Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Church's 22nd Amendment

A contentious element of priest-personnel policies in not a few dioceses, the issue of term limits has returned to the fore in Chicago as one beloved pastor reluctantly takes his leave:
[A]s in any parish shaped by a beloved pastor, the faithful don't want to let go of Rev. Pat Brennan. With four years to go before retirement, Brennan prefers to hold on to his "holy family."

But that's not the way it works in the Catholic Church. Unlike many Protestant pastors or rabbis, priests take an oath of obedience to their bishop and pledge to serve not only a parish but their diocese. So on Tuesday night, parishioners met with leaders from the Chicago archdiocese, some working on the transition, others demanding Brennan stay.

"I'd like to stay," said Brennan, 62. "If it's God's will that I should leave, then I guess I should leave."

Parishioners were told pastor candidates would be reviewed in February and a replacement named by March.

The transition at Holy Family, one of 25 at parishes across the archdiocese where priests' terms are expiring, highlights a longstanding policy in many American dioceses to limit a priest's time in a parish to two consecutive six-year terms.

But parishioners are asking whether it makes sense to enforce such a policy when young men need role models to help reverse the priest shortage, and priests need innovative ministries such as the one at Holy Family.

The parish in Inverness began two decades ago to curb the exodus of north suburban Catholics to a new evangelical megachurch in South Barrington called Willow Creek Community Church.

Since then, both Willow Creek and Holy Family have grown using similar innovative practices. Holy Family even bills itself as "an evangelical church in the Roman Catholic tradition." Some parishioners worry that those innovations have tarnished Brennan's reputation. They fear that Cardinal Francis George wants to punish their straight-talking Irish pastor for not supporting a more orthodox view of the liturgy.

"This is a vendetta against Pat because Pat is very outspoken," said Joanne Easton, 56.

But Rev. James Donovan, executive director of the archdiocese's priest placement board, assured Holy Family parishioners that Brennan's departure is not punitive. "No one is taking away the good works and the pastor he has been for this parish. We're here to talk about the future, as painful as that is."

Term limits in the Chicago archdiocese date to 1973, when the Vatican granted permission to the archdiocese to define terms and impose limits. Canon law then and now allows a priest to serve a parish indefinitely.

Some have theorized that the archbishop didn't want priests to become too powerful. But church records show that the priests took a vote and opted for limits.