“Ask a Priest: Am I Wrong for Speaking Up to a Priest?”

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Q: I have a lot of respect for our priests, and my heart breaks for the pressure they are under. But at times I find myself a little angered in some of their behaviors. Am I a bad Catholic for voicing back to them? Maybe I look up to the priest too much as the image and action of the Lord. I know we’re all human — but I get a little confused about Church history, about being silent and obedient to authority — if Church rules are broken, etc., by those we look up to. Having been abused as a child at home I’m sure has put a feisty bone in me to even confront those in authority. Am I a bad Catholic? – R.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: You touch on the paradox of priests: We are both special instruments of Our Lord, and yet we have human failings like everyone else. Ideally we priests should live by a high standard. Ideally.

I wouldn’t say you are a bad Catholic by any means. But what should you do when confronted with problems with a priest?

There is no one single answer, of course, since it depends on each individual case. Perhaps a few suggestions would help.

First, pray for your priests. They often carry a heavy load and face a lot of scrutiny and pressure from various sides. Remember, too, that the devil has a special interest in their failure. So they need all the prayers they can get.

Second, you as a layperson have a lot to contribute to the Church. So you shouldn’t feel that you need to keep silent when you see things that seem amiss. The trick here is prudence and timing. When you see something that doesn’t seem right, you can ask yourself, “Is this worth mentioning?”

The problem might be minor — the parish website is slow, the hymns at Mass are less than inspiring, or the coffee at church events is so-so.

Or the problem might be something major — a teen group meeting in the parish hall is habitually unsupervised, a priest uses a habitually abrasive tone with parishioners, or the altar wine in the sacristy seems of dubious validity.

The former problems you might shrug off. The latter ones, being more serious, might benefit from someone speaking up. The next step would be how to approach a priest.

This, too, depends on a lot of factors. The ideal would be if you could first make gestures of support for the priest, either by helping with his special projects or just by making little gestures of appreciation for his service. If he senses that you are on his side, he might be more open to suggestions.

The timing and style of approaching a priest are vital too. Perhaps an e-mail or a discreet comment might work. Or perhaps approaching him with another (non-threatening) parishioner by your side might help.

To state some of these points above, try to put yourself in his shoes and see how you would like someone to approach you.

Also, it is good to remember that the priest is a servant of God’s people, and his primary service is through the sacraments. So, your own growth in holiness and the fulfillment of God’s will and mission in your life doesn’t depend on whether your parish priest is wise, mature or holy.

Many times we can become distracted in our own journey of faith by the shortcomings of others. This might be one reason why Jesus taught the value of meekness and patience — not so that we would become doormats or ignore real problems that need to be addressed, but so that we wouldn’t become unduly distracted by things outside our sphere of influence. That is something to keep in mind as well.

Before all else, try praying for guidance. Ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to say the right thing in the right way.

You might also think about ways to promote priestly vocations in your diocese. Through Eucharistic adoration and prayer chains you can do a lot to help the local Church. Many priests feel pressure simply because there aren’t a lot of young priests to help them. They often live alone in parishes or with one other priest whom they rarely see.

So more young priests would help. This is a longer-term solution, of course, but one worth thinking about.

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