Dear Vincentian Friends,
I have a question for everyone who is a Conference President: Have you visited your pastor yet this year?
If not, this is a good time to make an appointment for a meeting. Summer can be a little slower around the parish, and if you have a new pastor, you’ll certainly want to meet him before he gets busy with all the activities of the parish after Labor Day.
Some Conferences misunderstand the need to stay in touch with the parish because of the independence of the Society from the Church. From the earliest days of our Society, however, our founders kept in touch with the pastor of their parish. Frédéric Ozanam’s roommate, Armand Chaurand, would meet the pastor of St. Etienne du Mont after Mass every Tuesday morning to report the activity of the young Conference and take the pastor’s concerns to the meeting that evening. There are pastors who overstep the bounds of their relationship with the Society and try to take control, but if that is a problem, maybe regular communication will help them understand us better.
You might not think it is necessary to meet every year. You may assume your priest knows what you are doing, but I think most pastors would benefit not just from a report on what you did last year, but also by discussing your future plans, what you are doing to attract new members, and how your members strengthen their spiritual lives. Thank the pastor for his support and ask if he has any suggestions or concerns. I hope a pastor would want to know that the poor in his neighborhood were being cared for by his parishioners. Let me share a few best practices I have heard about for this visit.
When you make the appointment, be clear that you want to update him about the work of the Conference and that you welcome his advice on how the Conference is working. He should know that there is no other agenda for this meeting. We need to be clear with pastors that we are not a parish ministry — meaning that we choose our own leaders and control our activity and finances. This does not mean, however, that we should avoid consulting the pastor about what we are doing and asking for his advice. After all, we are usually meeting in parish space, often get some funds from the parish, hope to publish Conference information in the bulletin, and are always looking for new members from the parish. The pastor can be a big help in all these matters.
I suggest getting your pastor a copy of the Member Handbook before the meeting, if you have not already done that. It is a great summary of who we are. He might take the time to read it and have a better understanding of us in advance of the appointment. Give him copies in English and Spanish so he can understand that we will welcome all parishioners as members and that our resources support that effort. There are other materials that could be offered, such as a copy of one of the Serving in Hope modules. Don’t bring more than a couple of items at any one time, however. Too much material at once tends to overwhelm and risks nothing being read.
Of course, bring a report to share statistics summarizing the work of the conference, and be sure to tell a few meaningful stories — making sure to keep identities confidential. I would also suggest emphasizing that the principal purpose of the Society is the spiritual growth of our members. Your pastor may think we are just another nonprofit service organization, but we hope he will be delighted that his parishioners are part of a well-organized Society that emphasizes the spiritual formation of its members as they put their faith into action.
Finally, take time to listen. Ask for advice. Ask if he knows any good prospects for membership. Ask if he will come to a future meeting or celebrate a special Mass for the conference. If criticism is offered, don’t be defensive, but say you will seriously consider his suggestions. In the days after the meeting, send your pastor a thank you letter, which could summarize intended follow-up on any issues raised.
We are not a parish ministry, but we are members of parishes. We owe our pastors respect, and we are strongest where this relationship is nurtured with regular communications. The priests in Paris knew our founders; so did the archbishop. Even the Holy Father, Pius IX, knew Frédéric Ozanam and the Society. We need the support of the Church, and — honestly — the Church needs us, Catholics who have a strong faith and who are living out the Gospel call to see Christ in the faces of our neighbors in need in the parishes where we live.
Serviens in spe,
National Council President