Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
It is that time of year again—when the new priests have been ordained and the reassignments from the bishops are out and implemented. When I first heard that the beloved pastor at my mother’s parish was being transferred I wondered how she would take the news. I knew that she would experience sorrow, but I also knew that she would be one of the first to reach out to the new pastor of her parish with prayers and any support she could offer. She would still attend the daily Mass, receive the Sacraments from her pastor in persona Christi, be available to pray during adoration hours, and have him over for dinner. She would adjust to him as her new pastor, and I am sure that she already has, because my mother deeply appreciates all priests.
The parochial vicar at our parish was also transferred to another parish after only one year with us. We had already grown to appreciate the depth of his homilies, which called us on to live our Christian lives more intensely. We had become friends with him through several meals, and now we will no longer receive Jesus from his hands weekly. In some ways it is an occasion of sorrow, but in other ways it is a realization that experiencing Christ in the sacraments is so much more than which priest is ministering to us. It is the same Christ giving us grace, whether it be through the words and hands of Fr. Jaspers or Fr. Schroeder.
While it is not a bad thing to treasure the ministry of a particular priest, it is also part of the Christian life to have to let them move on when their bishop calls. Rev. Andrew Jaspers in his departing letter to the parish explained to us how the movement from one parish to another is like the ministry of Christ and his disciples, as “the son of Man has nowhere to rest him head”:
The disciples’ life in this world is always marked by impermanence of place. Pastors and vicars tend to leave parishes just when they are becoming comfortable. But this is no tragedy. Comfort is not a high value in the Christian life. Detachment for the sake of the Gospel is.
Priests know that when they make their promise of obedience to the bishop, that he will move them according to the needs of the diocese. Their assignments will change. They freely chose to lay down their lives to minister to the Church and surrender their own wills to God and their superiors. Their lives are not taken from them, but that lay them down of their own free will just as Christ did (John 10:18).
Just as priests become comfortable with a parish, we the laity become comfortable with individual priests. And when they are transferred, we miss them, we are sorrowful at the distance that is now between us. It is okay to experience sorrow at a parting. But we also remember something important about the priesthood.
We remember that Jesus Christ is present at every Sacrifice of the Holy Mass whichever priest is saying it. We remember that it is Christ working through the hands and words of these men whom have given their whole lives to give us these Sacraments. We need priests to receive sanctifying grace. When they perform the rites of the Sacraments, they are allowing Christ to work through them. We should be filled with gratitude that there even are priests to minister to us, and pray for them and pray that more men answer the call to the priesthood. What they give us in persona Christi we cannot give to ourselves. They are all a blessing to us, whether he is our new pastor or old pastor, the priest ordained last month or the one about to retire.
We are called in the Christian life to love everyone according to their relationship to us. For example, a stranger calls a different love from us than our parents. Our pastor and parochial vicars, we have a different relationship to them than priests of other parishes. We are not to cling to them once they have been transferred, but to accept with detachment the priest that God has given to us as our direct minister in our parish. In the same way priests, while they are called to be spiritual fathers to us all are called in a unique way to be fathers to the people in the places where they are assigned. When they are transferred they are given new sheep to shepherd, and we in our own parishes are given new shepherds to guide us.
While we keep our former pastors in our prayers, we are called to welcome the new priest and allow him to minister to us. Christ in the Gospel tells us several things about our reception of those we do not know. First he tells us to welcome strangers—in many instances a new priest is a stranger. We do not know him, and he does not know the parish. There are so many set ways in traditions in a parish that a newcomer has to learn about, and a warm welcome can help with that transition.
Another thing Christ calls us to is to welcome his apostles—priests through apostolic succession act in their place for us now:
Whoever receives you receives me,
and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.
Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet
will receive a prophet's reward. (Matthew 10:40-41)
When we welcome priests, we welcome Christ. And they in their humanity, while not perfect, bring Christ to us and bring us to Christ through the ministry of the priesthood.
In a discussion with my mother regarding the transfer of priests, she told me about a thought she had in prayer. She thought about her old pastor, who was being transferred, and all of the good work he had done in the parish, all the seeds he had planted to take root and grow and bring the parish closer to Christ. When he left, he had to let go of all the work he had done, even that which seemed unfinished. The new priest who came has his own gifts and talents to share with parish. Maybe he will continue the same works as the old pastor, or perhaps he will begin new things. He will harvest the fruits of the pastor before him, and prepare the way for the next priest.
This earthly life is one of impermanence; yet, prayer is the one thing that can keep us united to those who have been separated physically from us. For every priest that I have come to appreciate in the various parishes I have been a part of in the various places I have lived, there is another person I can pray for when I pray for the Body of Christ and hope for eternity with.
So, pray for your priests, the ones who used to minister to you and the ones who are your pastors now. They are Christ to us, and we are so blessed by their ministry.