Thanks to the changing demographics of the American priesthood and the failures of vocation recruitment in some dioceses, “Pastoral Life Directors” – lay women, lay men, or religious sisters who take responsibility for parishes without a full-time priest-pastor – will become a familiar feature of Catholic life in many parts of the United States over the next decade. As bishops and other diocesan planners consider making more use of these “PLDs,” they might want to ponder the Swiss experience carefully. It strikes me as a cautionary tale.
A brilliant young Polish friend of mine spent much of the last semester studying international law at the University of Fribourg. Interested in exploring Catholic life in the French-speaking Swiss cantons near the university, he discovered that PLDs (or “pastoral assistants,” as they’re known there) are in wide use. Most of these PLDs have masters’ degrees in theology. They’re paid quite comfortable salaries. And some of them, at least, seem to have developed very odd ideas of the Church – and of themselves.
The most striking example? In one Swiss parish run by a PLD, the Mass is celebrated on one Sunday each month by a visiting priest. On the other Sundays, the PLD “presides” at a service of the Word, which is followed by a brief communion service using pre-consecrated hosts. One Sunday last year, the local bishop happened to show up in the parish. The PLD informed the bishop that he would not be permitted to say Mass, as a “Eucharistic Sunday” hadn’t been scheduled for that day. She, the PLD, would take the service, which the bishop was welcome to attend if he liked. So there was no celebration of the Eucharist in that parish on that Sunday, despite the availability of a priest.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Just about everything, I’m afraid. The PLD in question evidently placed more value on her prerogatives as “presider” than on her people’s celebrating the Eucharist. The bishop acquiesced in his degradation. The people didn’t rise up and demand that the bishop be allowed to celebrate Mass. I know they don’t play much baseball in Switzerland, but wherever you are, three strikes and you’re out. One can only wonder what notion of “Catholic” is operating in a parish where all three of these extraordinary things happen simultaneously.
And the cautionary tale?
It’s not to avoid PLDs at all costs. That’s both irresponsible and alarmist. Until God blesses the Church in the United States with more vocations to the priesthood – which I’m confident God will do if everyone in the Church takes vocation recruitment seriously – PLDs are going to be a necessity in some circumstances. And many will do excellent jobs. What this Swiss mess suggests is that it’s critically important that everyone be on the same page about what PLDs are and mean.
It must be clear to everyone – the local bishop, the local priests, the pool of candidates for the position of Pastoral Life Director, the parish councils asked to accept a PLD – that PLDs are an interim solution until normal pastoral structures, meaning a resident priest-pastor, can be re-established in a parish. Sure, there are things priest-pastors do today that could be done just as well, and arguably better, by lay Catholics. By the same token, however, everyone involved in the PLD phenomenon has to understand that pastoral leadership and governance in the Catholic Church are, in normal circumstances, functions of the ordained priesthood.
If some parties don’t understand that, what’s virtually inevitable here is something akin to what’s happened around Fribourg. Pressures to regard PLDs as the norm, rather than the exception, will intensify. Priests will be further marginalized (and demoralized). Vocation recruitment will be commensurably more difficult. The American temptation to think of “the Church” as the local congregation, period, will be even more difficult to resist.
Calling PLDs an “interim solution” isn’t a put-down; it’s a frank description of Catholic reality. In fact, I’d suggest that anyone who takes “interim” as a put-down is automatically disqualified to be a Pastoral Life Director. Parishes are Eucharistic communities governed in a Eucharistic context. That’s why priest-pastors are crucial. And that’s something everyone making decisions about PLDs ought to understand.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.