By Kelly Homan Rodoski/ SUN contributing writer
EAST SYRACUSE — The Diocesan Pastoral Council was privy to some groundbreaking discussion during its Nov. 16 plenary session, held at Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School. Bishop Thomas Costello, director of Priest Personnel, began an exchange of ideas with council members about the process of assigning pastors to parishes. Once shrouded in secrecy, the process is simply not working, Bishop Costello admitted, in light of the increased sacramental demands on a decreasing priestly population. Over the next session or two, DPC members will be asked to contribute ideas for improving the assignment process.
Bishop Costello explained that not until after Vatican II were pastors able to express any concerns about where they would or would not go. At that time, the diocese established a Vicar for Priests to serve as an advocate for priests in diocesan administrative matters.
While the Code of Canon Law indicates a desire for stability in parish life, particularly in the role of pastor, American bishops sought, and in 1978 were granted permission to set a six-year term limit. Tenure at a parish can be renewed for one additional six-year period.
Currently, the Syracuse Diocese opens the formal application process to all interested diocesan priests. Candidates have access to parish profiles that include specific information compiled by Bishop Costello and Father James Lang, Vicar for Parishes, along with the parish councils of the vacant parishes. These profiles offer priests an opportunity to learn what the parish communities are most proud of, what they would like to improve upon, and where the members would like to go — spiritually, socially and fiscally — in the future. In response, candidates offer thoughts on how they feel they can help the parishes maintain their unique community values, improve, and work toward future goals. The priests are also asked to consider how a move to a particular parish would help them in their own spiritual development.
A personnel committee reviews the application letters and makes recommendations to the bishop. Informal verbal expressions of interest are also considered.
When no one applies for a parish vacancy, or if the applicants do not match the needs of a particular parish, the diocese must place someone who may not be the best possible match, Bishop Costello said. With eight vacancies expected this spring, there is concern that filling them will be especially challenging.
Bishop Costello said emerging conditions must be factored into the placement process, including the increasing implementation of lay ministers, the changing roles of women religious in parish communities, and the need for more — or different — compensation for priests who serve multiple parishes. Parishes with schools are also becoming less attractive destinations for transferring priests because there is so much emphasis on fundraising, often pulling priests away from pastoral duties.
New insecurities are arising among the priests themselves, Bishop Costello said. As the population ages, priests are more reluctant to leave the neighborhoods they have called home for 6 or 12 years. Older priests are finding fewer seminary classmates to share time with. The sexual abuse scandal has also made some priests hesitant to go through the emotional process of bonding with a new faith community.
Father John Rose, pastor of St. Augustine in Baldwinsville, and Father James O’Brien, pastor of Blessed Sacrament in Syracuse, shared further insights on the need to improve the placement process. “The most significant change in parish life happens with a priest change,” Father Rose said. “Good transitions make for strong, healthy parishes.”
Father Rose said priests need more information on parishes than the current profiles provide — particularly on the specifics of parish life and demographics. He suggested that candidates spend some time with the parish staff and with the departing pastor before applying for transfer to that parish. Father Rose also suggested that parishes develop mission statements that define and guide the parish.
Father Rose also advocated the appointment of lay representatives to the priest personnel committee, and noted the importance of prayerful reflection by those who serve on that committee. By turning to prayer, he said, the committee would be more likely to make placement decisions by consensus.
Unsuitable candidates should not be placed at any parish, Father Rose said, and searches should be continued until good candidates for all parishes are found. In cases where there are no applicants, Father Rose said he would like to see either the current priest remain for up to a year while the search continues or the appointment of a lay administrator if another priest were available to serve as sacramental minister to that parish.
On the issue of tenure, Father O’Brien said some priests agree that it does prevent stagnation, and that it makes it easier for younger priests to apply for the most appealing assignments. Of the priests who would like to see tenure abolished, Father O’Brien said there seems to be a sense that it is arbitrary and that there is more incentive to remain in an established parish community than to move. He suggested that the current matching process would benefit from more interaction between candidates and the diocesan administration.
Father O’Brien said he is happy with the current state of the diocesan formation for ministry programs, and believes that with continued diocesan support, lay administrators could make the transition periods between pastoral tenures much smoother, and allow the diocese to ensure better matches between pastors and parishes. Father O’Brien also agrees that “something different” should be done to better compensate priests. Given the current concerns of the aging priestly population, Father O’Brien suggested a detailed long-term health care package for clergy.
DPC Executive Secretary Tina Dyer said the council will discuss the issues surrounding priest assignments during the next plenary session on March 8, 2003.
“I would ask you to put these matters to prayer,” Bishop Costello told council members. “Ponder the issues and bring ideas to the next meeting.”
Bishop Moynihan said he found the panel discussion to be fruitful and looked forward to hearing more ideas from the DPC in the coming months. He noted that while the number of priests has decreased, the pastoral needs and expectations of the people have not. “Such expectations are not realistic,” he said, adding that pastors have to be realistic about their abilities. He suggested they make a conscious effort to be prepared to do more sacramental work but less administrative and social business.
Bishop Moynihan agreed that more lay delegation must occur and that laity must be properly trained and compensated for the work they may be asked to do.
On the issue of pastoral term limits, Bishop Moynihan said his personal experience convinces him that they are a necessary and healthy aspect of priestly life. He advised priests to let the people of a new parish be a guide to developing a leadership style, to be open to change, and to be specific when asking for volunteer help. “It’s fun. It’s an adventure for the priest,” he said.