First World Parish Problems
From boilermaking to landlording, priests wear many hats
“The Far Side” cartoons always have been a favorite. They make people laugh at themselves or look at the familiar through a humorous lens. For example, one panel shows Marie Antoinette as she is standing next to the guillotine, and she says, “And ice cream! I said let them eat cake and ice cream!” There is always another side to the story, and oftentimes it’s a side that is far from our minds.
Do you ever stop in the middle of an unfolding reality and silently read the word bubble over your head, hoping no one else knows what you’re thinking? Several word bubbles that invisibly have hovered over my head recently would read: “This is definitely ‘other duties as assigned,’” and “Is this Mass even valid anymore?” or “Madame, get a grip, this a First World problem!”
I would hate to add — or, more accurately, subtract — the hours that distract me from ministry. The “other duties that are assigned,” which probably is listed last on every employee’s job description, should be listed first for priests. Priests know their basic job: celebrate the Eucharist, write a homily, visit the sick, teach the class, bury the dead and absolve the penitent. Fortunately, while neither boring nor routine, these have become like muscle memory.
How often do we find ourselves doing tasks that we’ve never done nor been trained to do? We get on-the-job training to be certified in boilermaking, pipe fixing and mechanical work. This past year, each of the three churches I serve had to have its boiler replaced. These old boilers looked as if they were salvaged from the Titanic and recommissioned in one of the churches. Fourteen months ago, the term “pneumatic valve” was not in my vocabulary. If they it been, I would have assumed it was a body part that would need to be removed by a surgeon. I have come to learn that the radiators in the buildings are either pneumatic radiators (steam in the radiators) or hydraulic values (hot water in the radiators) and the pneumatic valve is for steam boilers (I think). Another new lesson and periodic chore is to “blow down the boilers.”
Priests often attend meetings with engineers and technicians for the progress reports and to learn how to keep it all functioning. I now know how recent immigrants feel sitting at a dining-room table full of Americans using the local jargon and having no clue what is being said.
Fortunately, celebrating Mass is memorized in every muscle in our bodies, which is a good when the Mass is on autopilot — not because we are disinterested, but because too much is out of our control. Periodically I arrive later than usual to the second Sunday morning Mass at one of the other churches. Invariably, when this happens, something will become a major distraction upon arrival, and then it is downhill from there. It was 10:45 a.m. as I arrived for the 11 a.m. Mass. The usher staff was minimal, and the volunteer sacristan was a no-show. The backup ushers were getting coached at 10:48 a.m., and I informed them to hold off taking the collection, as the archdiocesan annual appeal needed to be promoted immediately beforehand.
As usher-coaching ended at 10:52 a.m., the alarm on the small chair lift began screeching, echoing loudly in the barrel-ceiling church. Dominic, with his walker, has pressed the red panic button (again!) while being lifted 10 feet from ground level to church level. Dominic was not holding on to his walker, so he leaned to the far side, bumping the door just enough to shut the system down and flip the circuit breaker. At 10:54, I ran downstairs, flipped the circuit breaker back on, ran upstairs — the alarm must be on a different breaker, as it was still screeching — then, faking a sense of calm, I asked Dominic to stand in the middle of the lift and hold on to the walker as I pressed the lever for him to finish the ride.
It was 10:58 a.m. as I threw on an alb and chasuble, only to be asked by Pat, who said, “I know you are busy, but I just had to ask before I forget, Father, have you seen the new movie ‘Green Book’?” I politely said, “No, not yet,” while waving to the cantor to welcome all by announcing the gathering hymn. I was exhausted before the Mass started. The ushers, 30 minutes later, began taking the offering immediately after the prayers of the faithful, not waiting for the annual appeal announcement to end, as they forgot their coaching. I had to ask them to stop, which only two of the four ushers heard. After the recessional hymn, the teenage server looked at me and said, “Well, that was interesting.” I asked her, “Do you think the Mass was valid, or should we do it again?” She replied, “Once is enough; see you next Sunday, Father.”
Another new mantra lately is, “This is a First World problem.” Don’t you just tire sometimes of the whining, broken record of complaints? More and more frequently the phrase comes to mind, probably more because of my shrinking tolerance level than an increase in complaints. As I advance in age, I think of the poem “Warning, When I am an Old Woman” and realize that one easily can substitute “Priest” for “Woman.”
Cemetery complaints lend themselves to the “First World problem” response by my inside voice. When families call three weeks after the burial to say, “The grass is not fully covering the grave, and Dad’s birthday is in two weeks, and we are bringing Mom by to place flowers at the grave, but we can still see dirt,” it is these moments one is thankful the phone call isn’t a video chat, as the facial expression would speak too loudly and clearly. The inside voice is saying: “Really! People are struggling to make ends meet, half the world is hungry, and you are calling to complain that the $9.99 cut flowers you are buying for your father’s grave might get dirt on them?” So I, like any of us, said something totally benign and noncommittal: “Well, it has been a dry month, though rain is predicted next week, and that should help the grass to grow. How is your mother doing since the funeral?”
Recently I did respond to a chronic complainer with “this is a First World problem.” The parish is a landlord to several renters. All but one renter is a landlord’s dream, as the parish hears from them once a month via the mail when the rent checks arrive on time. Then there is the other one, who often is late with the check but cries “Wolf!” so often that one day it truly will be a crisis, and I won’t call the fire department. Outside the school building that he leases is a recycle bin, and there were bags of cans and bottles next to the overflowing bin. As the complaint continued, he asked what I am doing about it. I share that we live in a city community, and neighbors often bring their recyclables here, and we can’t control human behavior. As the rant continued, requesting me to make announcements reminding everyone not to put recyclables around the filled recycle dumpster, I (in aging, low-tolerance mode) simply said, “I am not making an announcement regarding the dumpster, as this is a First World problem.” The conversation did not end well, but at least it ended.
Even the parish staff — perhaps because they are playing follow the leader (who is not showing a good example) — is challenging their leader with their own new mantra. When he complains that the St. Vincent de Paul clothing bin is overfilled and bags are spilling out, the office manager replies, “What a beautiful problem to have — more clothes for the poor.” Our inside voices sometimes just beg to be set free.
FATHER PATRICK M. CARRION is pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management.