Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

November 19, 2007


Recently at a Verizon phone store, two sales girls were chattering together as I stepped up. One laughingly asked, "What can I do for you, daddy?" "Well", I said after a startled pause, "I'd like to see the manager." Like them, he was an African-American, but, unlike them, he was gentlemanly, polite, and dignified. I recounted their greeting. He apologized for the rude welcome. I pointed out that my concern was for the young lady, because she had no hope of success in her present attitude and that Verizon had a responsibility to train her for her benefit and its own .

Somewhat later, I went to "Blinds to Go" for their window accessories. Two African-American young ladies greeted me pleasantly. Fashionably dressed, knowledgable about their product, their native abilities had obviously been enhanced by careful training. A whole industry is devoted to training waiters, maitr'ds, sales people, educators, executives, CEOs, and professionals. A neighborhood post office had been noted for its unpleasant staff. But when I noticed that the employees were now much more gracious, I made inquiries and was told that the employees had been given training sessions in how to deal with the public and make their work more pleasant. Think of some receptionists in doctors offices where training in pleasantness would be well received.

Seminarians are schooled in theology, liturgy, and church history. Basic instincts will lead them to be gracious and welcoming, but a deeper awareness for the church to be a welcoming community could well be enhanced by such an educational component in a seminary corriculum. Some points that come to mind are the following:

1. The first contact for new parishioners or others with a parish may be by telephone. Reception should be welcoming. If a recorded greeting message is used, its content and attitude should be welcoming. If a live person answers the phone - secretary, high school kids, the cook, house priests, especially foreignors who frequently are brusque - should be well trained. The telephone company publishes booklets to educate phone receptionists. Individual parish practices are to be developed. In my twenty years in the NY Chancery, I had to make many phone calls to parishes. Reception style varied. At one parish, the cook answered and when I asked for the pastor, the reply came, "He's not here. Call back another time." When I said I was calling from the Chancery, the tone changed. "OK, monseenor, I'll find him. I think he's in the terlit." More professional responses require training.

Welcome at the rectory door is not warmly expressed by a sign mandating, "RING ONCE!" A visitor should be led to an office and asked to be seated. I have observed on occasion the visitor left standing to await the priest; and, on some occasions, have seen the priest hurriedly do business with the visitor while standing at the door.

A course in welcoming attitudes and practices might well be in a seminary corriculum.

2. A welcoming church needs effective courses in public speaking with all the refinements that have been developed by professionals. Actors, TV anchors, radio announcers, and politicians do not leave things up to chance or their own ad-hoc adjustments. Public speaking is both a science and an art, having its own standards and professionalism. Aware of how poorly Catholic preaching is regarded today, professional courses in public speaking should have an important place in a seminary curriculum. My seminary "homiletics" courses many years ago had practically nothing to do with public speaking. It was a rehash of key ideas and triads that the instructor imagined would be the bases of successful sermons. There was zero concern for writing styles oriented towards public speaking and a total absence of any instruction in professional techniques and guidelines.

3. A welcoming church is to provide honest communication between pulpit and pews. To be effective,communication cannot be manipulative, deceptive, or repetitive. Regretably John Paul II was, knowingly or not, manipulative in his statement in April 2002 that the Church would help society in addressing the sex abuse crisis. This in the face of the fact that, to the contrary, civil society in the persons of trial lawyers, district attorneys, and the press had forced the Church to deal with its own problem! On the death of John Paul I, first reports pictured the dying pope at prayer, a rosary and spiritual book at his side. This was deceptive as evidenced by later reports describing a different death scene. Seminarians are to be impressed with the importance of honesty in communication. Many preachers rail, much too frequently, against abortion. It has a place, but repetition dims the message. Seminarians could well be warned against communication that is manipulative, deceptive, or repetitive.

4. Contemporary priests face the challenge of chairing or participating in many meetings - parish councils, committees, area conference or vicariate meetings, and presbyteral councils. Anecdotal accounts of priest chair persons, especially with parish councils, are not universally praiseworthy. During my time on the NY Presbyteral Council, I estimate that a third of its members never said a word. It says something about a church culture that does not encourage speaking up and something about the chilling effect of the bishop chairing the meetings. The bishop as chair occurred only after the 1983 revision of canon law.

Chairing a meeting requires an ability to maintain its focus and to entertain different currents of thought without showing undue partiality. This quality is currently needed in the face of the polarizations within our Church. I think a seminary curriculum should feature this subject.

6. Finally, care must be taken that teaching on matters de sexto eliminate the notion that all violations here constitute mortal sins. This was erroneously taught to us in our seminary years. Confessors told us to pray, take cold showers, and read spiritual books to hopefully end this phenomenon. Legions of adolescent boys were tortured by the instilling of a fear of hell from perfectly normal experiences of growing up.

These are a few thoughts about seminary studies that would help preparing for ministry. If any readers have further suggestions or comments, they would be gratefully received by clicking below or by e-mail.