In the first parish where I served as curate, the retirement of the sacristan was a major event. This man was quite elderly, having served at the church for many years, after retirement from his civil service job. I don’t know what the parish paid him over those years, if anything: I presumed his government pension kept him financially secure.
When his retirement was announced, the parish priest decided to look for the papal medal Benemerenti for him. This was a big deal, as the medal had rarely been sought locally before then. The papal decoration was duly secured, paid for and delivered at a solemn liturgy, the pope himself recognising our retiring sacristan’s talents.
Things have changed. Benemerentis have become much more common in the intervening years. Indeed, some feel they are now given out willy-nilly, “like snuff at a wake”, as one brother priest put it.
Sometimes the papal honour seems entirely appropriate. Recently The Irish Catholic reported this medal being bestowed on two volunteers in Kerry diocese, who had worked hard to ensure child safeguarding arrangements were up-to-speed across the diocese. Surely Pope Francis would want to reward and acclaim such work?
Sometimes, however, the honour is a bit overused. Priests feel themselves in a bind: “The last sacristan who retired got the Benemerenti medal, so the current sacristan can get no less.” This can happen despite the fact that the previous sacristan worked in a semi-voluntary capacity, while the sacristan retiring now was paid properly for his work.
I wonder what the pope would think of it all. It’s not as if he is leafing through his Southern Star or Western People and sees the news that someone is retiring after so many years of service to the parish, and then decides to honour this person with his gift. Sadly, the Pope has little to do with it. The curial official in Rome who stamps all the papal blessing forms presumably looks after Benemerentis also.
Sometimes I wonder whether locally-originated marks of esteem might not mean more. One parish in which I worked in the USA (whose patron was St Bernadette) had its own Bernadette awards to honour upstanding Christians in the local parish. I cannot see why a diocese could not instigate similar marks of appreciation; after all, there is a better chance that the local bishop will have come across the person being honoured, something very unlikely to have occurred in the case of the Bishop of Rome.
My underlying fear in all of this is that ‘Benemerenti’ awards might be given in lieu of a proper wage for church workers, a kind of final apology-cum-validation of their good work in the Vineyard. It is hard to imagine the Lord of the Vineyard wanting his workers to be paid less than their due. Proper pay and conditions of employment, so strongly insisted upon in the Church’s social teaching, should surely be the mark of every unit of the Church’s life – even its parishes.
In 1984, 42 priests were ordained from Maynooth; I was one of them. In the years since, four of us have died (including three of the six ordained in Cork & Ross) and a few have disappeared. Some have married and a number are pursuing other careers at this stage. I reckon 24 of us are still ministering here in Ireland. June 9 is the date on which I was ordained 35 years ago (that’s this Sunday). On this milestone, I would be grateful for your prayers for all the member of the Class of ‘84, wherever they are today.
A holy sort of happiness
The first parish in which I served (Dennehy’s Cross, Cork) has a community of Poor Clares Sisters (on College Road, near the Bon Secours Hospital). Initially, I approached them with awe, but was amazed to find a sense of humour among their attributes, wrapped up with holiness.
They were happy to included in community activities and always provided prayer-power to parish efforts. Now my twice-yearly visit to the community is a highlight of my year: we talk of holy things, we have a laugh and very much enjoy each other’s company.
And the craic is mighty (as it is in heaven).