In the words of president Bartlet, in the West Wing, “JFK really screwed us with that one didn’t he?”
Parish life is something that is so important but which is very easy to take for granted. Everything somehow seems to get done, people seem to have roles to play without anyone ever asking themselves “how did they get given that to do?”.
Its very easy to assume that jobs in Parishes are done by people God has specially called, maybe we imagine a booming voice from the sky and people who must be different to you and I.
This isn’t true of course, jobs in the church arn’t necessarily even done by people who want to do them, they are often as not done by the people who see something needs to be done and get it done. The priest will always ask people who get things done to do more things for precisely that self same reason. Thus “to those that have more will be given to them” is often a truism when it comes to parish jobs.
Our parish priest recently asked people to be lay readers. Due to some kind of mix up, we were without any for Sunday Mass, and you could feel it, that sense that there was something missing. I’ll be interested to see who puts themselves forward for that, it takes courage to stand up in front of everyone every Sunday and read.
Similarly with altar servers, its a job that if it is done well you hardly notice it at all, but as soon as it isn’t there a gap is felt, the liturgy doesn’t have that special zing to it, that effortless flow, that grace that comes from people serving the Priest so the Priest can focus on saying the mass. Not to mention the clouds of incense which are a vital addition to any mass as far as I’m concerned.
These are both jobs that almost anyone can do if they give it a bit of practice, have a bit of courage, and dare to make mistakes during the learning process. Its one of my favourite Chesterton quotes, that since everything is worth doing well “if something is really worth doing, its worth doing badly”.
So when the priest is giving the notices and asking people if they could step forward to do something, ignore the natural response, “he must be talking to someone else, someone better than me”, and recognise that if you don’t step forward nobody else will and if nobody does it then it is just embarrassing.
I’m sure it would be a joy for a priest to ask for volunteers and have the luxury of too many to choose from. What a lucky priest!
Also don’t be content with the minimum. If your parish is lucky enough to have three altar servers, go and offer your services, because at least 3 more would be even better. It doesn’t matter if there are more altar servers than there are congregants, you are helping the priest in his vocation to celebrate the mass and the whole Church is present at every Mass, all the Angels and Saints. Most importantly good liturgy attracts people from far and wide “build it and they will come.”
The more altar servers there are, the more you can change roles for variety and to learn what they entail, so if someone leaves the parish for pastures new, as is a very common occurrence in this modern world, then your parish won’t be left with a aching gap in its liturgy. Besides after mass you can go down the Pub and have a good natter with the lads.
(yes I know I did say lads maybe people will vehomently disagree with this, but women in the sanctuary, it just seems incongruous to me… and having lit that particular firework I’m going to stand well back)
Similarly, find out who does the flower arranging, the chances are its one person and they’ve been doing it since time immemorial. Why not offer to help them do it? then you can help them while you learn how to do it yourself, which since that person could very conceivably be competing with Methuselah in the longevity department it might be a good idea they have a young apprentice. Whats more I’m told by people of the fairer sex that this can actually be fun!
(Again sorry but I think some gender roles are carved in stone, if you are heterosexual and male I doubt you will be quite up for that one.)
One thing which is very true is that you don’t need to have a physical role in the Mass to participate fully in it. That is absolutely true, and perhaps if you can’t feel like anything is happening during Mass unless you are at the center of it then maybe you are the wrong shaped peg for that particular hole. To meditate on the mysteries of the mass in contemplative prayer is the most amazing vocation which should never be disparaged.
But the worry that if you serve the Church in a more physical and particular way during mass, you won’t be able to spiritually focus on the mass, can in my experience also be a doubt that gets sown in our minds by the devil in order make sure we never volunteer for anything at all, that doubt is called acedia.
Acedia, isn’t quite the same as sloth, though its effects are identical, we do nothing. Acedia is the feeling of complete unworthiness, of false humility, that says I can’t do that I’m not good enough, better not to even try. That is the spirit of timidity again, not the spirit of God.
Being an altar server or a lay reader, or the person who takes the collection, or the people who bring up the gifts, or singing in the Choir are all things that surprisingly don’t necessarily distract from the mystery of the Mass. Indeed knowing that you have done your part as perfectly as you could, should really focus your mind on the infinite importance of the Mass.
Maybe even extraordinary Eucharistic ministers fall into this category too. I’m not a priest so I don’t know how much of a help they are… but I’m sure I heard there should be an extra-ordinary need, not a whim, behind their role. Unless you have a congregation of thousands do you really need them? does communion have to be offered under both kinds? Every parish in this country seems to have several of them at every mass, I’m not sure that was what that role was intended for…
Moving on, I don’t know how anyone else feels when, usually the parish priest, asks for single men to think about whether they have a vocation to the priesthood. Perhaps we all feel differently. Perhaps even those who are called to the priesthood are given the urge to run away like Jonah did from his prophetic calling.
I’m always interested to know how potential priests felt or even began to suspect they had a calling to the priesthood. Maybe it was as simple as “its a good thing to do, I could do it, it needs doing, I’ll put myself forward” ??? Wowser the humility of someone to do that, to not think of what they want from life, but what God wants for them. This is a far more terrifying thought than the idea of a booming voice from the sky if you ask me. At least if there was a booming voice from the sky you could act without doubt but I guess to an extent it would take away our free will.
All I would say is that if you are an unmarried Catholic man and have never thought about being a priest, you really should have. Its something everyone who could fill that role should think about and even if you don’t think it is for you, I’m told by people wiser than myself, we should always try to keep the question of our vocation open to God’s will because God is our creator and our vocation, no matter what it is, comes from Him. You never know God may change your mind and it could be the best thing to ever happen to you.
Perhaps I say to myself I keep the question of my vocation open to God’s will then clamp my hands over my ears. But I think hopefully as long as I am walking in some kind of spiritual direction, I’m living my vocation to be Catholic which is the most important vocation that we all have.
It is such a tragedy to see a priest who no longer feels, or worse still, perhaps never had the vocation in the first place, it is almost certainly the root of a great many problems in the Church. So a priest saying, “I’ve asked you to be a priest, thus you are called from God”, is potentially a very dangerous thing since you can do more damage in 10 minutes by being a lackluster priest than you can in any other profession.
Thankfully not everyone is called to be a priest, there are plenty of things that need doing in the Church and they can be a part of your vocational calling. I think the vocations that change our state in life tend to be focused on a bit too much these days. Marriage, priesthood, religious life are given lots of prominence. The little everyday jobs that need doing in parishes might not change your state of life, but they can form a good and wholesome part of your primary vocation, being Catholic.
So do not be afraid, put yourself forward.
p.s. sorry for the long blog post!