Back when we lived in Maryland, we had a pretty friendly relationship with our pastor (the only priest in our parish). He came over to bless our apartment soon after we moved in, he gave us spiritual direction while we were discerning having another child (Felicity), and he always greeted us when we left Mass (and not just a, “Hi, have a good week!” as you run for your car). He knew us fairly well, and whenever I went to him for confession, he was spot on with his advice and penance. I think this was partly just because he was a good priest, but also partly because he knew the circumstances of many of his parishioners.
When we moved to Virginia, we registered at the closest parish, which was fifteen minutes away from us. To have chosen another parish would have added at least another fifteen minutes to that drive, so with two small children, our parish was really the only viable option for us. It’s a large parish, with multiple priests, and we have not yet had the opportunity to really know any of them. I’m not even sure they know our names at this point, which is completely understandable in a parish of this size. Since moving here, I’ve had a few experiences with our priests that have led me to wonder how well some of them know what life is like for their parish families.
Just a few months after relocating, I had a priest suggest that I plan a date night as part of my penance during confession. As he spoke, I quickly realized that what he was proposing was not our typical “date night,” which involved dinner on the couch after the kids went to bed while we watched (part of) a movie together, followed by dessert. This was our Saturday ritual, and had been since John’s infancy. But no, this was not what the priest was suggesting. He was referring to a “dinner and a movie” date, something that only happened maybe twice a year for us. From what I could gather, the priest really believed that anyone was capable of planning this type of date at any time, and the reason we weren’t doing it more regularly was because we weren’t “dedicated enough.” His words, not mine. According to him, we didn’t have monthly dates out because we weren’t dedicated enough to our relationship (because date nights in just weren’t enough).
This priest seemed to think that all of his parishioners were in a position to go on regular date nights out. I was so shocked that I couldn’t even correct him. I couldn’t tell him that Andrew and I had monthly bills to pay, including rent, loans, and credit cards. I couldn’t tell him that we had no family nearby, and that babysitters were a rare special treat for us. I couldn’t tell him that we were still paying off the hospital bills from Felicity’s birth. I couldn’t tell him that if we could have gone out more often for dinner and a movie, we would have, but it wasn’t as easy as he seemed to think. By the time we ate dinner ($16, if we ate at the mall food court and skipped drinks), bought our movie tickets ($23 at our local AMC), and paid our babysitter ($10 per hour, for a total of $40 for the night), we would have needed to spend $79. That’s nearly $80 that we didn’t have to freely speed. That’s a week’s worth of groceries for us. That’s a third of my monthly loan payment, or half of my monthly car payment. That was a lot of money to us.
In case you’re worried, I did complete my penance, but I got lucky. It was November, which happened to be my birthday month. We had a gift card to Olive Garden, my birthday was one of the two usual times we went to the movies (Andrew’s birthday is the other one), and Andrew’s mom was in town for Veteran’s Day weekend. We only needed to spend $23 for the night, but it remains the most expensive penance I’ve ever completed.
Several months later, I had a similar experience in confession. If you’re a parent yourself, you’re probably not surprised to know that I don’t always have the patience necessary to deal with my kids, and during that particular confession, I had gotten frustrated with John. After I confessed, the priest asked me which child I’d lost my patience with. I told him the older one. His response? Well, that’s good, because I just can’t understand how parents can get frustrated with their babies?! As he told me, he was always shocked when people confessed losing their cool with their babies- they’re babies after all, right? They can’t be held accountable for their actions. They don’t understand the world yet. All they do is eat, sleep, and get their diaper changed. How could you lose your patience with them?
I was lucky that in the weeks prior to this incident, Felicity had been a particularly easy baby. I didn’t need to confess the time I got annoyed with her when she smeared poop all over her snow white dress shoes. I didn’t need to confess the time that I yelled at her after she threw peanut butter toast on the wall. I didn’t need to confess the occasional desire to slam my head against the wall when both of my kids are crying while I try to prepare breakfast. Thank goodness I didn’t need to confess any of that because I’m not sure what the priest would have thought of me.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I know that Felicity is a baby, and that she lacks reason. I know that she cries because it’s one of her only ways of communicating with me. I know that she’s the closest to pure innocence that I’m going to get this side of heaven. But knowing that doesn’t always help me in the moment. It doesn’t always keep me from raising my voice. It doesn’t always keep me from losing my cool in front of my kids. It doesn’t always keep me from imagining my head making contact with the wall. Sin is not rational. Reason often takes the backseat during these emotional moments. I do things that I regret, and then when I calm down and come to regret them, I go to confession. If this priest really couldn’t imagine parents losing their temper with their babies, he probably didn’t spend much time with children.
I’ve known some really incredible priests. I’ve known priests who really had a sense of the lives of their parishioners, who had their finger on the pulse of their parish. I’ve known priests who spent hours getting to know their parishioners, who regularly accepted invitations to dinners, parties, and holidays, who seasonally hosted parish events so they could spend more time with the families of their parishes. I’ve also known priests who never spoke with parishioners, who disappeared the moment Mass was over. I’ve known priests who have made incorrect assumptions regarding the circumstances of their parishioners because they never thought to ask. I’ve known priests who have accepted a Pinterest-worthy portrayal of marriage and family life because they haven’t spent enough time getting to know the real families of their parishes.
So thank you to all of those incredible priests out there who have really gotten to know their parishioners. But if it’s been a while since you’ve had a conversation with your parish families, it might be time to get to know some better. And families, it might be time to invite your parish priests over for dinner some time. Show them what raising children is really like. Let them see the beauty and the messiness of family life with their own eyes. You might both benefit from that extra set of hands when you’re trying to get dinner together and all of your kids are crying.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!