Having returned to parish ministry, I find that I am once again in my niche. I was not exactly cut out for hospital ministry, I have to admit (needles still make my knees weak). I know I have much to learn (although I have been serving in pastoral ministry for fifteen years now, I have only been a Catholic priest for eight months), but I have to say that it is truly a joy learning it.
One of the most important things that I have come to more clearly over the last few months is that people need a father. They call me "father" because that is what they are used to, but I have come to realize that most Catholics see that title as equivalent to something like "ruler" (and nothing more). Yes, the priest is supposed to rule the people; they need a guide. Yet, he is supposed to rule like a physical father, and since there is so much confusion about parenting today it is difficult for many to know what that means.
If the wife and children do not see that the father of the home is willing to lead them with firm conviction and gracious gentleness, then they will have a hard time trusting him. They will see him as merely pursuing his own happiness. If, on the other hand, the family sees the father's loving guidance then they can follow him with confidence that he is truly seeking to do what is best for them.
Making some practical application to the parish situation, we find that a priest really needs to make it obvious that he loves his people (this is something that cannot be taken for granted). This is especially important in the area of being firm in truth and righteousness. If a priest is seen as seeking his own ends, or (worse) just "doing his job" then the people do not feel loved and cared for. They will be stunted in their spiritual growth, and they will not be able to feel confident in their service to God.
As little children will flourish under a loving discipline, so also will adults flourish when they know that their priest is working for their good. He may not be the best pastor in the world, but if the people know that they can entrust their souls to him because he is truly striving for their good, then they will be able to find clarity and security in their spiritual walk.
Parishioners do not need a "nice guy" who will be their buddy. They do not need a hired hand who is just doing work. Nor do they need an invisible CEO who is making all the decisions. They need a father who will put his arms around the people and love them, and who is also willing to be firm in guiding them to greater faithfulness. The delicate balance of "mercy and justice" is so important in ministerial duties. Like Jesus with the woman caught in adultery, there is necessary application of both "neither do I condemn" as well as "go and sin no more". For when we are imbalanced in this basic principle, then those in our care will end up unbalanced also.
We should be praying for more men to pursue holy orders, but that also means that we should be praying for men to know what that calling really entails. We do not want to fill the priesthood with warm bodies, but rather with men who are passionate about serving Christ, and who are committed to love God's people. This is the only way that parishes will grow and thrive.