Each of us has a different experience of what it means to be part of a parish. For some people, their parish is something geographically close to them and nothing more—a place where they reluctantly trudge for Mass on Sunday. For others, it is a center for their life—a place to encounter God sacramentally and in other people, to make friends, and to sustain their strength in the daily struggle to follow Christ.
For diocesan seminarians, our parish experience is even more complicated than ordinary working folks. I have a home parish—St. Theresa Catholic Church—in a town outside of Atlanta. It is the parish to which I belonged before I became a seminarian; it is the place where I met many friends who support me with their daily prayers, and it is the place where the priest who facilitated my movement into seminary is pastor. While I have been in seminary, my home parish has continued to grow and to change, so when I return from time to time, the place can seem quite foreign.
In fact, my parish each year becomes less and less my parish—and this is not a bad thing. One of the most important but most difficult things about priesthood is the lack of stability in a particular place. In Atlanta, parochial vicars move around every few years, saying goodbye to one parish and moving to another. After some years as a vicar, the bishop might ask the priest to become a pastor in a small parish, testing his ability to administer the details of running the parish campus while maintaining a strong spiritual focus, something that is notoriously hard to do. Once he becomes pastor, the movement doesn’t stop: pastors can be shifted around too.
Since I began seminary, my home parish has changed tremendously. Some good friends have moved away, some have been called home to the Lord, some have added new members to their families, and there are many new faces. But one thing is now very different: St. Theresa has a new pastor.
Here’s the part where I seem vaguely hypocritical: I think that priests moving around is a good thing inasmuch as it ensures that new ideas and fresh perspectives are constantly introduced into the parish community. However, my first reaction to hearing that my pastor, Fr. Richard, was moving to a new parish was of revolt! In the years I have spent away from home, I have come to strongly associate the parish with the pastor as a unit. Of course, this is precisely why the bishop moves priests around. Priests are short-timers in the life of a parish, migrant workers moving to where a need has been identified. The transitory nature of the priestly life helps to ensure that the priest is dependent solely on God and never becomes too comfortable in any one place.
But that doesn’t make it easier to lose a beloved priest. Fr. Richard was instrumental in my vocation. I was never a part of a discernment group, and I had never spoken to the vocation director or even another seminarian in my life. In fact, until I asked him to meet with me one morning some six years ago, I had never in my adult life had a private conversation with a priest. I hadn’t been to confession in 17 years; I hadn’t been confirmed; I had existed completely outside of the parish system, occasionally attending Mass when my religiosity flared up.
But he met with me. I told him that, despite all logic to the contrary and my complete disinterest in the priesthood and my firm resolution to not pursue this course, over time I had come to believe that I was being called to the priesthood. I will always remember his reaction: it was of true joy. He looked very tired that day, like the weight of the world was on his shoulders, but when I announced that I was ready to consider this path, he was so happy. His face brightened and he expressed his happiness for me. All the weight he was carrying was the price he paid—that he pays every day—for the wonderful gift of living the life of a priest. Had the reaction been different, I would probably not be writing a column as a seminarian entering his third year of theology.
Fr. Richard immediately found an active place for me in the parish. I taught 5th grade CCD and began to help with and eventually to direct the LifeTeen program. My mother, who had herself been away from the Church for more than 40 years met Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation with Fr. Richard. The next day, she went into the hospital and never left again. Fr. Richard anointed her a couple of times, visited her, and was truly a good shepherd to the little sheep he had brought back to the fold. He was simply wonderful, and all of those memories are tied in my mind to him in my home parish. Cleaving the person and the place is really difficult, and I am not sure what my experience of the parish will be like in the future. This is all, I am sure, part of the progressive process of detachment in which all seminarians must engage, but that knowledge doesn’t make the process any easier.
We are all human, and Fr. Richard drives me crazy sometimes, just like I drive him crazy. But he is my pastor, and he is my spiritual father, and I will miss him at St. Theresa, as will many people. He has been a great grace in my life, in the life of my parish, and he will be a great grace in his new parish. And then he’ll obediently move somewhere else, because the wisdom of the Church knows it is for the best and a faithful priest will always cooperate with the Holy Spirit. Even in leaving my parish, my pastor is teaching me.