A DYING BREED: A Good Associate Pastor is Hard to Find!

As you may have read in an earlier blog, I had the privilege of serving as a "priest in the larval-stage" under Father Conrad J. Kratz, O. Praem. I credit Father Conrad with teaching me the ropes of pastoral ministry. As a freshly oiled - new priest, I was ready to flee Chicago to heal a broken world in DePere. In retrospect, I am sure that I was bouncing off the walls -- filled with an apostolic zeal to confront situations that did not need to be confronted, to heal a world that wasn't broken. How Father Conrad ever had the ability to deal with my shenanigans for six years remains a mystery. It's also a holy mystery of how I did not give him one gray hair over all those years! [Go ahead, read my mind; add your own commentary here!]

When my tenure at OLOL came to a conclusion, I realized that I would return to parish ministry at some point in my life -- perhaps even to Lourdes some day. But I made one thing sure, I would never want to serve as an associate pastor again -- Father Conrad raised the bar much too high. I don't think I would ever learn from another pastor as much as I learned from CJK.

Never did I imagine that I would be appointed to a parish where I'd be given an associate pastor to serve a community within a team approach to pastoral care. You see, associate pastors are a dying breed. At one point in our church history -- amidst a surplus of priests, a nice-sized parish could be staffed by any number of priests. There was the retired 'pastor emeritus' living in the rectory looking upon the world he had helped shape and form for any number of years; there would be the pastor who would show up for the larger events and solemnities who would have free choice of the activities in which he would -- or would not -- engage; and there would be one or two associate pastors who would do the majority of work. There was a bit of a pecking order, it seemed; and once you hit the right age and finally became the one in charge, you could sit back and allow the young buck to do the work. ... Or so I'm told!

Today, there are very few parishes in our diocese that have an associate pastor. In fact, in most cases, the pastor now serves two, three or four parishes. But in some cases, it is in the largest of parishes where more than one priest is needed to attend to the pastoral / sacramental affairs of the parish. And then there are parishes where the pastor is a great role model and mentor -- a healthy and happy man in a healthy and happy place where the newly ordained can serve and learn the ropes from a man well-seasoned in pastoral ministry. And then there are those parishes that are sponsored by religious orders whereby a "family" approach is implemented in ministering to families -- more than one priest may be assigned to these parishes. Old Saint Joe's would fall into that category. As such, when appointed to the college parish on 25 July 2004, I realized that Father Salvatore Cuccia, O. Praem. -- my 'Sicilian-sidekick,' would be a part of the package deal.

Yes, I know what you are thinking: "Father Sal can sometimes be a royal pain!" He frustrates me, too! For instance, when I'm about to rough it with the Packers, being set up in a Motel 6 in some puny, lifeless city, I am aware that Father Sal lives the good life back in DePere. Upon my departure I remind him that he's in charge. I warn him that I do not want to hear any reports of, "When the cat's away, the mice will play." After three years together, Father Sal has finally let me in on a secret. He states with great condescension, "Get a clue.... When the cat's away, the mice are away!" ...That was a sobering wake up call.

Father Sal is quick to remind me that he does show up on Sunday's, nonetheless. In fact, he brags that the congregations at both the 10:AM and 7:PM Masses are much larger than when I'm here. Now I don't think he'd lie to me; but I'm quick to quip, "Sal, the collections just simply do not support your findings!" I try my best to deal with the crosses that have been given to me. For the parishioners who are reading this, I realize you are in solidarity with me: this is your cross to bear as well!

Well, I rushed over to the church on Sunday morning to proof Father Sal's homily. Given the very beautiful, picture perfect day, you will be glad to learn that I struck out about 60% of his text. He was just too wordy! After my editing, a different dynamic was underway: I busted the guy right there in the sacristy.

You see, just one day earlier, in preparation for my wedding on Saturday, I started to clean up the sacristy. This included removing the Lenten and Easter vesture, replacing it with our green duds for Ordinary Time. The counters were also cleaned and spared from all sorts of accumulated clutter -- he's such a pack rat, you know. On Sunday morning, I mentioned to Sal that I would like him to "borrow" a white cope from the abbey to place in our parish's permanent collection. The cope would be used at those weddings that were ceremonies, not Masses. Upon suggesting the heist, Father Sal became silent. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the brief respite; but when he started to fidget, turn red, and stare at his shoes, I realized something was up!

It was then that he informed me that he had a surprise for me, but did not have the courage to tell me -- he would surprise me later in the summer. Naturally, I thought he would finally offer his pastor an appropriate birthday gift to be presented later in the month. No such deal. Instead, he informed me that he had ordered a custom made cope for the parish while he was in Europe back in May. While visiting a Norbertine Convent in Europe, he learned that some of our sisters are in need of financial assistance and look to other abbeys for their support. But they make some pretty choice vestments, Sal informed me. As his nervous chatter continued, he informed me that he chose Father Jay Fostner, O. Praem. to be the Father-Jim-mannequin to be measured for the perfect ceremonial cope. Given his glowingly beautiful 'Little Convent on the Prairie" discourse -- now over a month since the measurement -- 'who was I to disagree,' to coin an Annie Lennox lyric?

While putting Father Sal at ease, I asked him what the damage would be. He simply responded, "If you have to ask, you don't really deserve it -- how can you put a price on such an act of charity? ... Besides, it's my budget line item!" Now you know what I have to deal with -- not just on weekends, either! Friends, if we have candlelight Masses for the duration of the next fiscal year, you now know why!

Yes, a GOOD associate pastor is hard to find. The guy often frustrates me -- and I'm not talking simply about his Italian dreadlocks that came back with a vengeance. He just grates on all of us!

But then, I'm given a bit of a pause. When I head north to get clipped at the Hair Shack and to visit with family and friends, there's that obnoxious picture of Father Sal and me posing in the church atrium looking as happy and jubilant as a successfully completed ATM! The picture is magnetized on my parent's refrigerator. You see, Father Sal has this wonderful relationship with my mom -- as do all Italian Norbertines. Perhaps it's because of her dark complexion (they think she's Italian as well); perhaps it's because her Italian delights can surpass Giada DeLaurentiis' cooking. Or perhaps it's because she treats all with such goodness and characteristic humor that it seems as though she has seventy-five sons and not just two. Whatever it is, he has a soft spot in his heart for my mom -- and dad as well -- and that covers for any multitude of obvious, obnoxious shortcomings registered here.

So together with Cathie, Dan, Peg and our 12 student interns, we begin to get ready for another year -- my fourth year on staff. I suspect we'll manage through all of this; perhaps we'll even have a little fun together with all of you. Although, I have given Father Sal an opportunity for a rebuttal in this forum; knowing him it won't be all that pleasant. Time will tell -- just keep tuning in. But until then, I'm reminded that, "God's flock is in your midst!" Sometimes the 'shepherd's care' goes far beyond the call of duty.......

Father James Baraniak, O. Praem.


Jackie said...

Hey Jim,

Love reading your blogs! I especially enjoyed this one. I do
think of Fr.Sal as a son, even tho'
the Lord knows I'm not old enough
to be his mother!!! What's not
to like about the guy? I would
love him even if he didn't send
me spaghetti.


Love you,too,


Anonymous said...

From Fr. Jim's assessment it would appear that my Strategic Plan is working and my Goals are being accomplished.

The cope can be shortened to fit me.

The Pastoral Slave

Anonymous said...

AHAHAHAHA.....ohhh, another delightful message! Sal, you deserve a special cope of your own, for putting up with James.

With Jim and Sal as our "leaders", how can we help but have a gracious, loving parish. Let's face it, if they asked us to "jump off the bridge", we'd ask "where do we line up?" !!!

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