Cafeteria Catholicism, Part II: Defending My Priest

Something happened this weekend, and it reminded me of this post I'd had sitting away. I kept from posting it because I didn't want to be divisive. But now, I think I'm ready to be a little angry again. (First written 7/12/2007)

I had lunch with my parish priest today, and it reminded me of this series that I wanted to continue to write about.

For the past 17 years I've had the same priest. While my attendance hasn't always been perfect, he has always been there: working within the community, helping the less fortunate, and building a bridge to the Spanish-speaking parishioners.

When I was still in school, I served as the alterboy at his parish. In 1992 he drove my family to see my dying grandfather at 4 AM. And when I first felt the pull towards the priesthood, he was the first person I sat down and honestly talked with.

My priest's drive comes from helping those who cannot help themselves. For years, I've been energized by his homilies of how church doesn't stop after Sunday. We're called to aid those in need of help, listen to those in need of consolation, and mentor those in need of guidance. His message is the same after 17 years: take care of your fellow man as God has told us to.

If you haven't already guessed, my priest is quite liberal in his theology.

I've never seen him wear a Roman collar, either in public or during Mass. He considers it a status symbol, just like jewelry or expensive clothing. During mass, he reminds us that we are there to pray together as a family. There's handshaking before Mass begins, Father sits in the front pew during the readings, and he invites the children to come up to the alter and hold hands when saying the Pater Noster.

After Mass last week, I asked him, jokingly: "So when should I expect our first Tridentine Mass?" He chuckled, and in a low voice said, "It won't be me doing it." Later, he explained how a language barrier has already divided the parish, and adding another separate Mass would do more harm than good.

Unfortunately, some have given him the label of "Cafeteria Catholic."

Now that I am working on my vocation, actually looking out instead of in, I realize more and more that the term "Cafeteria Catholic" makes less and less sense. We are all called to the Lord in different ways. We have different gifts, different talents, different ways of connecting to The Divine. If I'm not as excited about Eucharistic Adoration as someone more traditional, it doesn't mean I'm picking and choosing; it means I've found different ways to communicate and feel close to Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit.

I help people who live in parks or in parking ramps. I do Bible Study with the guys in jail every Monday (it's beneficial to them as well as me), I help out at the meal program for the homeless, I give urban immersions to people who've never experienced poverty before, and I give speeches and presentations at parishes who want to do more to help the poor in Milwaukee. (this isn't to brag. I have a point, I promise)

I know full well that there are people uncomfortable with what I do, feel it it not the best use of their time, or think they should be doing something "more Catholic." Yet everything I do is what has been instructed to me, same as Jesus' disciples. Because they choose not to share in my ministry does not make such a person a Cafeteria Catholic either.

Much in the same, if a priest wishes to emphasize the community part of "communion" when celebrating the Mass, I don't believe people should get bent out of shape if they have to shake hands or if they take an extra few minutes for the Sign of Peace. I do believe that there are certain aspects of the Mass that need to remain solemn, and perhaps different things should be done at different times, but the act(s) can only benefit the parish at large, not detract from it.

Whichever way people try to define my parish priest , he was always the biggest influence in me following my vocation. He's not perfect, he's a little pudgy, and I even heard him swear a few times. But he is a good man and a great priest. When priests like him are given labels, it insults not only everything he's done in the name of God, but every life he's touched...including mine.

So for Fr. Dick, Fr. Rudy, Fr. Mike, Fr. Michael, and all the great priests out there who give up time, effort, and everything included in their vows to create a better world for the lowliest and most outcast members of society...continue to inspire us to become better than who we are, and never let someone use their idea of Catholicism to label you and your ministry.

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