Age before Suitability? — by Bernard Cotter

Suppose, in a fictional parish, the pastor decided that henceforth seniority would be the sole criterion in ministry appointments in the parish. Suspend your disbelief a moment and imagine the results.
The young priest who helped out at weekend masses would no longer be given the main Mass on Sunday – this would be reserved to the elderly monsignor. Priests lacking due seniority would be permitted to say the early morning masses in such a parish.
The enthusiastic young accountant giving his time and treasure to the parish on the finance committee might continue to be tolerated, but his post-retirement colleague would be more often heeded – and would probably be given the chair of the committee.
And the youthful ministers of the Word and Eucharist would be side-lined in favour of those who had much longer been resident in the parish, regardless of their reading ability or even mobility at the altar.
It would never happen of course. Parishes everywhere are keen to involve young people, with an eye to the future; talents are encouraged and used at the service of the Gospel. This inclination is at the heart of the mission statements of most parishes, spoken or unspoken. People with particular talents work in the areas which best suit their talents: to organise people in any other way would be to create not only incompetence but personal unhappiness in those whose talents would be so inappropriately used. Seniority is of course esteemed in parish life, age being undoubtedly honourable, but it is not the sole criterion in matching people with positions.
It seems odd, then, that seniority is remains the main criterion by which many dioceses organise their clergy, in Ireland at least, perhaps elsewhere as well. Junior men (those ordained most recently) take junior posts, while seniors take the significant posts. In this, local churches probably take their cue from the universal Church, where older men take the most senior positions, irrespective of what gifts may be available in others who may not be quite so senior.
In my own diocese, and in some others as well, age is what counts. One becomes eligible for the office of parish priest when there is no older man seeking that office. Talent or suitability are not obvious considerations. Being next in line is what counts.
But there is a pecking order in parishes too: smaller parishes for the younger priests, bigger and often more demanding parishes for the older ones. Sometimes this is not inevitably so, but where the natural order is changed, it is not because of a particular charism or gift being recognized, but rather because a big parish was the one available when the particular priest was next in line. And the reason for this whole disastrous system? Because it has always been so. It would be laughable if it did not have such sad outcomes, in unhappy priests — and parishes.
Seniority as a means of proceeding used to be common in society generally. The bank manager attained his position after years of aspiring to such an office (though now, he is more likely to be half my age). The civil service maintained its own hierarchy, with its most senior positions reserved to its most senior members. In practically every other part of society this method of appointment has been abandoned — except the Church. Why is this so?
A dodgy theology is part of the reason. Some church people have an almost magical view of the power of God’s grace. In this worldview, the ordained person can do anything required of him: God’s grace will see to that. Talent or suitability are not relevant: the grace of the sacrament of ordination is sufficient (combined with a certain infallibility on the part of the bishop, another product of the same dodgy theology). And attainment of a certain chronological age is a key factor, in this strange belief system.
Lack of familiarity with the writings of St Paul might be another factor. For Paul wrote so movingly the power of the Spirit, and the gifts and talents this Spirit makes available to the community: see Ephesians 4: 11-12 for a beautiful description of how the gifts of all should be employed to build up the Body of Christ. The matching of these God-given gifts and talents with particular ministry situations would appear to be one obvious outcome of this powerful statement of Paul’s faith.
Leaving aside good theology and a working knowledge of the scriptures, some common sense principles employed in most organizations point to the benefits of matching skills and talents with particular positions. ‘Square pegs in round holes’ result in disastrous consequences, not only for the places where these appointments take place, but also for the ‘square pegs’ themselves.
Another principle is unfortunately all too prevalent — where people are promoted beyond the level of their ability. In the church context, this may well happen because of some priests’ inability to say ‘No’ — or due to a culture where loyalty to the diocese is rewarded by promotion which takes no account of ability or competence.
I speak as a product of such a system. When I was ordained 25 years, I became a pastor, for the simple reason that I was next in line. Having spent years in the city and enjoyed that ministry locale, I was posted to a small rural parish, a challenging place for me, but one that several others would have made a better job of than I have. The parish I was posted to had no say either, they were to be grateful to have got a priest, any priest at all. If I had more courage, perhaps I should have asked to be allowed wait till a parish more suitable to my own gifts and talents became available. But I did not. Perhaps the system continues as it is because men like me acquiesce.
In regard to diocesan clerical appointments, the racing adage ‘horses for courses’ comes to mind. Certain horses run better on certain courses. People are often well advised to stick to what they know best. The Hollywood phrase ‘smart casting’ might also be applied. Unfortunately, un-nuanced principle of seniority generally seems to prevent this.
St Paul, patron of the employment of the gifts of individuals in the service of all, pray for us!
Fr Bernard Cotter is parish priest of Uibh Laoire, residing at Inchigeela, Macroom, Co Cork, Ireland.  This article was first published in the Parish Practice Page of The Tablet of 17 September 2011. Reproduced here with permission of the Tablet. Website: www.thetablet.co.uk


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One Comment

  1. Points well made, Bernard. A much more enlightened personnel policy would be so desirable, to help match the right pastor with the right position. This happens in some dioceses in California with which I am familiar.

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