The angry parishioner: How do priest respond?

April 14, 2014

Once upon a time parishioners thought their parish pastor knew best when it came to matters of faith and religion and issues of parish administration. He had been appointed by the bishop and could do no wrong.

When the faithful approached their pastor, they did so with deference and respect, almost never hostile or confrontational.

Those times are virtually gone. Today parishioners show their displeasure liberally and some get angry when they feel their pastor is not listening to them.

"There are a small number of parishioners who sometimes confront the priest in a way that is not very gentle," admits Father Miguel Irizar of St. Joseph's Basilica.

"In all areas we have somebody who complains," he laughed. One time someone came to him asking for a funeral for his pet. Irizar explained that the Church does not celebrate funerals for animals but the parishioner became upset about the Church's lack of sensitivity.


Some couples who want to hold their wedding at the basilica come with the mentality that since they will pay the fee for the musicians, they can dictate how the wedding will be celebrated.

"We tell them this is not like going to buy a dress or a tuxedo," explained Irizar. "When you go to buy a dress or a tuxedo you usually request what you want. But when you come here to receive the sacrament of Matrimony you are coming to receive the Lord and you embrace the Lord in the sacrament without making radical changes to the celebration."

Irizar believes parishioners who are not gentle toward the priest are usually hurting so he doesn't take it personally.

"In my two years as a priest I have come to realize that there is no point in putting more wood onto the fire," he says. "So when a parishioner is angry I try to be attentive, I try to listen to their hurt without reacting. If you react, then you are throwing more wood onto the fire and the situation escalates."

The priest is called to be gentle much like the Lord, explains Irizar. "In the Gospel of Matthew the Lord says, 'Learn from me because I'm gentle of heart.' We priests, who try to be the presence of the Lord in our parishes, have to be gentle even when people are aggressive."

Anger toward pastors comes from all directions and for different reasons. The clergy sexual abuse scandal has added to the anger directed at pastors and has lessened respect for the Church, contends Father Thomas Iwanowski in an article in The Priest magazine.

He says the Church's position on same-sex marriage has dissenters who see the issue in terms of civil rights rather than in terms of theology or traditional values. "The exclusion of women from ordained ministry and the investigation of religious sisters by the Vatican angers those who feel the baptismal dignity of women is not being fully respected."

Add to that the Church's teachings on contraception, divorce, remarriage and homosexuality, which some Catholics think need to be revisited.

Anger at the pastor can also come from parish members who believe the pastor should listen to them and follow their advice and counsel. Some think they can run the parish better than the pastor.

People can also become angry with the pastor when they see the parish as just another business that provides a service. "Yet running a parish is not like running any other type of enterprise; laws of supply and demand, profit and loss, do not apply," writes Iwanowski.

Father Mike McCaffery, who celebrates Mass in various parishes, has had to deal with angry parishioners many times, especially during the years that he was chancellor of the Edmonton Archdiocese.

Usually he couldn't do much but would be kind to them and would promise to say a prayer for them.


"Parishioners have rights too and have a right to be heard and share their concerns and we as pastors have a responsibility to listen to them," he maintains. "They are aware of their rights and get angry when they feel they are not being listened to. They believe that 'what concerns all must be decided by all.'"

During his term as chancellor, McCaffery had to face people who had a beef about a pastor and wanted the archdiocese to take action. He would get the parties to resolve the issue among themselves, usually successfully.

"I suppose the first thing I try to do (when confronted by an angry parishioner) is be patient and listen to them, try to understand where they are coming from and see if there are some alternatives or some way of accommodating them," he explains.

"I like to be like Pope Francis – show mercy and compassion. Even though sometimes I can't do anything for them, at least I give them the courtesy of listening to them, respecting where they are coming from and try to be kind to them."


"My motto has always being to try to keep people in the Church, not getting them to leave the Church."

Father Nilo Macapinlac, who served Vegreville, Holden and Viking before moving to Wetaskiwin last summer, recalls making people angry when he made changes to the weekend Mass schedule. Sometimes he had less than half an hour to drive from one community to another for the next Mass.

"How can I do that unless I have a helicopter?" he thought. He didn't have time to wash his hands or to go to the washroom before he had to begin again. However, many parishioners didn't understand.

So Macapinlac talked to the parish pastoral council and asked for a change in schedule. The council agreed and publicized the new schedule. "Once there is an explanation and people are educated and enlightened, I think anger mellows down," he said.


Once a man suffering from schizophrenia interrupted him during an event. Instead of throwing him out, Macapinlac stopped his speech, listened to what the man had to say and gave him an answer, calming him down.

"We have to be patient and kind like Jesus was."

Father Jim Corrigan of St. Theresa Parish says someone in a confrontational frame of mind has been thinking about an issue and wants some resolution. "That implies that their faith is important to them," he says.

"One of the beauties of the Catholic Church is that there is room for all of us in the Church. We have those who think that priests should be married, and we have those who want the Latin Mass, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle."

Corrigan says most priests would like to make everybody happy but that's not the role of the priest. "Our role is to get people to heaven, and sometimes like a parent with a child we have to be a little bit direct in the way we present stuff."


But if an upset person comes to Corrigan, "the first thing I would do is to listen and try to figure out where they are coming from." Often when somebody is upset, some situation has brought the parishioner to that point.

"It's important to understand to the best of our ability where this person is coming from and to know that we don't all see things the same way," Corrigan says. "I think it was St. Augustine who said, 'In the important things unity, in the non-important things diversity, but in all things charity.'

"As pastors it's important to recognize that (the angry parishioner) is a child of God who sees their faith as important. Regardless whether they are on the right page or not, at least the conversation is going."