WHATEVER may be said about the various duties of the parish priest, it is certain that nothing is more important than his pastoral work. He may be a very Chrysostom in the pulpit, but if he does not mingle with his flock, his words will produce but little effect. He may attain a wide reputation as a preacher, crowds may gather to hear him, they may be enchanted with his eloquence, but it will be rather for entertainment than for spiritual benefit. Practical preaching must come from careful and diligent pastoral work. It is only by being with people that the preacher can know what are their trials, their difficulties, their failings and infirmities, and thus be able to adapt his words to their conditions and needs. As well might a physician of the body undertake to prescribe for his patients without ever seeing them or knowing from others the symptoms of their diseases, as for a physician of souls to expect that he can treat successfully the spiritual maladies of his people without learning what those maladies are.
Moreover, not many can become great preachers, but any man of moderate mental ability and literary attainments, inspired with a sincere love of God and an earnest desire to save souls, can do a noble work by faithful and persevering pastoral labors.
In the brief space which it is my privilege to take in treating of this subject, I shall speak chiefly from my own experience, hoping thus to be able to give some hints that may be of practical value to those who are just beginning their ministerial duties.
It is to be taken for granted that no pastor would begin his daily round of visits without first seeking Divine guidance to enable him "both to perceive and know what things he ought to do, and also to have grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same."
The writer knew of a physician who always made it his rule before starting out to make his visits to ask for heavenly skill in the treatment of his cases; and his success and wide reputation were proof of the answers to his prayers.
Besides these regular prayers he will meet with cases where he will feel the need of particular help and will have recourse to mental and ejaculatory prayer.
The most suitable time for making pastoral visits will vary in different parishes according to local customs and social conditions. Generally, the afternoon and evening will be the most convenient, both for pastor and people, giving the forenoons to himself in the study, which he ought carefully and diligently to improve, and to the people for the discharge of their customary domestic duties.
It will also be necessary for him to be quick to discern whether his call at the particular time is opportune. Observation will lead him to determine whether the conditions and circumstances are such as to make it advisable that he should soon excuse himself with the promise to come again at some future time, or whether he may prolong his stay to a reasonable degree. In any event he should be careful not to make it so long that his parishioners will feel bored and dread to see him coming.
It is not always easy to know just what one should talk about on such occasions, especially in one's earlier visits before a thorough acquaintance with the family has been acquired. It is not necessary that religious topics should always be introduced. Sometimes there will seem to be no opportunity for it. A person may often feel that his time has been thrown away because he has not been able to say what he would like to have said. He has been obliged to content himself with generalities upon secular subjects, but that is not always the right conclusion. He has, perhaps, been able to show his interest in the temporal concerns of the family, and this may afterwards be reciprocated and may finally lead them towards religious matters. Of course, it should not be thought a matter of indifference whether opportunities for spiritual counsel are improved. Careful thought should be given to see where a timely word may be thrown in, and how the conversation may be turned into profitable channels. But if it should happen that, after a careful watch, no such opportunity should be afforded, let him not be discouraged. Good will result from it in some way.
We are not all endowed with the same gifts, but those in which we are naturally deficient may be developed and cultivated to an extent that will make them very useful in pastoral work, and it is worth our while to give them some attention. One of these is the power to recognize people when we chance to meet them and to he able to call them by name. It is natural to but few, but most people can acquire it sufficiently for practical purposes by careful thought and study and practice. It is said that Mr. Gladstone possessed that power in a remarkable degree. If he had ever met a person, he could always remember him, his name, the time, the occasion, and all the circumstances connected with the interview. The late Bishop Chase of Illinois was said to have been very much like him in that respect.
It is a great gift and it behooves one to make an effort to cultivate it if one is deficient in it. It is well that a pastor should know all the children of the Sunday School by name. In meeting the children upon the street or elsewhere, he should take pains to see them and speak to them, and it gives him a great advantage to be able to say "Good morning, Henry!" or "How do you do, Harriet?" They will be pleased, and they will feel a deeper interest in their pastor and in the Church and Sunday School by reason of it.
Absent-mindedness is inexcusable in a pastor. One may have a natural infirmity of that kind, but it can and should be corrected. To say "I forgot," especially in important cases, is both humiliating and injurious to one's work. Appointments should be met faithfully and promptly. People depend too much upon the chance of their clergyman's hearing about their sickness or other troubles from their friends or by reason of their absence from church, but he should be on the alert for any evidences of his being needed from whatever source he is able to gather it. It is well that he should have a small memorandum book, in which he can make entries of this and of any other kind which would be too burdensome for his memory. If he is in the church a short time before the hour of service and finds a stranger, he can enter in this book the name and address, and then he can call upon him at the first opportunity. It is needless here to say anything of the duty of being prompt and accurate about making entries in the Parish Register. The canons of the Church provide for this, though unfortunately some clergymen are not as faithful as they ought to be in obeying them, and thus the parish loses valuable information, and sometimes the parishioners lose the evidence which would secure to them their rightful inheritance. But in addition to the register, it is well to have a blank book which may be carried about in the pocket, in which may be inserted all the information about the families which would not be proper for the register, but which would be very useful in the prosecution of his work. This book should have an alphabetical index in the front in which should be entered the name of the head of the family, the street address, and the page farther back where can be written down all the particulars; the name in full of each member of the family, with the maiden name of the mother, and signs to indicate the ecclesiastical standing of each member--B., C., C., --Baptized, Confirmed, Communicant. To the names of those children who have not been Confirmed should be added the month and year of birth--Sept., '99. This will be of great assistance in looking for those who have reached the proper age for Confirmation. It is better to indicate the natal month and year than to put down the age at the time of making the entry, because the age is constantly changing, but the birthday remains fixed, and after a year or two one may not remember just when the entry was made. Other marks can be used to indicate items which would be found useful in subsequent visits, and which might otherwise escape his memory, e. g., if one should chance to be a member of the R. C., Meth., Luth., Pres., Bapt., etc.; or the occupation might be noted: Carpenter, Blacksmith, Painter, Tailor; or the relationships to other families, and the like.
There will be many little things which a pastor who is quick to observe will take note of and which will help to increase his influence and enlarge his opportunities of doing good. If he can be at the church a short time before the hour of service, as already referred to, he will be able to speak a word of welcome to those who come in, and to become acquainted with strangers who might otherwise never be found out. He will notice those of his parishioners who have guests with them, and will endeavor to call upon them early in the week. Such attentions will be appreciated and will more than repay all the labor and trouble which they cost. It is well also, when not too inconvenient, to remember the anniversaries of events of interest to different families, Birthdays, Baptisms, Marriages, Deaths, etc. In order to facilitate this, a large diary could be kept on the study table and a memorandum of such events noted, and each day before arranging the list of calls this could he glanced over and made use of according to convenience.
A pastor should be so familiar with the Holy Scriptures that he will be able to find portions suited to the various occasions readily without too much turning of the leaves, for in some cases this would produce nervousness, especially where there is already a tendency in that direction. It is well to know the prayers by heart so as to make the book unnecessary, and to have in mind those which will be used so that there will be no prolonged interval between them. In everything that is done, the pastor should have constantly in mind the solemn responsibility that rests upon him, as set forth in the Exhortation delivered by the Church through the mouth of the Bishop at the time of his Ordination. The one thought of his life should be the faithful discharge of that responsibility.