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Interacting with People

Priesthood connects via the human element

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Not all that long ago, one of our church accounts was suspended at a local wholesaler due to a billing error. I thought that this would be a very simple thing to fix, but I was dead wrong. In calling to correct the error, I was bounced from one automated concierge to another.

A very pleasant, yet mechanical, voice asked me, “What is the nature of your problem?”

“I would like to talk to a representative,” I replied.

“OK, you want to talk to a representative,” it responded. “But before you do, would you like to try to resolve your problem by using our mobile app?” This went on for several minutes until finally I was transferred to another automated concierge in customer service, which, in turn, transferred me to another department. After being transferred to three continents and, I believe, the International Space Station, I eventually was connected to a real-life person two miles from the church. I almost cried. It was one of the greatest triumphs of my life.

Perhaps many of us have had this experience. Our society in many ways has become increasingly disengaged and impersonal. How different is our faith! Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (No. 1).

As Catholics, and especially as priests, we are called to be the embodiment of Christ to all those we encounter, to make Christ very real and present to those who come to us. At our parish, when the secretary leaves in the evening, our phone system goes into service mode. As a result, those who call after hours get a recording and a list of options to push and select.

One evening I was in my office late when the phone rang, and I took it off service to answer the call. “Is this a real person?” The woman on the other end asked.

“Yes,” I told her. “This is Father Mike, the pastor.”

“Oh my,” she replied. “I may have to increase my offertory contribution. You have to answer the phones at night!”

Although I had a good laugh at her humor, her attitude did make a point. It is a joy to interact with people who can help us encounter Christ rather than a recording.

Our fish-fry team had an experience with this during this past Lent. In an effort to make things easier, we attempted to offer more online ordering and a reservation system for those who wished to dine in-person. We even added the possibility of paying online. There was an elderly man who was not pleased with the results. “I am not a robot!” he shouted at one of our workers. “I also don’t know or care which pictures have bicycles to process my credit card. They are too small for me to see anyway. I just want a fried fish and a coleslaw. Please!”

I can totally relate to his frustration. While efficiency is always good, sometimes what we really need is assistance from a hands-on relationship.

One Easter, someone gave me a collection of readings on the priesthood and ministry. I remember one of the readings, which was from a 2018 Chrism Mass homily given by Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix. He reflected upon our need for a personal, intimate connection to Jesus.

He writes: “Within Jesus’ hands, we find the strength to be true to our promises made at ordination. … How good it is to lay our hands again in the wounded hands of Christ, entrusting to him our priestly ministry.” We simply cannot function well as priests or as a Church when we eliminate the human element.

To be honest, I really still do not enjoy automation and electronics. It took me more than three months to gain access to our online diocesan priest portal, and once I finally gained access I was locked out of the system. I also still regularly battle with online ordering and billing.

However, I take great comfort in knowing that our Church is based on a real relationship with Christ, not artificial intelligence. This relationship will never fail us, even though we may have to wait for a representative!

FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the pastor at Resurrection Parish, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School in Pittsburgh.

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