Penance By Appointment: A Secretary’s View

I was glad to see the “Penance By Appointment” post get a little attention yesterday. It fell far behind the usual centers of attention here–readings for funerals and weddings. Even the reconciliation readings page got more views. I knew Liam would comment. I also received an e-mail from a parish secretary (not in my parish) who prefers to remain anonymous. Here’s her take on the topic:

Well, as the parish secretary of a priest who offers the by appointment option, allow me to say this.

I typically make most of his appointments, as I manage his calendar, which for us is on Google. That way he can see it on his phone or from his desk.

When people call and ask for him, and I daresay I believe that I am very professional, but I have to suss out what they need. If it is a someone calling about a wedding, I speak to them about some preliminary matters first, and then book that appointment. If it is baptism, same kind of thing. (He sees all those who are there for their first baptism.) If someone calls and simply says I need to see Father, I might do a little probing – gently. Many people call to “see” Father, but they need financial
help – and he does not get involved so much there. I can immediately connect them with our St. Vincent de Paul. My long winded point is that in our large and busy parish, with one priest, if people tried to talk to him, and left messages, they might not get what they need as quickly and pastorally.

And lots of people call and simply say, “I would like to make an
appointment for Fr. to hear my confession.” I just book the time. And like all of his other appointments, they go into a sitting room that has a white noise generator and close the door. I do not disturb!  He is not put off by the smell of sheep, but he can’t see everyone on Saturday in a 30 minute span.

Having worked close to clergy for twenty-six years, I think expectations of priests from less-active Catholics can be quite high, and occasionally unrealistic. There can be a presumption that clergy are more-or-less immediately available for everything from an obviously excellent reason (like a sudden death of a loved one) to a frivolous one (like some strange opinion they encountered on the internet). Most priests don’t give people food or money. Almost all perform personal counseling on some level, and I’ve never known a priest to be unprofessional about any of this. I’ve worked with some real gossipy guys in the past, and even with them, the Seal of Confession is inviolate.

My sense is that a good priest will be responsive and welcoming of a sincere effort of a needy Catholic, even a non-parishioner.

At the student center, our associate pastor often is seen walking between his office and the church with a person in tow. I might guess he hears a dozen confessions a week in this way–and that could be a very conservative estimate. My sense is that the pastor gets more calls about a broad range of things, and conducts his one-on-one ministry more in his office–out of the public eye.

My e-mail correspondent also asked me why I posted the piece. I’ll simply suggest it as a corrective to the conservative Catholic narrative I’ve seen online this year (once) and in the past suggesting that there’s something evasive about offering alternatives to Saturday afternoon. When a person sees “& by appointment” in the parish bulletin, take it as a sincere and generous offering of time, and ignore the naysayers who have no experience with the priest in question.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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4 Responses to Penance By Appointment: A Secretary’s View

  1. LIam says:

    In general, the only time I’ve seen “by appointment” denoted as evasive is when it’s the only option.

    On the flip side, at my parents’ parish (a territorial parish that also serves as the base for the campus ministry to one of the four main SUNY universities), I personally witnessed something disturbing last fall. My mother was in the hospital, so I asked my father if he wanted the opportunity to go to confession (he’s not been able for a few years), and he was eager. We got to church about 20 minutes ahead of start time, and there was already a pew of penitents waiting (I was not surprised by that). Several more people came in after us. Confessions took a while. I gave up my place in line to allow others not to be delayed. One poor man, who got there before the start time, found himself next in line an hour later when Mass started – and the priest, who was NOT celebrating that Mass – left promptly without attending to the others in line. The penitent in question told me this was the third week in a row it had happened to him. If I had seen the pastor after Mass, I would have mentioned this to him. Now, it could be that the confessor had hospital rounds to make, but others in line said this was his MO. And it’s not right. There is no ban on confessions being heard while Mass is being celebrated, and it’s not pastoral or progressive to confect a rationalization against it where there is evident need. (The reconciliation rooms are at the narthex, so there’s not issue of disturbing the celebration of Mass.)

    • Todd says:

      Just two things:

      I’ve never seen a parish with a resident priest where there was not a Saturday time offered.

      The sad example you offer suggests a problem deeper than the availability (or lack thereof) of the sacrament. If a confessor is blowing off his sacramental and pastoral duty on Saturday afternoon, you can be assured it is happening in other situations also. I think we all know what Pope Francis would say.

  2. FrMichael says:

    Liam, I hope you would follow-up with a phone call to the parish in question. I have a parish with Sunday supply priests who also hear confessions on Saturday afternoons. I would want to know that they were leaving the confessional before the line of penitents had made their confessions.

    “In general, the only time I’ve seen “by appointment” denoted as evasive is when it’s the only option.”

    +1

    Good topic. Also this is an excellent insight from Todd: “Having worked close to clergy for twenty-six years, I think expectations of priests from less-active Catholics can be quite high, and occasionally unrealistic.” Very true!

  3. Jim McCrea says:

    In the early 1960s there was a Jesuit who wandered the campus of Marquette University and would pigeon-hole students (mostly males) and confront them: “how is your prayer life: pretty good or pretty poor?” That usually lead to Fr. Mac (a WWII marine vet) putting an arm around the neck of the attackee and hearing confession right then and there. They were quick ones as his personal hygiene was terrible and one learned to confess quickly to get away from severe underarm nastiness. I speak from a one-time exprience (once was enough!).

    But everyone knew that Mac did that (to males only, though) and gave him and the startled confessee a wide berth.

    No appointments necessary: he sought you out, you didn’t have to find him.

    But that was long ago and far away and Fr. Mac has long since gone to his reward.

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