ASK FATHER: Why are good priests so afraid of “stirring the pot”?

From a reader…


This past weekend my family and I attended Mass at a neighboring parish, which had for many years been considered very liberal. We were informed that a new pastor had been appointed in the course of the last year who was very orthodox. For his part, the pastor was in fact very reverent and celebrated the Mass accurately. However, the music was horrific, complete with Hippie hymns and rythmic clapping. At the homily the Deacon called the children forward to sit in the sanctuary while he sat facing them and led a “discussion” complete with platitudes about diversity, niceness and quotes from St Martin Luther King.

My question is: Why are good priests so afraid of “stirring the pot” or “sweeping changes” with regard to the proper and reverent celebration of Holy Mass, especially with a supportive bishop and many (perhaps quieter) faithful who just can’t stand the stupidity?

Not knowing the full situation there, one cannot be exhaustive or too precise.  However, in my experience, some priests when they arrive in a new parish wait for quite a while before making changes.  Whether that is a good idea or not, that’s what many priests do.   Of course if there are obvious abuses or sacrilege, they ought to correct them immediately.  Some do, some don’t.  Some priests are timid.  Some have been requested by the bishop, or threatened, not to make “problems”.

Also, some priests arrive in a new place and find a whole raft of things that have to be corrected.  They find it hard to tackle them all at once.  I, of course, think that liturgical worship is the main issue.  However, that is also the issue where people who are entrenched will fight you the most.   And if the bishop doesn’t support his priests – that’s common – Father might turn his attention elsewhere.  He has only so much mental energy and, perhaps, does not want to die on that particular hill.

When you’ve been beaten on for enough years by harassing libs and the bishop who will throw you to the wolves, you get a little tired.

There are many reasons for why “the stupidity” is allowed to go on.  Quite often at the root you will find bullying from parishioners and chancery staff and a lack of support from the bishop.

What can you do?


Fast and pray for the priest.  Ask the guardian angels of those who are obstacles to help you out.  Support the priest in the good initiatives he undertakes.  Express your hope for change in a kind way that doesn’t hector.  Get like minded people together who will offer to be of service in making the changes.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. JamesM says:

    A priest I know was appointed to a similar parish last year. He has been making progress but it is a long process. Even things like stopping the use of EPII on Sundays raises suspicion. Encouraging confession for those who possibly haven’t been in years is another hard slog.

    If one arrived in this parish on a Sunday one might think the priest was a wet liberal. However without having attended Mass with his predecessor one wouldn’t be aware of the changes that have been made. It isn’t always possible to make all the changes one wants overnight and the priest above might have made huge strides over what was in place beforehand.

  2. JamesM says:

    In follow-up to my comment above. The priest in question is very solid and completely orthodox. He has had to face complaints regarding the changes he has already made.

    Another orthodox priest I know inherited a similar situation. It has taken him over two years to stop the use of EMHCs in his parish! I could list a great number of similar cases where good priests have inherited parishes and have made progress. Not one of them has been able to fix everything overnight.

    The parish I was baptised in took 20 years to remove its altar rails. This is common in lots of other parishes I know. Surely even with a good priest and a supportive bishop and the best will in the world, it will take years of slow progress to rectify thing?

  3. oldconvert says:

    Also I would ask for prayers for a priest who is trying, brick by brick, to correct the abuses in a parish that crept in under the guise of VII. It’s a long hard slog, impeded at every turn by the entrenched happy-clappers who, to be fair, are only defending what they were mistaught in the last 30-odd years.

  4. PhilipNeri says:

    Many of the “wreckovations” post-VC2 were made overnight. That didn’t work out so well. We tell our seminarians to wait a year before making any substantial changes. Get to know the people. Let them get to know you. You don’t want your people thinking that the changes you want to make are simply a matter of personal taste. As it is, too many Catholics believe that “Father can do what he wants.” The idea is to connect the parochial liturgy to the universal Church through the liturgical law. Swift changes appear to undermine this, especially when the changes appear to be nothing more than cosmetic. You also have to consider how to explain your changes. That takes time. How do you deal with hurt feelings when you sweep away EMHC’s overnight? Of course, there’s no right to serve as an EM, but that doesn’t stop EM’s from *feeling* pushed aside or abandoned. Change the music? Sure. How do you deal with the hurt feelings of the 10.30am Mass choir that has been serving that Mass for 20+ years? No one likes to hear that they are no longer needed. . .

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

    P.S. Since I’m not a parochial priest, I celebrate Masses at different parishes all over the city. I follow the Dominican rule — Custom of the House. As a rent-a-priest for the day, I don’t rush in and force everyone to change their ways to suit me. Obviously, if there’s something no outrageous that conscience demands that I object, I do! But that’s only happened twice in five years.

  5. Jackie L says:

    In many cases, while in seminary these orthodox men are told something along the lines of “keep your head down, keep your nose clean, don’t make any waves, wait until you’re ordained”, then when given their first couple of associate pastor assignment, under more liberal priests, “keep your head down, keep your nose clean, don’t make any waves, wait until you’re a pastor”. Between seminary and these assignments, this could be about ten years of being told to stay under the radar, we now expect these priests to be able to suddenly lead, and sadly they have no experience handling liberals.

  6. Matthias1 says:

    Start a monthly holy hour for the men of the parish followed by fellowship. Many of the men who come will be (to my initial surprise) more conservatively inclined. Knowing that such a group exists, even a very small one, is apt to be some encouragement to the priest if all he sees on Sunday is “Gather us in.” In a similar situation, our new (excellent) priest, mentioned quietly to us wondering how people would respond to the tabernacle being moved from its current hidden location to a more proper front and center one- and we were able to provide him with a positive response. Result, I think the tabernacle will be where it belongs by this advent. Small steps, but a priest, I suspect, likes knowing he will have some support.

  7. hwriggles4 says:

    I’m wondering if the Parish in question has several Sunday Masses, and one Mass is specifically geared for children. In the 80s, this was common. Some parishes actually put in bulletins and on websites the “type” of Mass. One day I helping greet parishioners at my parish and one lady turned around and walked out because the Mass was a bilingual Mass (yes, my parish does one weekly con la Misa end Ingles y Español). Your family may want to try another Mass next time at the same parish.

  8. Ralph says:

    Pray for and encourage our priests, especially the orthodox ones. The enemy hates the priesthood.

    Be understanding and be part of the solution. Push too hard for change and you may become part of the problem.

    Father will need time to enact real change. The catechisis that is often necessary before change can begin takes time.

  9. MarylandBill says:

    I can certainly attest how entrenched certain interests might be in a particular parish. My wife’s home parish (which started as a cluster of three independent parishes) has as one of its church’s an extremely beautiful old Romanesque style Church built in the early 20th century. I expect if built today it would cost $20 million or more… not that it would ever be built today. In any case, while they never got rid of the Alter Rails, when I started visiting her family, the music there was awful… not just guitar music, but hymns that were theologically protestant. The new Pastor who had assigned to help the three parishes merge, also was trying to really reform things and he tried to get the music director to change the music she played (Not even giving up the guitar, just hymns more appropriate to Catholic worship). After an extended effort, he had to let her go and there was much acrimony all around. Fortunately in the long run, it lead to a dramatic improvement in the Liturgy at the Church as now, the magnificent Pipe organ gets used at most of the masses there and good solid hymns are played. But it required the Pastor to make some very tough and in the short term, unpopular decisions.

  10. rdb says:

    The term that best summarizes the challenges we face when coming to a new parish is “tar babies”. We need to realize that change is not often easy or clean and that we need to, in the words of Pope Francis, “Make a mess,” realizing that the mess will also stick to us and our reputation.

  11. Thorfinn says:

    There are two key reasons not yet mentioned: money & souls.

    The worst reason is the size of the collection plate – make unpopular changes and the collection will suffer and parishioners will leave and the chancery will gently question your fitness as a pastor. The solution is simple: use financial sense. Embrace being a poor church for the poor. Rely on volunteers. Turn down the heat. Buy used or not at all. If the vast majority of Christendom for the last 20 centuries got along without various modern luxuries, so can you. Otherwise you are a slave to the almighty dollar, and those with the most funds are truly your masters.

    The best reason is the size of the congregation – make unpopular changes and souls will be alienated or walk away to uncertain spiritual result. This may be inevitable to some degree with any change, but if by moving at a slower pace you can bring the flock along together & all still get where you need to go…

  12. VAcatholicdude says:

    Think it as the frog in the boiling pot in reverse. If too many changes happened at once, half the congregation would bolt. Bear in mind that some people seek out the lax and liberal parishes because they feel put off by orthodoxy. In many cases, the pastor may want to institute improvements in music/architecture but doesn’t simply have the money for it. It costs $$ for a good organist; the volunteer choir singing the same schlock is a bargain by comparison.

  13. aliceinstpaul says:

    For all of the reasons above, but also for prudence.

    What good does it do to stir the pot when the finance council and trustees are against you? What good does it do you to try and improve liturgy first, when the response will be 60 angry letters to the vicar general, your religious ed teachers telling the children how wrong you are, and parishioners quitting en masse?

    Imagine a priest worked hard to slowly steer the parish away from girl altar servers, but the trustee’s daughter is an altar server, and the trustee’s son’s mother in law leads liturgical dancing? Likely the trustee will outlast the priest. What then?

    I knew a priest who had worked hard to only have boy servers. He did this by specifically asking individual families so no girls were ever asked. He went on retreat one week, and that week, the bulletin announcement was for any and all boys and girls to come to training for altar servers. It was intentional on the part of the parish who did not like the priest’s orthodoxy. He had changed the policy but not their hearts.

    Without prudence, how can a priest discern whose heart is open to conversion?

    Will the wayward believe the Lord is calling them to change, or will they believe it’s God’s will they resist?

    Big changes produce anger, resistance, and bad feelings. Such a parish that is wayward may fall deeply into sin when confronted with such a trial, and it may be the devil himself uses the dissension to bring out evil in the parish and against the holiest of members or against the priests.

    I have seen changes both too fast and too slow result in more lost souls. I do not know the answer here, but I know there is peril in all directions. I don’t know how many priests have the Graces needed to guide their parish through such turbulence.

  14. asburyfox says:

    Priests shouldn’t be afraid of the money issue. The collection plate. Yes, those who aren’t happy with an orthodox direction will leave. Let them go. Don’t worry about the money going down. Becoming an orthodox parish will attract new parishioners and most likely younger ones and younger families. The word needs to get out that a parish is solid and orthodox and they will come.

  15. cl00bie says:

    We had this same situation years ago with a long term pastor (28 years) who was grandfathered in after the change in policy (more than 6 years no more than 12 in a specific parish). The parishioners were used to this pastor to the degree that on their description of the parish, they told the Director of Priest personnel that they wanted “a clone of Fr. X”.

    Then Fr. Y was assigned. Fr. Y had an entirely different focus. When he came in, he identified a dozen liturgical abuses and one canon law violation. There were changes he had to make immediately. He lost three families. Then he gave the infamous “abortion homily” and lost a few more. Then he had to make required personnel changes, and he lost about 70 families who were tied up in the cult of personality of the person who left.

    Fr. Y was a master homilist. His homilies were like a walk in the holy land. His handling of the Blessed Sacrament re-kindled my belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist which I had lost at 10 years old by “communion in the hand”. He was one of the primary reasons that I began to consider the permanent diaconate. Slowly, different people began attending Mass and staying. Generally young families with a lot of children. Our collection went back to prior levels and even began to exceed them.

    But he paid with health problems. Blood pressure, headaches, obesity. He was undermined by evil lay people who had been running the church under the prior pastor. The person who left had a lot of political pull in the chancery and Fr. Y discovered that his promotional and transfer options were limited. He ended up as an associate in another parish for a while until the new bishop was installed.

    I plan to learn from this, and when I’m ordained in about a year and a half, to take it slow, especially in a new assignment. Get the lay of the land, find out who the players are first. Cement alliances and most of all keep everyone informed and educated before making changes.

    But he paid the price for doing the right thing. He’s getting near retirement age, and I hope he can have a peaceful and enjoyable retirement.

  16. Cafea Fruor says:

    There’s the old wisdom that a new boss/leader/whatever should avoid making major changes until a year after taking over, especially if people might find those major changes painful, because you want time to build their trust. If you make changes too soon, people feel like you’re just an outsider who wants to undo everything without understanding them.

  17. Fr_Sotelo says:

    Fr. Z makes some excellent points about the lack of support that a new pastor feels when making changes.

    Also, it is not necessarily fear that motivates a new pastor. At times, it is just a matter of prudence. If I can ram changes down people’s throats, even good changes for the parish, and get away with it, only losing 100 or so parishioners, why not gradually make changes? Why not carry out transitions in such a way that people are less shocked or hurt, and lose only five parishioners?

    Even the most traditional priest, in a liberal and rancorous parish, can get away with a lot by just taking time to get to know parishioners and building up their trust and comfort level. There are parishioners who are very distasteful people at first, who can be won over with patience and being treated respectfully. The liberal malcontent who fights a new priest in the first three months, if dealt with in a kind and gentle manner, may not be such a malcontent in one or two years. Heavy handed use of authority, ultimatums, obligatory and mandatory new guidelines, is rarely needed.

    So, it is not always a matter of the new pastor being afraid. It is, at times, a desire to see the parishioners as good people, who not of their own fault, have been misled or brainwashed by a previous administration. Now they are testy and hard to deal with. As a priest, I can run around giving all my sheep smack down and lashings for being heretics and sinners. Or I can be a father, communicate that I love them and work for their souls, pray constantly for them privately, even when they dislike me.

    Eventually, many of them will soften and allow me to re-catechize them according to the mind of the Church. The modern day traditional priest can have the attitude that dealing with liberal parishioners is an opportunity for “payback” or can think like a cheerful missionary, trying to convert the pagans all over again.

  18. johnnys says:

    VAcatholicdude said…..Bear in mind that some people seek out the lax and liberal parishes because they feel put off by orthodoxy.

    So? That’s not a reason to keep teaching error. If they are offended by Truth then so be it. They will be replaced by those seeking the True Catholic Faith. Hopefully there will be less and less of these liberal parishes for them to run to and then they will truly have to make a choice.

    This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?

  19. clq24 says:

    I was part of a parish where the priest came in and started to make changes right away. There was no communication as to why the changes were being made (I am a big proponent of teaching people the right way of doing things so explain) which might have helped the situation. Needless to say the changes were not well received and pitted the pastor against the congregation in many ways for a long time. Add to the fact that he had to say some very difficult stuff from the pulpit during one election cycle, parishioners left in droves and a noticeable negative streak developed in the parish.

    I think what it comes down to is when a pastor makes sweeping changes in a parish before getting to know the parishioners it can come off as a personal attack. The pastor becomes “too good” for the parishioners because what they were doing was wrong (some of this was true but some of it was small stuff that could have waited a little bit to implement) so the pastor had hardly any parishioner support so he was left with fighting fights that he did not need to fight if he had just waited a little bit. I backed the pastor but there was a point where I was even saying that I wished they would hold off on the changes because there was so many. I think pastors should get to know their congregations a little bit before they make changes because it might help them administer the changes better (ex. Wwho could help implement, how to implement, etc.). Of course, this is just the opinion of one lowly parishioner.

  20. Patti Day says:

    When was Martin Luther King canonized?

  21. Kathleen10 says:

    The churches are emptying at a rapid clip, a recent summary of that exodus was recently on Rorate. Catholics can’t abandon the faith fast enough any more. I certainly don’t know the answer, whether going “fast” or “slow” is going to keep half-hearted Catholics in the seats, or what, but what can be said is that the practice of the faith is in free-fall. Fewer people see how the Holy Mass is relevant for their lives. Our church has emptied at an alarming rate.
    Personally, as much as I hate to see Catholic churches closing, I would rather sit in a gymnasium with folding chairs and a tiny mobile altar, but have a traditional Latin Mass, or even VERY faithful NO Mass, one without the contemporary trappings.
    The problem is the church is the problem. It’s concentrating on the bottom line, and while I get that, it does not seem likely this is what Jesus intended for His church.
    What I want to see is what progressives in the church are going to do once churches are absolutely empty. Then what.

  22. Sword40 says:

    Our “new” parish, was given to us by the Archbishop one year ago. FSSP sent us a priest. Our priest has emphasized that we should try to keep most of the ethnic traditions of the “old” parish. (It was a Slovak parish built over 100 years ago by the Slovak community). Now a year later, 90% of the Slovak folks have left but come back for the Vet’s Day dinner and a couple of other events and try to dictate when and how the events will occur. Father laid the law down and told them he would not yield because they withdrew from the parish. (they mostly go down the hill to a Novus Ordo parish).

    So we started a Men’s club that is taking the lead in organizing things, under Father’s direction. I have noticed several of the Slovak folks coming back occasionally. Our Archbishop has left us alone, so far. We try to participate with other N.O. parishes when it comes to praying at PPhood and advertising their Retreats, Holy Hours, etc. so the local N.O. priests seem to like us.

    Our problems are different than a diocesan priest trying to change things. When the FSSP were invited in, everyone knew exactly what was going to happen. Oh yes, many of the lady lectors were upset. And no EMHC’s or altar girls. Yes, we put the communion rail back in place.

    All the rubric of the EF are fully enforced. We have ALL tried to be very friendly to visitors and the Slovaks that stop by.

    To be honest, the Slovak’s no longer really represent the Slovak community. Most are now 2nd or 3rd generation as I am myself. We have all assimilated to be total Americans.

  23. We just switched from a somewhat orthodox pastor to an ultra-liberal one and, while he was told supposedly not to change things “keep an even keel”, he has been doing just that. Homilies on how social justice triumphs all moral teaching when it comes to voting and discarding the use of a thurifer. I’ve wanted to get up and walk out and/or cut our contribution. Just say the black and do the red!

  24. Moro says:

    Sometimes you need a little chlorine in the ecclesial gene pool, so to speak. The easiest thing to start would be to offer more confessions and add adoration to the schedule, perhaps together. Or have rosary before or after certain masses if it is not already on the schedule. If anyone in the parish has an issue with these things, you know immediately who the biggest troublemakers are. Figure out how to neutralize their influence in the parish ASAP. It won’t be easy but it is absolutely necessary if you want a flourishing parish. Sometimes these are only driven out with prayer and fasting, and in some cases, the biological solution. Most likely there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth at some point.

    After that, I would differentiate the must stops (any obvious abuses, heretical music like Amazing Grace, lay people in the Tabernacle, problematic CCD and RCIA materials, etc.) and the should stops (altar girls, tabernacle off to the side, EMHCs, etc.) The must stops deal with ASAP. The should stops, gradually.

    But you can also use changing of the guard in your favor, people expect new parish staff when a pastor comes in. So get rid of the principal of the school, the music director, and the youth minister if they are problematic individuals, doctrinally or otherwise. Just do it.

    If you have a parish council – get solidly orthodox members on board to help support you or drive out the people mentioned in the paragraph above.

  25. notenoughflair says:

    Also, please don’t forget to pray for those who work in chanceries who are fighting the good fight from within. Not everyone who works at chanceries is a Haugen / Haas singing, Kasper reading, National Catholic Reporter subscribing liberal. Believe it or not, there are actually a few of us at chanceries with a shelf full of Tan books and a Douay Rheims bible who attend Latin Mass parishes. I’ve met a few of those “closeted” Latin Mass devotees, and it’s always a rush to find a kindred soul from another diocese. And trust me when I say that all of us – Burke-ites and Kasper-ites alike – seriously need prayers for constant conversion and for the light of the Holy Ghost to guide our actions and thoughts.

  26. downyduck says:

    Thank you for your perspective. We were just assigned a new priest- I will think twice before getting impatient for him to “fix” some of the glaring abuses quickly and will increase prayers for him and our parish.

  27. Cincinnati Priest says:

    This is interesting commentary, but the reality is that there is no perfect balance in the difficult task of a pastor in making necessary liturgical changes in a parish

    If you wait too long, in dioceses which force priests to move after say 6 to 12 years, you can’t get things done that need to be done. If you start to early, you may alienate folks. (Most folks don’t realize how many “moving parts” there are for a pastor in making what seem like simple liturgical changes). The typical parish is not like a corporation, where everyone is invested and committed full time, and expected to read, understand and follow up upon communications as a necessary part of his “job description.” Rather, many people don’t bother reading bulletin or parish communications, don’t attend Mass regularly, so won’t hear things announced at Mass, etc. So just getting the word out in educating folks is challenging in itself. Parishioners at large, minor ministers, volunteers, paid staff members and others need to be brought on board and educated for the reasons for a change, especially in this day and age of so many being the perpetual victims and experts at “being offended”

    If you try to communicate reasons for liturgical changes according to liturgical norms such as the General Instruction of the Missal, many parishioners will complain that this is being “legalistic” and tell you that “what they say in Rome isn’t relevant to us.” (Simply moving the needle to get parishioners to accept the fact that the parish is part of the universal church and that the liturgy doesn’t belong to the parish as a personal plaything is a difficult challenge.)

    After decades of mis-catechesis, it is an enormous challenge to right the ship.

    I have experienced some of the lay faithful (who have no experience in the challenges involved in serving as a pastor) being excessively critical of priests and pastors for “taking too long” to make changes. Something of the ‘armchair quarterback’ phenomenon here.

    As mentioned the best thing to do is to pray for a pastor for the gifts of wisdom, patience, courage and perseverance.

    After over four decades of wandering in the liturgical wilderness, it is going to take at least a decade more for the more newly ordained priests to get things in order. What is sometimes perceived as ‘fear’ may just be prudence.

  28. Volanges says:

    This is an interesting quandary. Our last pastor waited about 12 months before making the change to the one thing that bugged him more than anything: nobody knelt at the Consecration. When he could stand it no longer he talked to us at the parish council and told us how he felt and what he wanted and asked “How do I get people to kneel?” He was shocked by the response, “Just tell them to kneel.” What he hadn’t been aware of until that point is that a previous pastor had ordered us not to kneel, and the people, most of them anyway, had obeyed.

    I remember well when it happened. The priest had come to me as the secretary and given me the directive to put in the first bulletin after the summer holidays, when he would be away on his own holidays, that we were no longer to kneel at any point during Mass. I was the chair of the liturgy committee at the time and knew full well that if that went into the bulletin while he was away I would be the one blamed for that rule so for once I exhibited backbone and said, “Sorry, Father. Either you make that announcement before you leave or it waits until you come back because I am not shouldering the blame for this.” He announced it just before he left town for several weeks.

    I still got blamed but I knew that the idea had come from the Diocesan Catechetical Coordinator and the Sister who had been invited to help in the parish by the previous Pastor. One had hidden the bells so there would be no bells rung at the Consecration and the other made a point of going to speak to anyone she knew if she saw them in prayer before Mass, convinced as she was that that was a time for socializing, not prayer.

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  30. OldLady says:

    As a lapsed Catholic who returned to the traditional Mass a few years ago, w hat strikes me while reading these posts is the way it was back in the 1950s and the way it is now. Apparently I missed the most confused years during my lapse. In hindsight and in a nutshell, what led to my lapse was the same thing that infected churches for decades, social change. Why wait another generation to return to what should never have been abandoned? If a return to tradition does not come from the top down it will have to come from the bottom up. Thank God for priests, thank you for a job well done in difficult circumstances. You do make a difference though you may never be told that by the ones you affect the most. When you speak sincerely from the pulpit, hearts are changed. I know that for a fact.

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