Living together helping priests flourish
March 16, 2022
For priests living together in community, sharing responsibilities includes more than coordinating Mass assignments and nursing home visits, or who is on-call for sacramental emergencies.
Sometimes it’s as mundane as whose turn it is to load the dishwasher or take out the trash.
But that’s all part of the reality of “family life” shared by brother priests at parishes where a pastor and one or more associate pastors live together while serving several parishes.
And the opportunity to share a home rather than living separately at individual parishes is helping priests flourish, both personally and in their ministries.
For priests at St. Patrick Parish in Fremont and Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk, the experience is helping them be better priests by supporting each other and holding each other accountable.
Father Walter Nolte, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Fremont, St. Lawrence Parish in Scribner and St. Rose of Lima Parish in Hooper, said accountability applies not only to ministerial or administrative duties, but also to maintaining a strong spiritual life.
“We each have a different pattern and style of prayer,” he said, “and at any given point during the day, we could see the other praying, studying, reading or whatever, and by example, that encourages us to do the same.”
Associate Pastor Nicholas Mishek agrees, saying “accountability for keeping a life of prayer, a life of connection with brother priests and keeping a connection with the Lord” is important to his growth as a priest.
And they, along with Associate Pastor Bill Cremers, are committed to a weekly Holy Hour together as well as sharing morning prayer each day in their home’s chapel.
Living together also provides opportunities for increased communication and the ability to share the challenges and joys of priesthood.
“As priests, we’re in mission together for our parishes,” said Father Cremers.
“There are many times when, if I need someone to share something with … having both the priests I live with, it’s a joy that we can share that,” he said. “Even when there’s times of conflict or difficulty, it’s strengthening us and helping me grow as a priest.”
Father Patrick McLaughlin, pastor of four parishes – Sacred Heart in Norfolk, St. Leonard in Madison, St. Peter in Stanton and St. Patrick in Battle Creek – appreciates the camaraderie that living with associate pastors Fathers Greg Carl and Scott Schilmoeller provides.
“It’s really nice to be in your home and to see somebody, and to be able to say ‘good night’ or ‘good morning’ – just to have that family life with your brother priests.”
Fathers Gregory Carl, left, Patrick McLaughlin and Scott Schilmoeller share prayer time together in their Norfolk home. SCREENSHOT FROM PARISH VIDEO “FROM OUR HOME TO YOUR HOME”
And that camaraderie includes sharing meals and recreational activities, said Father Carl.
“I have found it really delightful to live together in a bunch of simple, practical ways,” he said. “Father Scott and Father Pat are better at cooking than I am, and they have helped me to eat healthier.”
They also share common interests and recreational activities, such as books and movies, Father Carl said.
The same goes for the priests in Fremont, who enjoy recreational activities such as watching movies, playing board games or sharing meals together every Wednesday evening as well as other times during the week as their schedules allow.
And communal living is an antidote for the personal issues that can develop for priests living alone.
Father Nolte, who has served and lived alone in the past, said feelings of isolation and loneliness for pastors living alone, especially in rural parishes, are a common experience.
And that isolation can lead to problems such as depression or substance abuse.
“If you’ve had a long day that was tough and you maybe had some difficult encounters … the only way to process it would be with yourself,” he said.
“But the value of living together is that we bounce problems and issues that we have off each other and get advice on how to resolve it or handle it differently the next time,” said Father Nolte.
Living alone can also make a person selfish, he said, but living together requires consideration of others and their needs – everything from respecting each other’s prayer time by minimizing noise to not drinking the last of the milk without replacing it.
CHALLENGES AND GROWTH
The grouping of certain parishes that has taken place over the past three years with priests living centrally has presented some challenges, but also growth opportunities for not only the priests, but also the laity.
This living arrangement has meant an adjustment for small parishes accustomed to their pastor living in town, said Father Carl. “In some of our parishes, there’s been a priest in residence in town for nearly 130 years.”
But efforts to keep those parishes involved and connected to the larger faith community through a joint parish council and cultivating parish leaders locally is fostering greater ownership by the laity.
“My experience has told me that by working together, the pastoral service that we’re offering to our parishes, even the ones that we don’t live in full time, is better than it would be otherwise.”
Father Schilmoeller added that parishioners are also learning that priests can’t do everything and are stepping up to share responsibilities, such as organizing and leading small faith sharing groups.
“The fact that all the baptized are called to be part of spreading the Good News, that attitude is much more developed in our leaders than it had been in the past,” he said.
“The idea that we all have a role to play,” Father McLaughlin said, “is really being embraced by a lot of our parishioners. A lot of our lay leaders and our deacons are doing a stellar job in terms of helping us.”
As in any household where two or more people live together there can be challenges. But, thanks to good communication, mutual respect and teamwork, the priests in Fremont and Norfolk are able to work out disagreements and remain focused on their mission.
“When I knew that I was going to be working with two priests, I made the conscious decision to enter into this with two gifted, competent, awesome brother priests, and to work as a team for God’s glory,” said Father McLaughlin.
“I was going to recognize and rejoice and celebrate the gifts that the other priests have,” he said. “I think I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve pulled the ‘pastor card’ – ‘I’m the pastor and we’re doing it this way.’ I embrace their honest feedback. I welcome it. It may be hard to hear, but it helps me be a better priest.”
“It’s bolstered my priesthood because I feel like, personally, I’m more apostolic, more on mission that I’ve ever been,” said Father Carl, “and I attribute that to the ways that we’ve been able to support each other, the ways that we’ve been able to build off each other’s strengths.”
“I’m very thankful for this opportunity to live the priesthood in this way,” he said. “Even though the circumstances that led to us living this way are challenging, I think we’ve been seeing our parishes and our diocese get more and more focused on the mission that God has given us. And I’m really excited about that.”