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The Parson and Me

Inspiration from Chaucer’s fictional parson character

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Years ago, while walking around Westminster Abbey, I entered the south transept. This section of the church includes what is known as the Poet’s Corner, where many famous English writers are buried or memorialized. While looking around, I literally backed up into the tomb of a man who helped give direction to my becoming a diocesan priest, Geoffrey Chaucer.

At times, there are real people who inspire with their example. At other times, fictional people found in works of literature inspire us, as well. One priest once recounted that he became a priest because of a particular bishop. He added that he had never met that bishop and, in fact, that bishop never existed. His inspiration was the kindly and compassionate Bishop Myriel in “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo. The parson in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” has served as an inspiration to me.

Among the works of poetry found at the end of Volumes III and IV of the Liturgy of the Hours, one finds Chaucer’s description of the parson. When I was in high school, a literature teacher remarked that the parson was the only person connected to the Church that comes off positively in that work.

Dedication to the Gospel

A good man was there of religoun,
And was a povre parson of a town;
But rich he was of holy thought and work.
He was also a learned man, a clerk,
That Christes gospel truly woulde preach;
His parishfolk devoutly would he teach.

The parson was educated and not interested in wealth, but rather dedicated to the Gospel and to sharing it. Furthermore, he used his gift of education at the service of the Church’s mission in a manner both conscientious and devout.


Benign he was, and wonder diligent,
And in adversity full patient;
And such he was y-proved often times.

Throughout life and certainly in pastoral ministry, there are many opportunities to show kindness, duty and patience. Patience can be the grist by which we mature in any state of life. Priesthood, ministry and life are all experiences that can stretch us. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the virtue of fortitude is found in endurance and in difficult times it calls us to be fully patient. The way we grow in this patience is by practicing it often.

In an increasingly bellicose and uncivil world, kindness is all the more important. One author has pointed out that Jesus never told people to be nice but to be kind. There is a difference.

Caring for People

Full loth were him to cursen for his tythes,
But rather would he give, out of doubt,
Un-to his povre parishfolk about
Of his offering, and eke of his substance.
He could in little thing have suffisance.

He cared more about his people than himself and did not threaten others in order to receive money. He gave the benefit of the doubt to those in need. At times, priests and pastoral ministers are called to do the same. In her novel “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Willa Cather contrasted priests who lived for the people or upon the people. This priest lived for his people and not for money.


Wide was his parish, and houses, far, asunder,
But he neglected not, for rain or thunder,
In sickness or in mischief, to visit
The furthest in his parish, great and little,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staff.

Sometimes, if I have to drive a distance for a Communion call or pastoral visit, I think of this. It applies whether they are rich or poor, even in bad weather. I have the luxury of a car and ought not to complain. Inconveniences are part of life, as well as of pastoral ministry. This man was willing to be inconvenienced in service to God’s people.

St. John Paul II taught that to say Church is to say mission. Pope Francis speaks of becoming missionary disciples. Parish priests are missionaries, sent by their bishop to serve the people of a particular parish. This priest was faithful to his mission.


This noble example to his sheep he gave,
That first he wrought and afterward he taught
Out of the gospel he these wordes caught;
And this figure he added eke there-to,
That, if gold ruste, what shall iron do?
For if a priest be foul, on whom we trust,
No wonder is a lewed man to rust;
And shame it is, if a priest take keep,
A dirty shepherd and a cleane sheep.
Well ought a priest example for to give,
By his cleanness, how that his sheep should live.

Often over the past several scandal-laden years I have thought about those words: if a priest be foul, on whom we trust. He knew the importance of his example, including living a chastity appropriate to his state in life. He recognized the role he held of being a moral leader. The most valuable gift people give to us is their trust. The most horrible thing we can do is to abuse that trust. The bottom of Dante’s “Inferno” is for those who betrayed others.

Remain Close to the People

He did not set his benefice to hire,
Nor left his sheep encumbered in the mire,
And ran to London, un-to Sainte Paul’s,
To seeken him a chantery for souls.
Or with a brotherhed to be enrolled;
but dwelt at home, and kepte well his fold,
So that the wolf might make it not miscarry,
He was a shepherd and not mercenary.

In Jane Austen’s novel “Mansfield Park,” one of the lead characters, Edmund Bertram, is being discouraged from entering the ministry, or at least from living close to his people if he does so. His father, Sir Thomas Bertram, while acknowledging that he will miss his son, is quick to add:

“But a parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. … Human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself, by constant attention, their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.”

Chaucer’s unnamed parson stayed close to his people, offering more than a weekly sermon. He recognized his distinctive role but also was united to his people, not distant or haughty.

I began my years in the seminary studying for my diocese, but spent much time discerning whether my call would be to monastic life or as a diocesan priest. It was a struggle. There were many factors that went into my decision, which I think was the correct one. Informing those of that decision was this selection describing the parson. Reading about someone who chose parish life and was faithful to it rather than seeking religious life was not the reason I became a diocesan priest, but it may have been part of the equation. In no way does this lessen my esteem for those who embrace religious life, but rather this pertains to my own journey of discernment.

The parson was both content and conscientious in his ministry. “How much do you charge for a funeral?” is a question that irritates me like fingernails on a chalkboard. I tell people that there are no fees and half-jokingly add that I get a salary and don’t work on commission. I must confess, however, at times, such as when I make the effort to do a wedding off-site and there is no offering (and not because of financial straits), I am irritated. But at those and similar times, it is good to remember that priests are called to be shepherds and not mercenaries — that is, living for their people, not off of them.


An ecclesial renewal which cannot be deferred

“I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: ‘All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion.’” — Evangelii Gaudium, No. 27


Good Confessors

And though he holy were, and virtuous,
He was to sinful man not despitous,
Not of his speeche dangerous not digne,
But in his teaching discreet and benign.
To draw his fold to heaven by fairness
By good example was his business:
But if were any person obstinate,
What-so he were, of high or low estate,
Him would he snibben sharply for the nonce.

“He was to sinful man not despitous.” In other words, he was the type of priest to whom you want to go to confession because of his kindness and compassion. You could say that he was a good steward of his power, recognizing that when people confess their sins, they are making themselves vulnerable.

Psalm 145:13-14 says: “The LORD is trustworthy in all his words, / and loving in all his works. / The LORD supports all who are falling / and raises up all who are bowed down.” That beautiful verse can serve as an examination of conscience for confessors. Am I faithful in my words and loving in my deeds? Do I support all who fall and raise all who are bowed down? He was patient with sinners and by his teaching both discreet and kind. He did not look down on others. A priest who does not want to be around sinners is like a doctor who does not want to be around sick people. His goal was not condemnation, but to draw his fold to heaven by fairness.

However, his kindness was not mere niceness and his goodness was not passivity. He was ready, willing and able to correct others when necessary, regardless of that person’s state or station in life. “Let a righteous person strike me; it is mercy if he reproves me” (Ps 141:5).

Some people need loving kindness, and some may need a kick in the seat of the pants. He was ready to do both, but to do that well requires discernment, which is a virtue he apparently had.

The Call to Be a Servant

A better priest, I trow that nowhere one is.
He waited for no pomp or reverence,
Nor maked him a spiced conscience.
But Christes lore, and his apostles twelve,
He taught, and first he followed it himself.

He was not one that waited upon privilege and entitlement, both of which are component parts of clericalism that Pope Francis has called a leprosy on the Church. Here again, we can make connections to our own lives. At times, priests may feel slighted, maybe with good reason, but it’s still worthwhile to remember that the call to be a priest is the call to be a servant and not a prince.

Once in spiritual direction, I was sharing a disappointment and my director suggested imagining Jesus asking me, “Am I enough for you?” That helped. If the answer is “yes,” so much else is not important. If the answer is “no,” then something is wrong. The parson’s answer to that question was “yes.” Pride, privilege and pomposity are heavy loads that consume time and energy while revealing deeper emotional problems. In contrast, humility is freeing. Haughtiness brings humiliation, but the humble of spirit acquire honor (cf. Prv 29:23).

Through the years, as a seminarian and as a priest, this presumably fictional parson has both guided and challenged me. Christes lore brings us into new life and freedom. Not only did he teach this, he also followed it himself. May we find freedom in that, as well.

FATHER JOSEPH I. CISETTI is a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri.


Bearing Fruit and Rejoicing

“The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy. Let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. … An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be.” — Evangelii Gaudium, No. 24


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