At The Vadis Project we are privileged to sit down with some of the best leaders and thinkers in the American Catholic Church. In this post, I share just a few of the insights gained from one of those interviews. Short blog posts of a similar nature will occur regularly so that our readers can catch glimpses of our work before our more extensive studies and proposals are published.
Catholic priests have a uniquely challenging job. They not only spend much of their lives in the public eye and thus are often the subject of scrutiny, but they are also required to wear many hats. They are a leader, comforter, healer, friend, anointer, teacher, confessor, guide, servant, and, of course, a father to all.
Moreover, as priests, they are frequently moved from one parish to another and thus are tasked with the challenge of leading in many unique circumstances. Perhaps most difficult of all, a new priest may find himself needing to make changes in a new parish, something rarely done without causing consternation among some, if not much, of the congregation.
Earlier this summer I was able to sit down with a veteran priest of the diocese of Greensburg, PA, and discuss his approach to some of these challenges. Prior to arriving at my current parish, Monsignor Gaston had served the church for 44 years. I asked him for an interview because I was impressed with his leadership style and with the way he handled changes in our parish during the past three years.
The first question I posed to him concerned his overall approach when entering a new parish. Without hesitation, he responded that his goal is to establish a "dialogical" relationship with the congregation, one based on transparency. He said it is important for his parishioners to know from the start that he is genuinely interested in hearing their feedback. In order to do this at Mother of Sorrows (our current parish), he organized multiple parish neighborhood meetings – which I recall at the time as being something I had never heard of – at which he listened to any and all parishioners' concerns and comments while members of the board took notes. Monsignor said these meetings were, in his eyes, very fruitful for the parish. (I agree.)
Later in the interview, I asked how he viewed his relationship with his congregation. Clearly, as the priest, he is the leader of our community, but I wanted to know how he conceived that leadership role. Without a hint of insincerity, he responded by saying, "Too often the servant becomes the master." This answer struck me as significant, though not because it is new. Servant leadership is the model explicitly taught by Christ in the Gospels (Mark 10:42-45; John 13:12-16) and exemplified through His redeeming death of the cross. Rather, Monsignor Gaston's answer was noteworthy because it was refreshing (and even more so since the latest sex abuse revelations that have left many Catholics upset about the actions of some of their leaders).
Pressing the topic further, Monsignor returned to themes from the earlier part of our interview. The facets of his servant-leadership approach that he continued to emphasize were dialogue, transparency, and purposefulness. When parishioners know he is responsive to their concerns, he can, when needed, enact changes in the parish. Even then, though, Monsignor explains in a weekend homily what the changes are and why they are taking place. Why? Because people are always more receptive when they understand the meaning and purpose behind what is happening. It is as simple as that.
The insights gathered from my interview with Monsignor Gaston offer a lesson not only for Catholic priests, but also for bishops, deacons, and lay Catholic leaders. Without a doubt, it is a lesson to be recalled and contemplated upon rather than taught for the first time. Many of our Catholic leaders already exhibit this quality, but it is something that they can strive harder to consciously practice each and every day.
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