Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
QUESTION: When the current pastor arrived, our Catholic parish was a vibrant, singing community. Now, after many of his changes, it is not. Many parishioners have left. After a few attempts to speak to the pastor about what's been going on, I wrote a letter to Pope Francis, which I copied to both the pastor and the bishop. The letter was signed by my best friend and myself. To our amazement, we received a letter back from the pastor calling us liars and saying we were trying to scandalize him with false allegations. There were no lies in that letter. After licking my wounds, I decided to share his response, along with a copy of my letter, with the pope and the cardinal. We all know the story of the Good Shepherd who leaves his flock to find the one lost sheep. Well, due to this priest's response, a few sheep have stopped going to church and are even questioning the very basics of our faith. I, being an older, more stubborn sheep, still attend Mass at my church, but in honesty, while physically I'm there, my heart and soul are not. While my friend and I knew we wouldn't hear from the Pope, as he certainly has bigger fish to fry, we never thought we'd be treated so rudely and heartlessly by our parish priest. Would Jesus have been so cruel? So, we beg the question: What do the lost sheep do when the shepherd is not good?
-- Anonymous, via email
I wish I could spend every column defending clergy. God knows some of them are bad shepherds, but let's just step back for a moment and take a breath.
You're describing a man who's taken a vow of celibacy, poverty and obedience in order to serve God and the Catholic Church until he dies in poverty, without a family to mourn him. Are you ready to make that kind of sacrifice for God and your church? Please understand, I don't mean to attack you the way you were attacked by your pastor. Your pastor may, indeed, be in dire need of people skills and compassion. However, your accusations seem rather mild. They don't, thank God, include charges of pedophilia or other unforgivable and criminal behavior. From your letter, it seems as though your parish priest's principal sin, in your eyes, is that he doesn't sing enough. You said you've tried to talk with your pastor. How many attempts did you make? In any event, your next step should have been to write the pastor a personal letter outlining your grievances and asking again for a face-to-face meeting to work out constructive solutions to the problems you've observed for the good of the parish.
Instead, you went over his head and ratted him out. Why you thought that would work out is bewildering.
I've seen such actions in synagogues and Protestant churches. Some congregants treat their clergy rudely, like employees who are at their beck and call. Then, when staff disappoint them, they go straight to the board of trustees and try to make life difficult for them.
Clergy are people who are only trying to serve their congregations and God. Sometimes, how they see that service doesn't always mesh with how their flock sees things. Do you think even a good shepherd is loved by every sheep? When I interviewed at the synagogue I served for 33 years, I told them flat out: "I believe that working here will be a blessing for me and a blessing for you, but there is one thing you must know about me. There will not be one day when I think I work for you. Every day, I will be working for God. There are two reasons I'm telling you this. The first is that it is true, and the second is that if I worked for you, I'd have to do what you want, but if I work for God, I can do what you need."
I strongly urge you to apologize to your pastor and begin together the hard work of gathering the flock, which is ultimately his sacred task, and being part of a faithful flock, which is your sacred task. Being a shepherd is hard and being a sheep is hard, but both need each other so neither lacks anything that God has given.