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Being the Priest for Your Family

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Your cousin asks you to witness her wedding. Your father wants you to talk to your mother about their marital difficulties. Your brother is upset and asks you to hear his confession. You want to buy a piece of property from your aunt. Your sister asks you for a loan to make the down payment on a new home or to co-sign for her mortgage.

What seems convenient or helpful at the moment can become complicated or even harmful. The ethical guidelines of many professional organizations require members at least to exercise caution or even avoid certain dual relationships — for example, a doctor treating her own children, an attorney representing a family member in court, a supervisor dating anyone under his or her supervision. An invitation to a priest may not even be for ministry per se, but it can still create a complicated relationship that deserves careful discernment before proceeding.

So, should a priest minister to members of his family? It depends on the priest, the other person(s), the family and the situation.

The Priest

Priests are human, and they are social beings. Their relationship with members of their family does not end with ordination. It can add a layer of complexity to their priestly ministry, perhaps more so when a priest belongs to a religious community.

For a priest, being in any relationship almost always creates some sort of dual relationship, whether it is with a family member, a friend, a staff member or a parishioner. He can’t “turn off” his priesthood and just “be a person,” although, in a healthy relationship, a priest can be his full and authentic self. He also brings to his relationships his own understanding and expectations of himself both as a member of his family and as a priest.

It feels good to be asked for something (most of the time) — we feel esteemed and flattered, and it renews a sense of belonging. A priest must therefore have a good sense of himself, his needs and desires, his emotions, his motivations and his values. All these can influence his discernment and decision-making about how to respond to a request from a family member for some kind of assistance. Simply put, it helps clarify why he is leaning toward saying yes or no to a particular invitation?

The Other Person(s)

Just like a priest, the family member(s) have their own self-understanding, needs and desires, emotions, motivations and values. Family can have their own perceptions and expectations of what he will do whether as a family member or as a priest. They all comprise intertwining strands when a priest is asked for assistance. For example, is your sister asking for some advice because you are her brother or because she wants your perspective as a clergyman? A request may seem simple and easy to fulfill, but that’s not always the case. It is prudent to ask what else may be going on. Are there factors that make the situation potentially more difficult than it seems at first glance?

The Family

His family may also feel the impact of a priest’s decision to minister to a family member (and how well that goes). The family can have its own expectations about what the priest will do — for example, that he will always lead the prayer before meals. What the priest does and how the family responds become a part of their history and influences future requests and decisions. For example, a wedding is not just a transaction between a priest and a couple. During marital preparation the priest may learn personal information about the bride and groom’s parents and siblings, which may subsequently complicate his relationship with them. I was once asked to preside at a wedding because the couple didn’t want the priest who was a family member to preside, while their parents presumed otherwise.

In the case of making a loan (or a significant gift) to a particular family member, what will happen if the recipient defaults? How will the priest’s family and his parish respond if they hear that he’s suing a member of his family? Is it assumed that because he’s a holy man he should simply accept the financial loss? How might his financial actions affect all those relationships in the long run?

The Situation

All requests are not equal. Being asked to baptize a niece is not the same as being asked to put a free weekly advertisement in the parish bulletin for your brother-in-law’s new business, or to visit your cousin who is residing in the county jail in another state.

The classic distinction between external and internal forum may be helpful in the discernment process. External forum events could include baptisms, weddings and saying grace at the family Thanksgiving banquet. Internal forum could include hearing confessions and counseling. An in-between situation might include being a confirmation sponsor, participating in financial agreements, being part of respectful conversations among family members about their concern for another member of the family (not gossip) or an intervention to address addictive behavior. In general, it seems easier to minister to family members in the external forum and less advisable to minister in the internal forum.

Considerations

There are some additional factors that one may consider when making these kinds of decisions:

• What is the nature of the existing relationship? Is it close and confiding, detached or strained? A relationship with one’s twin brother may lead to a different decision than one with a cousin you last saw when she was 6 years old.

• Is the relationship a healthy one in which dialogue can occur and boundaries will be observed? An unhealthy relationship scarred by abuse or addiction makes familial relationships more complicated and the request may be more difficult to fulfill.

• What harm may be caused by ministering or not ministering? And who will be harmed? It may not only be the actual persons involved — for example, parents may be upset that their priest-son won’t witness his sister’s marriage.

• Is it assumed that the priest is the desired minister? A family member may have another significant relationship or for some other reason doesn’t want the priest-relative in this situation; the priest ought not intrude or force himself on his family.

• Does the priest want to minister in that situation? He may prefer to grieve at a family member’s funeral rather than preside and preach.

Response

Finally, the request may require an either-or, all-or-nothing response. If asked to witness a marriage, perhaps the priest will decide that he is comfortable presiding at the wedding, and he’ll ask the associate pastor to handle the premarital preparation, and he’ll ask a coordinator to handle the rehearsal so he can enjoy himself and visit with the relatives from out of town. If asked for a loan, he may decide he doesn’t want the higher risk of making the loan but is willing to assume the lower risk of co-signing a mortgage.

After you are asked:

• Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as you discern.

• Consider your initial internal response. Do you want to do it or not, and why? Are you contorting yourself or placing demands on others in order to accept the invitation, and why?

• Talk with other priests. What do they see as potential complications or dangers?

• Dialogue with the person(s) involved. It is not a one-sided decision (if you can’t talk about it, don’t do it).

• Make a decision with clear understanding of boundaries — that is, what you will do and won’t do. It may be helpful in some cases to write it down so everyone has a copy (avoid assumptions).

• Keep things out in the open. If you have to hide it, it’s a red flag that calls for caution.

• Check in with a peer or supervisor as the situation progresses, especially if you begin to feel uncomfortable or the agreement or boundaries aren’t being observed by the other person(s) or by you. It may be time to renegotiate or end that particular ministry;

• Make a decision and inform the person who asked you (avoidance is not a respectful decision).

So, should priests minister to members of their family? It depends, because it’s complicated. 

FATHER KENNETH W. SCHMIDT is an advocate for priestly ministry and support in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, where he serves as a tribunal judge. He is executive director for Trauma Recovery Associates, a nonprofit that teaches effective treatment of childhood trauma.

 
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