This is a translation of the speech by Auxiliary Bishop Stephen A. Leven of San Antonio on Oct. 16 during the discussion on the schema on priestly life and ministry.
I wish to speak for the forgotten man of this schema, the vicarious cooperator, or the assistant pastor.
The sacred council has said many beautiful things of the status of bishops, even auxiliaries; said much of pastors, of Religious, of our separated brethren, and of non-Christians. Yet this schema concerning the ministry and life of priests says nothing of the role and the apostolate of assistants. Can this holy synod pass them over in silence? Is their place not important nor their status worthy of examination and correction?
In larger archdioceses and dioceses far more than half of the active priests are assistants. Certainly they do more than half the work.
Yet the assistant has no juridical status and almost no rights.
Everyone laughs when it is said that the assistant has no right except that of Christian burial. It is not a joke to the assistant.
The assistant is often spoken of as a child and treated as a child. But he is not a child. He is a mature man. He may be 24 or 42 or older. If all the parish clergy live together, he is like a guest and his life like that of a seminarian. If he is in a diocese where each priest lives in a house apart he is often isolated and poor.
According to canon law, the pastor alone has juridical status and responsibility for the affairs of the parish. Too often in large dioceses a priest becomes a pastor only after his years of vigor and energy have passed. In canon law this is even called being awarded a benefice with the connotation that it is a prize to be enjoyed rather than a task to demand all one’s energies.
The ministry of such parishes becomes depersonalized and dehumanized and then the people of God suffer.
In many parishes in European countries and in my own I have asked assistants who complained of nothing worthwhile to do — “Why do you not visit your people in their homes? Why not organize study clubs for adults and catechism classes for children?” — only to be told: “The pastor does not believe in such novelties and forbids them.”
Let no one deny that the trauma of frustrated assistants is serious in the Church. Our present, almost universal, system of insufficient utilization of personnel prevents them from exercising their charismata now and unfits them to do so when and if they become pastors.
Would modern technology and industry spend so much time and money to train men and use them so poorly? Modern successful managers have learned that treating grown men as individuals worthy of personal reverence and trust and confidence increases effectiveness and does not lessen authority. In the Church this lesson is far from being universally known. This schema should assist in teaching it.
Assistants form one moral person with the pastor. Theirs is the same priesthood. Theirs the same task, to lead and feed the people of God. The pastor should, therefore, involve his assistants in parish affairs, respect them and listen to them.
Decision making in the parish as well as in any other complex circumstances involves four steps: (a) the assembly of all pertinent data for a certain course of action; (b) the consideration of all possible alternatives and their probable effects; (c) the logical conclusion which action is best in the circumstances; (d) the decision that this particular course of action rather than another is to be followed. Only in the last stage is authority involved. Authority is never lessened when its proper role is understood, and observed.
Paragraph six of the schema, beginning at line 40, piously says that after the council we must have a body of priests better organized than it is now. I request that it be explicitly said that younger clergy, especially assistants, be included in due proportion to their numbers in such organization. This should likewise be done in the concilium pastorale recommended in the schema on the Pastoral Role of Bishops.
[N.B. The following two paragraphs were not read on the floor of the council.]
Secondly, this schema should specifically recommend that modern machines and methods be used in the priestly ministry, e.g., what pastor of a parish of 30,000 souls or 3,000, can know his parishioners personally according to the word of the Good Shepherd (John 10:14), “I know my sheep.” But there are modern machines whereby the individuals can be listed with their qualifications and charismata, their needs, their status, e.g., religious education, whether married coram ecclesia or not, by the skillful use of which a pastor can know his flock.
It may be objected that special skills are required for this. Let them be acquired; or let trained laymen be employed to assist the priest in this matter. It may be objected that this costs too much; that another priest on the parish staff could do it more cheaply. But first, no number of added priests could do this adequately, and secondly, machines and laymen are available, priests are not.