Evacuated residents talk with a priest inside a sports center near Estepona, Spain, on Sept. 12, 2021. The residents were evacuated from their homes due to a wildfire on Sierra Bermeja in Ronda. CNS photo/Jon Nazca, Reuters

Made for This Moment

In a Catholic climate of change, shifting and growth, priests matter

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“Mr. Cellucci?” The nurse called and I shot up from my waiting room chair. As I walked toward her, I noticed she was trying not to look me in the eyes. “The doctor would like to speak to you about your son in this conference room.” As soon as I glanced to the side and saw the room, my stomach dropped. Despite his mask and face shield, I could tell the doctor was readying himself for a job he didn’t want to do.

He told me that my 7-year-old son, Peter, had a large malignant tumor in his brain. He told me that it was “life-threatening and life-altering” for Peter and for our family.

The next few days and weeks were a blur, but there are moments that I will never forget. I will never forget having to call my wife and Peter’s two older sisters to share that news. The guttural wails of Peter’s 10-year-old sister will forever be burned in my memory. I will never forget almost passing out as I talked with the talented but emotionless surgeon in the hallway about what was involved. And fathers, I will never forget my pastor.

We are blessed with a great parish, and as soon as the word went out, Father Redcay was in touch. This was December, and COVID was raging. Hospital restrictions were their most stringent, and even my wife, Tricia, and I were not allowed to be with Peter together for more than a few hours.

Father Redcay and our associate priest came the first night and were able to spend a few minutes with Tricia in the lobby, but they were not allowed to come up to see Peter. The next day, the day before surgery, Father told us he would come again to see if he could anoint Peter. Someone in the hospital said it might be possible, then someone said it wouldn’t be, then someone said they would try. Father Redcay said he would come anyway and see what might happen.

After an hour, it was clear it was not going to happen. I texted Father from Peter’s bedside to apologize for him wasting his time and to let him know he could leave. I’m not sure how many hours later, but I went down to grab a cup of coffee and a little fresh air while Peter slept. As I walked into the lobby, there was my pastor, sitting in an uncomfortable chair with his mask on, saying his prayers. When he saw me, he stood up and walked over.

It was the only time we ever hugged, but it was a long one. I cried into his shoulder in a way I haven’t ever cried with anyone in my adult life before. Despite the mess I was making of his jacket, he continued to hug me and simply said, “I thought you might need to do this.”

Change, Shift and Grow

Fathers, despite the long introduction, this article is not about my son Peter or me. It is about you. From my 16 years of serving the mission of Catholic Leadership Institute, I have come to understand your life in a way that most lay people don’t and probably won’t. I will not claim to know it as you know it, but after serving 100 dioceses, almost a third of the diocesan priests, and after thousands of emails, calls and meetings, I have a sense of some of the burdens and stresses. I know each year just seems to get harder.

This last year, under COVID, has been incredibly stressful. Decision fatigue, Zoom fatigue, mask wars, everchanging diocesan guidelines … it was as if you were already juggling multiple balls and then someone threw a big medicine ball at your gut.

I’d like to tell you the road will get easier. I’d like to tell you that post-pandemic life will be a return to the good ole days. You and I know that is not the case. We will need to work double-time to retain those we had practicing before the pandemic, not to mention all of those we were trying to win back for Christ even before the pandemic hit. The landscape of our Church will most likely become more disruptive. We will need to continue to adapt. More parishes will merge or close. The responsibilities of shepherding will likewise change and shift and grow.

You Matter, a Lot

Fathers, there is so much that I do not know about our current situation and our future. However, what I do know, for a fact, is that you matter, a lot. In our research of over 300,000 parishioners from more than 1,500 parishes in North American, a parishioner is 11 times more likely to recommend their parish if they are likely to recommend you — not their bishop, not the music, not even the preaching. You. Eleven times. They are four times more likely to say that they are growing in their Catholic faith if they are likely to recommend you. At least statistically speaking, it appears that almost nothing else matters as much to parishioners as who you are to them. No pressure!

You may read that statistic and feel the weight of the world resting on your chest. It is a daunting reality for a leader, and people will often hear me say that it is an unhealthy dynamic. However, it is a tremendous affirmation of the importance of your vocation, and it presents an incredible opportunity.

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More from Cellucci

OSV Talks offers a presentation with Dan Cellucci titled “What If They Don’t Come Back?” In his talk, Cellucci reminds us that Christianity is not about meeting a bare minimum. It’s about seeking a more abundant life — in every time and in every place. Watch the talk at osvtalks.com/cellucci.

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And here’s the best news — you already have the vast majority of what you need to embrace this opportunity. It’s simply your presence.

As we have begun to dig into our statistical research more, there are a few traits that seem to be consistent among those pastors that are strongly recommended by their parishioners. The parishes of these pastors also seem to be holding their own or thriving when it comes to attendance or finances, even in light of the COVID-19 cloud. The findings have given me great hope — and confirmation — that God called you and so many of your brothers to the priesthood for precisely this moment in history.

Vulnerability

The first trait that emerged in our studies was vulnerability. Fathers, the People of God want to know who you are. They want to know what gets you excited and what gets you frustrated. They want to know who your family is and what you love about the priesthood. They want to break bread with you in their homes. They want you to play with their kids. They will listen to a homily about the historical context of Sunday’s Gospel, but if they hear how you have been changed by the Gospel, they will be transformed.

Prior to COVID, we hosted a leadership-formation session for bishops on shepherding the domestic church. We like to have a little fun and keep things interactive, so the team brought in some of our children ages 2-12. We asked the bishops in attendance to take some time and plan an activity to engage the children in a meaningful lesson in faith. We supplied them with lots of crafts and supplies. One group of bishops sat down on the floor with the children and taught them a song they loved. As we debriefed the experience, one of the participating bishops shared, “It has been so long since I’ve gotten on the floor; I need to get on the floor more.”

Fathers, we need you on the floor with us. Beyond all the strategic plans and big programs, people will come to know the Lord most through relationships with others. We cannot be in a relationship with you if we don’t know you. We can’t get to know you if you don’t get on the floor.

Innovation

A second trait found among these pastors was “innovation.” The parishes that emerged in our data as the strongest performers have a shepherd who accepts new ideas and works to integrate them.

I want to be clear here. These were not men who created the ideas or executed the ideas. These were men who cultivated engagement among their people and who gave their people permission to try and to fail and to try again. They were also priests who protected the creativity of others from the fear-based mindset of some protective staff or territorial key ministry leaders.

I am amazed how often I meet with pastors who say, “We just don’t have anyone in our community who could do X or Y.” We make so many decisions for people before even asking them. In our ministry, we saw so much good fruit coming from parishes placing phone calls to parishioners during the pandemic.

Yet, despite parishes calling me looking for ideas during the pandemic, and me sharing data-driven results of parishes that were seeing increases in offertory or engagement from these phone calls, I can’t tell you how many parish staff and council members said they couldn’t do it. The reasons included everything from “invasion of privacy,” to not wanting to “bother people,” to “we don’t have anyone who would do that.”

The pastors that seemed to emerge in our study were willing to say, “Let’s try it.” But more than that, they were ready to coach and debrief what their parish leaders learned from the experience regardless of how well or how poorly it went.

Optimism

The last trait I want to highlight is optimism. You might be thinking, “Dan, you are the scary, depressing statistic man; why don’t you try giving me something to be optimistic about!” It is very tempting to look around at all the disruption and decline and wonder, “What are we doing here?”

But you and I know that true Christian hope is not simply the belief that everything will get better or easier. We know, and the People of God need to know, that life has meaning, that God is present. We need to be reminded that the victory has already been won.

As long as we focus on our relationship with him and through him with one another, we have the GPS for which the rest of the world is desperate.

One of the most helpful things my pastor has offered me during my son’s illness (besides the hug) was the encouragement to consider changing my prayer from, “God, why is this happening?” to “God, where are you in this?” Optimism, in our tradition, and in your leadership, is not telling us everything is OK when it’s not. It’s reminding us that despite everything that is going on around us, God is here, and so are you, our shepherds.

Fathers, here is why I’m optimistic. Because I know you. OK, so maybe I don’t know all of you. But I know enough of you to believe at the depth of my core that your call to the priesthood was based in your love for the Lord and your love for his people. I believe you want to be in a relationship with us. That it was a ministry of presence that attracted you to this life. I believe that you believe the victory has been won.

As we hopefully come out of this pandemic, don’t look to go back. Look forward. Now is the time to embrace those foundational elements of your priesthood that drew you to ordination. Don’t prioritize the meetings or the diocese or the drama. Make as much time as you can to squat down and high-five a 3, to accept that dinner invitation and to keep your eyes out for someone’s eyes who are crying out to cry with you. It’s in these moments that parishioners understand how much God loves them, how much the Church loves them, through how much you love them. And I have the data to prove it.

In the initial months of the pandemic and long before my son’s diagnosis, I was helping my pastor sanitize the pews after one of our first public Masses. As we traversed each row with spray guns, he stopped, chuckled a bit and said: “What the heck are we doing? I have no idea what God was thinking, calling me to be a priest right now.”

Months later, as he literally held me up in that hospital lobby, I knew exactly what God was thinking. Fathers, you were made for exactly this moment. Don’t miss it.

DANIEL CELLUCCI is CEO of Catholic Leadership Institute, an apostolate providing leadership training and consulting to more than 250 bishops, 3,500 priests and over 25,000 deacons, religious and lay leaders in more than 100 dioceses.

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What Is the Catholic Leadership Institute?

Writer Dan Cellucci serves as the CEO of the Catholic Leadership Institute, based in Malvern, Pennsylvania. The Institute walks alongside bishops, priests, deacons and Church leaders, providing pastoral leadership formation and consulting services that strengthen their confidence and competence in ministry, enabling them to articulate a vision for their local Church, to call forth the gifts of those they lead, and to create more vibrant faith communities rooted in Jesus Christ.

Its mission states: “We see a world where all individuals understand their God-given mission in life and is doing their best to fulfill it; a world where Catholic leaders are influential voices in society; a world where Jesus’ example of loving, servant leadership is modeled in every family, workplace, parish, and community.”

They partner with many dioceses, parishes and lay organizations throughout the U.S. Find additional information at catholicleaders.org.

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