Ruth Wallace's They Call him Pastor examines the pressing problem of priestless parishes. With the advent of Vatican II, lay persons were elevated to a more active, responsible level, to shore up the priest shortage worldwide (pg. 9).
Hinging on Wallace's original work on women religious and married women heading parishes, she pinpoints the emphasis of this current book: Is the nonhierarchical/collaborative leadership the hallmark of the laity in general or of women in particular? Hence, the focus of the study centers on the impact of married male leadership on Roman Catholic parishes.
The paramount strength of this book lies in its fascinating detail. A researcher could literally use it to design a similar study, from the in-depth, over-the-shoulder approach Wallace lays out. All the while, she reminds the reader of the unforgettable words of Fr. Joseph Fitzpatrick, S.J., who said he wished to "contribute to the unfolding of the mysteries of God's creation" (pp. 27 & 33). This clearly remains her goal as well.
There is a chapter devoted to each segment of the church. Parish leadership is analyzed first. The sense of distance and separation of some priests is not apparent in most lay leaders, which is something those interviewed strongly appreciated. The words "collaborative leadership" came up often in association with parish work. Along these lines, inequality issues are tackled — nonwhite lay ministers and deacons and women called to ordination on various levels arise again and again in their struggles to be "on par" with white males. The new lay leader approach is sometimes termed the "servant process," a process of listening and dialogue (pg. 75) — inclusion and empowerment.
The pastors' wives, while a real asset to their respective parishes, were mostly well educated working professionals in their own right. Hence, the myth of the church supporting a "one-earner" family of the parish leader is entirely dispelled.
A common strand running among the pastors' children who were interviewed was the expectation by parishioners in general that these kids had to be perfect. Flaws could never even be admitted, much less exposed. Because of the low salaries of their fathers, the reality was that many worked to contribute to their own college fund as well as to family expenses. That they simply wished to be viewed as human comes as no real surprise.
The section on parishioners compares them with a "flower that is opening and closing" (pg. 140). This is equated with prayer as a community on the one hand, and outreach to the community on the other.
The chapter on priests as sacramental ministers is subtitled "Uncharted Territory." Priests take their Eucharistic role very seriously, most viewing it as the only portion of their work restricted to them, and for which they have a strong calling. It is clear from the interviews and anecdotes that the way this works best is for both the priest and the pastoral administrator/parish leader to share the duties on the altar and treat one another equally. Those priests who come in and appear to know what's "best" for the faith community rarely do, and are often resented for being "distant" and pushing the already established leadership aside. The other note on priests is that it is apparent that most of them are worn down by the shortage. They are on the road much of the time, and feel as if it is impossible to "be there" for their various parishes. This is a message that comes through loud and clear from one interview to the next. It is a sad, reoccurring theme, only further validating the necessary role of pastoral administrators.
Finally there are data about bishops. The cautionary tale concerned adequate preparation of parishes and assessment of the "right" kind of parishes for this kind of transition, away from a priest pastor to a married lay leader (usually someone who had performed leadership roles in that same parish long prior to this appointment).
One bishop made a striking remark to the children of the parish leader during their father's installment. He said he expected everybody "should get into a little bit of trouble every single day. Not the kind that hurts anybody... but just lets people know you are around. It's the same for your folks..." (pp. 232-233). This was a public statement to the entire parish of immense support and understanding. In the end, it set people straight where expectations were concerned.
In sum, "the parishes portrayed in this book are evidence that another form of leadership is not only available, but it can also be instrumental for the healthy continuation of parish life in the United States" (pg. 254). The final observation of Wallace is that, with time, "married priests will... receive full acceptance as pastors" (pg. 255). A new form of the Catholic Church is perhaps on the not-too-distant horizon.
For the reasons articulated earlier and many more, this is a powerful, heartening read. One final note of suggestion would be to point out the instructive nature of the actual interview schedule used by Wallace (at least selective, indicative questions) formulated for each group. Judging by the outcome, the data appear rich in nature, intimating that the questions from which they were drawn were well-shaped, intriguing, and especially thought-provoking.