Grafted In: Of Priests, Vines, and Moving On

Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899), “Frühmesse”
Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899), “Frühmesse” (photo: Public Domain)

“As a co-worker of the order of bishops he is consecrated to preach the Gospel, to celebrate divine worship, especially the Eucharist from which his ministry draws its strength, and to be a shepherd of the faithful.”
Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#328)

“Mine is a parish like all the rest,” says the anonymous narrator at the beginning of The Diary of a Country Priest. “They’re all alike.” If that were true, then parishes would be like Tarzan’s vines: merely transitory and temporary. Swinging from tree to tree (or assignment to assignment) becomes effortless, then, as long as there’s no stopping, no dwelling – whoosh! – but only reaching out for the next one – whoosh-whoosh! – just as the previous one is let go.

The fluidity of motion is dependent on that simultaneous clasp and release. Once a launch initiates momentum, continued forward motion depends on those simultaneous transfers from one medium of aerial suspension to another. No clinging to particular vines, that is. What matters is maintaining the onward energy – no attachments!

But Georges Bernanos’s country priest was wrong (as he found out): Parishes are not all alike, and the reverse is equally false – that is, from a parish’s point of view, priests aren’t all alike. They all have different strengths and weaknesses; some we click with, some we don’t, at least not right away – just like it is in all human relationships. Then there are the priests that we come to hold in such high personal regard that we can’t give them up.

Nevertheless, it has to be done from time to time.

My own parish, St. Matthew’s, had a double dose of that particular kind of hardship when we said goodbye to two beloved priests recently: our pastor, Monsignor Michael Heintz, and our parochial vicar, Father Chris Lapp. Both have been like spiritual lifelines to so many and for so long that it was hard to imagine relinquishing either of them – a widely held sentiment on full display at a recent Sunday reception in their honor. Despite whatever objections they might’ve had, there was to be no sneaking away for these guys. No Bing Crosby’s Fr. O’Malley at the end of Going My Way quietly shuffling off with his valise into the dark…alone – not a chance. The gym was jammed after the 11 a.m. Mass. Tears flowed freely, the room was abuzz with mourning parishioners comforting each other, and the reception lines snaked around and out the door.

The two men will be sorely missed, though in different ways. Fr. Chris, ordained only a few years ago, brought an enthusiasm for his priestly vocation that was palpable and infectious. A man clearly in love with the gift of his ordination, Fr. Chris made you yearn for what his priesthood represented and facilitated: the configuring of us all more closely to Christ. Although he’s leaving to pastor his own parish, he’ll only be one town over, and he’ll be continuing as chaplain of nearby Marian High School. In other words, as much as we’ll miss Fr. Chris at St. Matt’s, he won’t be far and at least we’ll still have the direct benefit of his priestly ministry and model, especially for our teens.

Fr. Mike, on the other hand, is being whisked away entirely to take a faculty position at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland – a boon for the seminarians, but a grievous loss to so many around here. Fr. Mike has served in our parish for 18 years, much of it as pastor – that’s 18 years of baptisms and first Communions; marriages and funerals; daily Mass and confessions; visits to the school and teaching junior high religion; not to mention hospital visits, parish council meetings, and athletic events. The list is endless, as it is for so many diocesan priests.

However, in Monsignor’s case, there was even more. While serving as St. Matt’s pastor, Fr. Mike also completed a PhD in patristic theology at the University of Notre Dame, and then accepted an appointment to direct the University’s MDiv. program. Did I mention that he also serves as our bishop’s theological advisor and censor librorum?

Academic duties notwithstanding, Fr. Mike had a pastor’s heart, and he poured himself out for his flock. “The priest is not a priest for himself,” wrote St. John Vianney, “he is a priest for you” – a clerical objective our pastor daily demonstrated. For one thing, he showed us all what holiness looks like. He poured himself out for us, and his preaching truly matched his practice – like prayer for instance. Routinely, you’d find him in church, praying his Breviary before Mass or simply gazing at the hidden Presence in the tabernacle. If somebody as busy as Monsignor had time to lounge around with the Lord, then surely I could do that same – and, when I saw him at prayer, I wanted to do the same. I wanted what Fr. Mike wanted, which was Jesus himself.

It’s also noteworthy that Monsignor was a master at remembering names – a key gift for pastors – and he put it to good use. I can’t tell you how many times he’d meet us at the door of the church on Sunday mornings with the exclamation, “Ah, the holy Beckers!” We’d scoff at this description and its assumptions, of course, and we knew he said something similar to everyone who showed up for Mass. Yet, we also knew he was sincere – he both knew us and knew about us, and yet he still saw our potential sanctity, as if it was already a reality. And he was convinced of that potential in so many.

After Monsignor’s final Sunday Mass as St. Matt’s pastor and the emotional reception that followed, it was probably a relief that his actual last hurrah in the parish was the next evening – an ordinary weekday liturgy. There were a few more tears, and it was a little bit larger crowd for a Monday, but otherwise it was pretty much business as usual.

Consequently, it was the perfect setting for our pastor’s last official actions.

To begin with, there he was in his usual pew, at least 15 minutes before Mass began – praying and hanging out with God – as if he didn’t have more important things to do (which, needless to say, he didn’t). And his homily was classic Fr. Mike – simple, illuminative, to the point. He spoke of the arc of holiness, and how small acts of self-effacement and charity lead to larger ones. Little by little, evil and selfishness in our hearts are displaced by goodness and selflessness, until there’s room for God alone. “The goal,” he concluded, “is purity of the heart” – a purity that Kierkegaard defined as willing one thing. Over the years, we’d all learned from Fr. Mike that the only “one thing” worth willing was to be a saint.

Following Mass, Fr. Mike made a brief announcement – and not with regards to himself and his imminent departure. The fuss and flutter from the previous day’s reception was history, and it was time to draw attention to new beginnings. “Tonight we had two firsts,” he said, directing our attention to one of the altar servers – my 6th-grader. “Nick served his first Mass tonight” (soft applause). Then Fr. Mike looked at the forward pews. “And Keely,” he said, “received her first Holy Communion” (more applause).

This is nothing unusual of course – new altar servers are routinely making their appearance in our parish, and first Communions out of season aren’t all that uncommon. However, these firsts had extra significance, because both Nick and Keely have Down syndrome – and Fr. Mike made special arrangements to accommodate these firsts before he left his pastoral post. My family and Keely’s were certainly grateful that he squeezed in these singular initiations, and what was particularly gratifying is that Fr. Mike highlighted their true importance – that is, not as developmental milestones for two kids with special needs, but as spiritual benchmarks with incalculable spiritual impact. For my Nicky, it was a chance to be close to the altar, to contribute, in his own way, to bringing heaven to earth. And for Keely? An even greater import – infinite, really – as she received her hidden Savior in Communion and was initiated into a life of Eucharistic feasting.

Any priest could’ve made these things happen, it’s true. Yet, it was important to us all that they happened with Fr. Mike.

Why? That brings me back to vines. Our Lord used vine imagery himself in speaking of how his disciples were to be associated with him, but not like Tarzan – no swinging and letting go, but rather engrafting of branches as a source of ongoing sustenance. “The true vine is Christ who gives life and the power to bear abundant fruit to the branches, that is, to us,” reads Lumen Gentium, “who through the Church remain in Christ without whom we can do nothing.” And this is what Monsignor Heintz did for us while our pastor: he was an alter Christus – our “other Christ” – and the medium through which we were grafted into the Lord. It’s a connection with him that will endure, regardless of his removal from our midst.

After his announcements about Nick and Keely, Fr. Mike said the closing prayer followed by the dismissal: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord” (our response: “Thanks be to God”), and it was all over – whoosh!

Many thanks, Fr. Mike. Godspeed.