The graces of assignment changes

The View from the Rectory Window
By Fr. Ken Van Haverbeke
Second in a series of four.
It is rarely the intention to rotate pastors every couple of years in a parish, but sometimes it happens.
A grace of being in a parish where pastors change often is that parishioners accept real leadership of the parish. Sometimes however, it’s difficult to come into a parish who expects you not to stay very long.
You experience this when the ushers tell you, “You know Father, we’ll be here long after you are gone.” This after I insisted that the ushers take on the added responsibility of opening the doors of the church for parishioners coming to and leaving Mass. These doors were big, huge doors, in which elderly ladies were hammering with their canes trying to get them open….okay, a bit of exaggeration, but close!
Or when the parishioners wait for you to go on vacation before they renovate a part of the church or school that you said was not necessary to do at this time. Admittedly the renovation was done well, but done well after the pastor had crossed the state line.
These are clues that the parish might be used to a pastors coming and going, and where the parishioners do not receive their identity from their shepherd, but have a strong sense of who they are, independent of their current shepherd. But it’s never that cut and dry.
Father gets the call
The call from the bishop was not unexpected, yet a surprise. It was a Tuesday morning, 10:20 a.m. Funny how a priest remembers almost every call he receives to be moved. I was assured by the bishop I was not on the short list or even long list of priests to be moved that year. Yet, knowing how circumstances can sometimes take a drastic change, I was half expecting the call.
Usually the communication comes from the bishop’s secretary. “The bishop would like to meet with you,” she will say. This is never a good thing. I’m sorry, but I’ve never had a bishop have his secretary call me to arrange a dinner date or to arrange going to a baseball game together.
No, such a communication means one of two things, and I’ve been the recipient of both. Either you did something dumb and you have to explain yourself, or you are getting moved.
In the first case, I’m surprised I don’t have a standing appointment with my bishops, because I always seem to do dumb things; but getting moved is a time-sensitive affair. Usually in the springtime, around March, April, and even possibly as late as May, is when you get the call for a move, like flowers blooming in the spring. The “explain what you were thinking” appointments can occur year round, like an evergreen tree.
This particular call at 10:20 a.m. Tuesday morning was about a move – a move to a parish that had seen more than one pastor come and go. Circumstances dictated the move, not the pastor or parishioners. Generally it happens that way.
I am always amazed at parishioners who seem to believe there is a big “master plan” on a bulletin board in the bishop’s office, outlining the future moves of each priest and parish. No, more often than not, circumstances create moves, or if you are a religious person, you might even believe it is the Holy Spirit.
It was definitely the Holy Spirit that created this particular move for me and for the parish. I was not ready for a change, nor was the parish I was assigned to ready for a reception of a new pastor, but there we were: I, not open to a change; and a parish, not open to changing. Yet we both did.
I grew; and the parish grew. I had certain skills, ways of explaining the Gospel, certain gifts for the sick and administration, all needed by this parish.
The parish, on the other hand, had certain gifts too. They taught me that I didn’t always have the right pastoral solution and many of the lay leaders had solutions upon which I learned to depend upon. They helped me to understand my limitations and that I sometimes try too hard to do too much without help. But most of all, they taught me how to accept their leadership alongside mine.
In the theology according to Nanny McPhee (a movie and book character) who said: “There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It’s rather sad, really, but there it is.” This is what happened to me and this parish.
A grace of a change of assignment for both a priest and a parish is greater mission. The priest brings his gifts, talents, and particular charism from the Holy Spirit to a new parish; and the parish in turn, reshapes changes, even challenges a priest to grow in holiness and pastoral skills.
In leaving this assignment, I knew I had given some of my very best homilies, energy, and pastoring, and I also knew I was forever changed by both the love and resistance I received from the parish.
I comprehended this as I walked out of the church at the final Mass to huge doors opened and held by the ushers; ushers with both grins on their faces and even a hint of moisture in their eyes.