In the realm of aviation, a video of an American Airlines pilot delivering a stern but compassionate pre-flight announcement has sparked a wide variety of reactions online. The pilot’s speech, which set ground rules for passenger conduct inflight, didn’t mince words. While some deemed it patronizing, others praised his words as a demonstration of strong leadership.
A colleague pointed out the article and got me thinking: This happens to priests, too.
Like the pilot, priests stand as leaders in their respective parishes, guiding and shepherding the flock. The pilot’s speech, a “little bit of fatherhood” as he called it, exemplifies a direct and authoritative approach to ensure the safety and comfort of all passengers. Similarly, priests are called upon to speak firmly when addressing behaviors or trends that contradict the teachings of the faith. The pilot is entrusted with safety, but priests are entrusted with souls.
As our culture diverges in more striking ways from Christianity, priests will have to speak with courage and clarity about those things that are foreign to the Gospel. Our promises to God demand that we challenge parishioners to be better versions of themselves, to encourage them in holiness.
On the Last Day, we will be held accountable to God for what we’ve said … and failed to say. Parishioners may have their feathers ruffled, but sometimes a conscience must be unsettled to inspire change.
A friar recently shared with me a story about correcting an altar boy. The friar threatened the young man to pay closer attention at Mass, saying that if he continued to make mistakes he’d be fired from serving.
Later that day, the friar received a phone call from the boy’s mother. Terrified that the woman was going to be angry, he cautiously engaged. In fact, she was calling to thank the priest for teaching her son a life lesson.
The boy had learned to be proud to have a job so important that he could be fired from it. The stern correction inspired in him diligence and zeal.
Be challenging, not cruel
When it comes to air travel, unruly passenger incidents have surged, leading to concerns for the safety and well-being of all onboard.
Similarly, we may witness challenges and conflicts within our parishes. Radically different experiences of the Church have led to generational conflicts, which often reveal themselves in discussions of doctrine and liturgy. A priest’s zeal for orthodoxy can chaff established parishioners, particularly if it demands conversion.
But a challenging word is not the same as a cruel word. Like the pilot, we priests should approach these conversations with genuine humility, doing our best to understand the struggles faced by our parishioners. It is crucial to strike the right balance between authority and compassion.
Both pilot and priest aim to cultivate a sense of unity. The pilot emphasized the importance of treating fellow travelers with respect and kindness, urging them to cooperate for a pleasant journey.
Likewise, priests must emphasize the value of Christian virtues such as humility, patience and charity to build a vibrant and supportive faith community.
The video showcased the pilot’s genuine concern for the safety and comfort of his passengers. His words were akin to a firm but loving father setting boundaries for his children. In the same way, a priest’s chiding is an act of spiritual fatherhood, urging parishioners to stay true to their faith and continue to reform their lives after the pattern of Christ’s Gospel.
Just as the pilot thought it wouldn’t suffice to continue making the same announcement on that flight, priests must bravely call their parishioners’ attention to challenges and temptations at hand. And just as passengers owe it to the pilot to comply with his requests, parishioners owe it to their priest to give him a fair hearing. In fact, if father has made you upset, it’s quite possible you deserved it.
Father Patrick Briscoe, O.P., is a Dominican friar and the editor of Our Sunday Visitor.