February 9, 2010


Before I was actually employed as a parish priest, I thought clerical approachability a simple virtue. Since being here in the parish, though, I've learned that it's a very delicate thing, and an important balance to maintain.

In the early days of my baptism there was a church I used to attend where the priests seemed to me very unapproachable. I would have loved to have had the chance to speak with one of them, to ask questions about prayer and discernment, or just to have the joy of attention from a representative of God. But for whatever reason, I didn't dare approach one of them.

I don't want to be like that. Franciscans, after all, are supposed to be down-to-earth. I want people to feel comfortable to call me, to make an appointment, even to interrupt me if I'm on call that day. I want to hear about people's concerns so I can unite my intentions to theirs in prayer. Thanks to PDAs and smartphones, I can answer my office phone from anywhere and make appointments too.

It's a delicate thing, though. I know this would be called heresy by some of my conferes, but I think that there is such a thing as being too approachable.

I want people to feel comfortable approaching me, but I don't want someone to come up behind me when I'm praying in church and start trying to hug me from behind. I want folks to feel comfortable calling me up to talk about what they might need, but not every day when they're just lonely. I even want someone to feel like it's o.k. to approach me randomly for confession if there is some legitimate worry about mortal sin, but I don't want a scrupulous entourage waiting for 'the nice one' every time I walk into church. I want people to feel comfortable making appointments or sharing news after Mass, but I don't want to be so surrounded by conversations in the sacristy that I can't say my vesting prayers or get recollected before Mass.

So for me it's a delicate balance. I'm not yet very good at it, but I'm learning. The challenge is to learn how to communicate these sorts of boundaries in an encouraging but firm way.


Jeanne said...

What an excellent post. Your dilemma reminds me of being a manager; you want to be approachable, so people aren't afraid to tell you when they messed up (so you can fix the problem) or talk to you about work issues, but too approachable and you lose all authority, so if you have to correct anyone it is a struggle. I have always loved the Franciscan and Cappuchin communities in NYC where I used to live because I could engage the monks in conversation, ask for spiritual guidance or help, or felt really comfortable going to confession with them. They were absolutely more approachable than the typical parish priest. But yet they were able to manage a "professional distance" kind of like seeing your doctor in the grocery store; you're friendly, exchanging pleasantries, but not running up to give him a hug. Thanks for the post Br. Charles!

Hidden One said...

It seems to me that St. Philip Neri is noteworthy for having dealt with this issue quite well - are you very familiar with his life, Brother?

Brother Charles said...

Not so much, but now I am intrigued!

Warren said...

It seems to me that we could think of this as being "on the horns of a dilemma", or we could say, that we are merely navigating a ship between two shoals, on which she would founder. The good news, I think, in all of this, is there is a wide moral latitude in such matters, and there is room for you to have a personality, and to have preferences here. This is, after all, about something personal. You are a priest, and a person, too. When someone thinks of you as more of a Commodity to be utilized, rather than to see you as a Servant (of God) with your own moral agency and imperatives, then charity demands that they be educated, and corrected.

My reluctance to approach priests about every little thing comes from the general fact that I reflect on the simple question "what would happen if everybody did this?".

I have the same dilemma as a parent, with my children. My ten year old son might think that I exist merely to open the fridge and make him a snack. It would be a moral disservice to him, if I did not disabuse him of this notion. He might also think that Daddy is a crabby jerk who ought not be disturbed lest I lose my video game or TV privileges. I do not want him to go that way, either.


ben in denver said...

I think that Warren has some valuable insight. It seems that your spiritual fatherhood has some similarities to the natural fatherhood that Warren and I participate in. While we want to be available to our children whenever they need us, part of our job is to help them to solve their own problems.

What a gift it is that you take your spiritual fatherhood so eriously.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks guys! I hadn't thought of this!

Julia said...

Do people really wander into the sacristy to chat?

That sounds like a line you could draw. Unless someone is serving or a sacristan, I don't see why they'd be in the sacristy.

You could hang a sign up about keeping reverent silence. I'm sure you could find a good quote from a saint.

Anyway, I definitely think you're on the right track.

FrankCaiati said...

As we all know, there is nothing wrong with getting into a boat and rowing to the other side of the lake for a little while...
An interviewer once asked Carey Grant if he took issue with always having to sign autographs, he said no, the real problem would come when people stopped asking for them.
On a serious note: Hanging a sign does seem like a fantastic idea.

Anonymous said...

"but I don't want a scrupulous entourage waiting for 'the nice one' every time I walk into church."

I find this statement a little offensive. I can see if people are just being thoughtless and rude, but scrupulosity (as I'm sure you know) is a terrible affliction. It sounds to me like you may be a little "burned out." I will ask our Lord to replace your repugnance for those who are hurting and lacking appropriate boundaries to a love and compassion like that of the Saints.

Brother Charles said...

Forgive me, anonymous, for giving offense. It is a terrible affliction. However, I have to say that what wears people out about the scrupulous is not their scrupulosity per se but the frequent imperviousness to accepting pastoral counsel about how they might become free.

Brother Charles said...

And thanks for your prayers too--for it is indeed true that I am in a dangerous place with regard to burnout. Just imagine how bad it would be if I didn't have the creative outlet and social support of blogging!

Hidden One said...

Coming back to this post (using Google's RSS means that I often read posts, comment on them, and then never think to come back to see further comments), I feel that I should explain a bit more as to why I think St. Philip is worth looking at. It's quite simple - he is known for both being eminently approachable (to a degree that would shock most people, I think,) and for having spent a great deal of time alone - and I'm not referring to his habit of kicking everyone out mid Missa privata and only summoning the server back after a good two hours or more to finish it.

Plus, he did get canonized, so he must have done something right. :-P