-hearted and those who carry heavy burdens from their past. And he is the administrator, managing parish budgets and fixing leaky roofs.

Not too long ago I had the joy of celebrating a confirmation in a local parish. It was beautiful celebration, but as I was leaving I noticed the pastor with a mop and bucket in hand as he was going to clean up a mess. He just looked at me smiled and said, “Such is the life of a pastor!”

How does one be a father to these fathers? They too carry within their hearts hurts and disappointments, and they carry within their hearts great joy for things accomplished, or times when they witnessed the joy of conversion happen in the life of a parishioner. To be a father to them is to support them and to walk with them. It’s not to have all the answers, but rather to help point them in the direction that will help them in their journey.

The call to be a father is exactly that, a call. One does not take this on his own initiative, for if done in that spirit it will lead to pride and a hunger for position rather than seeking to be an instrument in the hand of the Lord.

Being a “Father to the Fathers” is not just a job, but a ministry, and the path the Lord has provided for his own reasons to help further his plan. That same truth is true in the life of each priest whether he is pastor, parochial vicar, working at the seminary or in the chancery or engaged in advanced studies or ministering in the military.

Our mission is not about us, but about the Eternal Father whose love we seek to reveal. Please keep priests in your prayers that every day our hearts may be renewed by the Heart of Christ.

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