Thursday, 31 May 2012 12:39
The view from the rectory window
By Fr. Ken Van Haverbeke
At every parish I begin a file. This file is not for budgets or building projects nor homilies. This file is what I mark the “personal file.”
The file looks ordinary. A manila folder with a tab labeled “Personal.” Contained inside are letters and notes from parishioners who took the time to write a card or letter explaining how God worked through the priesthood I’ve been given. This file looks ordinary, but it can be a lifeline.
I began this file as a newly ordained priest and it has served me well. Like everyone, I can receive comments, but for every ten comments or letters received, there will be one not so complimentary, or even nasty. Being a person who desires to be accepted, I forget the other nine flattering letters or comments and focus on the critical one.
Critical letters often center upon sports, uniform policy, or discipline of children in PSR or school. Sometimes, but rarely, they center upon a homily or theological point. Often though they are in response to some instance where I placed my foot into my mouth.
Critical letters can be divided into three categories: Stealth bombers, PBM’s, and Trojan Horses.
Some critical letters arrive anonymously. These are what I call the Stealth Bombers. I’ve learned not to read or even open them. It is frustrating and often useless in not being able to respond to their concern. When e-mail first became standard but still new, I would receive a few stealth or “anonymous e-mails” from folks who didn’t realize their e-mail address of
pulled back the curtain of anonymity.
Some comments have arrived by registered mail. Now there is tenacity! These I call PBMs, Precision Guided Munition. To send a letter by registered mail, the person wanted to make certain it fell into the right hands. These are rare, but still part of the arsenal.
Finally there is the Trojan Horse letter. The beginnings are civil and even flattering, and then wham! Just when you think all is well, there is a “but Father…” Frequently these letters are written by well meaning parishioners who desire to be respectful but have a complaint or suggestion.
It is important for parishioners to voice their thoughts and complaints. I’ve learned a great deal from critical letters about how I can appear un-Christlike. Saint Paul cautioned the younger priest Timothy, “Take great care about what you do and what you teach; always do this, and in this way you will save both yourself and those who listen to you.” (1 Tim. 4:16) Being a priest comes with many hazards, such as taking oneself too seriously or misusing one’s authority.
Soon after ordination, after the honeymoon was over, and the pink glasses were misplaced, I realized the need to begin a “personal” folder. In this folder are some wonderful letters, cards, and notes of how God worked through me in spite of, or because of my weaknesses.
One of the first letters I received was from a young man in high school. Hospitalized for several months with a painful intestinal spasms. I did nothing really. Sat with him in his hospital room and listened to music with him. Talked and prayed with him. But after he recovered he sent me a gracious note thanking me for being there for him. It went into the personal file.
Then there’s the woman who called me one evening to the nursing home for her mother. Dutifully I went, but grumbling. She wasn’t my parishioner. Complaining to myself that I must be the only priest who doesn’t have voice mail and answers the phone (poor me!), I entered the room.
The family was gathered. It would prove to be the last hours of the woman’s life. Thinking she was comatose, I was surprised when she began to pray the Our Father with us while anointing her. Ashamed for the way I felt on my drive to the home, I left with a renewed understanding of why I am a priest, and very thankful I was available to come. There is nothing worse to be taught to always call a priest when a loved one is dying and not to be able to get a hold of one. I was humbled.
But more humbled a month or so later when a note arrived which said, “As our family stood with you, we afterwards realized we were experiencing one of the most spiritually moving events of our lives.”
What a great privilege it is to be a priest, even when I don’t always realize it!
Yes, it’s important to learn from one’s mistakes, but it’s also important to remember and repeat one’s successes. As St. Paul wrote, “Rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Co. 5: 17-18)
I think everyone should have a personal file.
Father Ken VanHaverbeke is the Director of the Spiritual Life Center www.slcwichita.org.