January 26, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Praise for those who honor their vocation

Cynthia DewesMy cradle Catholic friends tell me stories about growing up in the Church. Many of them center on the personalities and foibles of their parish priests, usually told with affection.

In those days, children were instructed to never say anything critical about their priests or the religious sisters who staffed their schools. Not only was this considered a display of bad manners, but also it seemed faintly heretical. Father

So-and-So was above reproach, at least out loud.

In these days of continuing clergy sex-abuse scandals in the worldwide Church, we seem to have reached the opposite opinion. Now the dedicated, often consecrated clergymen who serve us have become suspects viewed with fearful and critical eyes.

Even before these scandals, when Vatican II recognized the laity as equal partners with clergy and religious in the spiritual journey, Church leaders began to be fair game for the human scrutiny people love to give each other. Father is bossy, Father gives tiresome sermons, Father doesn’t attend every single parish event. Whatever.

Now, even though I’m not a cradle Catholic, I’ve known many priests and religious sisters over the years, and I’ve learned one thing for sure: They are human beings just like the rest of us. They have their strengths and their weaknesses, they often inspire us, but sometimes they sin as well. Still, although they’re certainly not divine, we seem to hold them to a higher standard than we do laypeople.

Perhaps we should value them for who they are rather than for the stereotypical Bells of St. Mary’s characters we imagine they should be. Perhaps we should praise them for bringing honor to their vocation just as we praise couples in long, stable marriages, or dedicated parents or virtuous single and religious folks who model God’s love for us in their chosen lives.

The best priest I ever knew was my husband’s uncle, whose church was “in the Project,” the poorest parish in St. Louis. For years, he sent abusive husbands to jail, helped poor kids go to college and found work for welfare moms. He was strict and did not suffer fools.

Yet, he often harbored alcoholic or otherwise troubled priests as they healed themselves before returning to active ministry. He even baby-sat now and then for teenage boys who’d been left in charge of their siblings so they could be kids themselves and play ball on the school grounds.

Which brings me to Father Steve Jarrell, our pastor at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle. Unfortunately, a terrible car accident which required hospitalization has reminded us just how much we love him and appreciate his dedicated vocation.

Now, Father Steve doesn’t serve a Project parish, but he still has a lot on his plate. Not only is he the pastor of St. Paul’s, but also chaplain for the Catholic students at DePauw University and for the inmates of the Putnamville Correctional Facility.

In addition, he’s pastor of Annunciation Parish in Brazil. Luckily, it’s Brazil, Ind., not that other continent. He directs several thriving ministries, gives memorable sermons and never seems to lose his wit or sense of fun.

Sometimes it takes a blow to the head to wake us up to reality. And the reality is that most of us enjoy the services of honorable men and women who, like us, are trying to follow God’s will with love and devotion to their vocations.

God bless them.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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