This weekend at both of our Sunday Eucharists I had to do one of the most difficult things a priest has to do from time to time. Difficult because we priests get emotionally attached to the parishes and people we serve. I had to read a letter from my bishop and announce that I would be leaving St. Stephen Parish to become pastor of another parish. What follows is the text of the letter I wrote to the parishioners announcing the change. The official letters of appointment from Bishop Edward Braxton were read at Mass and I then read some of the contents of this letter. Another letter will be going to my relatives and friends in the next week or two. It’s been an emotional few days. But, as I say at the end of the letter, I know new and wonderful people and experiences await me. I just don’t like packing and moving and unpacking. Transition is a challenge to me since it takes a while to really get settled. It was very affirming to receive the parishioners’ reaction to my announcement and reading of excerpts of this letter, though, a spontaneous standing ovation expressing their love and gratitude for their pastor, who they send on his way with their recommendation to the people of his new parish.
June 18, 2011
Dear Brothers and Sisters of St. Stephen:
Because I realize not everyone in the parish is present on weekends for the Eucharist, some of you will not have heard the announcement made at Mass this past weekend. Therefore, I am sending this letter to every parish household so that all parishioners will know about changes soon to take place at St. Stephen.
Our Bishop, the Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton, has discerned that it is time for me to move to another parish and for St. Stephen to be led by a new pastor. I will be moving to St. Mary Catholic Church in Trenton, Illinois. The Bishop is sending you a pastor who is familiar to you and who I have worked closely with in the administration of Holy Trinity Catholic School, Father Raymond Schultz. Fr. Ray will also continue as pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Fairview Heights. To assist Father Schultz with his additional pastoral leadership of two parishes, Bishop Braxton is appointing as parochial vicar (assistant pastor) to both parishes the Rev. Anthony Onyango who was ordained a priest on June 11, 2011. Both Fathers Ray and Anthony will be residing in the rectory at St. Stephen. This change becomes effective July 12, 2011. Ms. Jeanne Adamske will continue as pastoral associate at St. Stephen, possibly assuming more duties in the day to day administration of St. Stephen. Mrs. Carolyn Starr will continue as the Director of Religious Formation at St. Stephen.
In most ways, life at St. Stephen will continue as it has under my pastorate. Little is changing except who will be pastor and who you will see at the altar at Eucharist. Programs will remain the same. Plans for improvements of the parish property will go forward, unchanged. Visioning for the future direction of St. Stephen determined by Pastoral and Finance councils’ deliberations will carry on as planned, just with a new pastor. The parishes of St. Stephen and Holy Trinity are not being combined. There is no intention on the Bishop’s part to eventually merge St. Stephen with Holy Trinity. St. Stephen continues as an independent, viable and full fledged parish, not a mission of another parish. The two parishes will continue to co-sponsor Holy Trinity Catholic School.
Yet, some changes are to be expected. Because a pastor is being shared, there will have to be adjustments to expectations of Fr. Ray’s time and presence at events. The laity of St. Stephen, who have always been active in the leadership of the parish, will need to step up even more to continue to ensure the viability of the parish. This will be an opportunity for the two parishes to strengthen their relationship and increase the collaborative efforts already taking place to offer more ministries that will be more effective when done collaboratively rather than as separate parishes.
What I want you to know, my brothers and sisters, is that I did not ask for this change in pastorate. I tried for several weeks and in several ways to change Bishop Braxton’s thinking about my and your futures. It is going to be extremely difficult for me to leave this parish which I have given my heart to for 13 years and hoped to remain pastor of for a few more years. You may have noticed that I seemed somewhat subdued or depressed the past few weeks. It was because I knew that my efforts at persuading the bishop and his advisors were not enough to enable me to stay with you for a few more years as your pastor.
When a priest is ordained, he is ordained to serve a diocese (local church) and not just a particular parish or in a place he chooses. From time to time his skills are needed elsewhere. Perhaps a parish and he realize that their time together has ceased to be best for the growth of the parishioners as disciples. For various reasons, priests are expected to move on to another parish at some point in time. It is the teaching of the church that priests, at their ordination, promise “respect and obedience” to the Bishop, submitting themselves to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the Bishop who is the chief pastor of the diocese. A Bishop must look out for the pastoral needs of the entire “local church” and provide pastoral care as best as his personnel resources enable him. In other words, if the Bishop believes he needs a certain priest more in one parish than another, the priest must go for the good of the whole local church as long as the Bishop provides for suitable pastoral care in the parish a priest leaves. This is the case in my departure from St. Stephen.
There are three things that make my move to Trenton a bit easier to accept, though my heart is breaking as I contemplate leaving St. Stephen. First, Father Ray is a wonderful pastor. He is familiar with St. Stephen and you’re familiar with him because our parishes have worked together for many years. The learning curve will be quick for both parishioners and pastor. I know that you will be excellently cared for and that he will continue to lead you in the same vision you and I have discerned as God’s plan for our parish. Fr. Anthony will bring a new priest’s enthusiasm for ordained ministry to you which I am sure will enliven the parish. You will be good teachers of this new priest, helping him learn about how to be a good priest. Jeanne and Carolyn will provide stability and continuity. They will help the new priests come to know you as I have known you.
Second, this move will have me living closer to my 90 years old father. I will be an 11 minute drive from his assisted living facility (instead of 40 minutes, now). This will be especially helpful if, God forbid, an emergency arises and my presence in needed in a hurry at his apartment or at the local emergency room (the hospital is across the road from his apartment complex). My sister lives over 3 hours from Breese. I do all the doctor runs and regular errands for dad. I realize dad may have only a few more years with my sister and me and it will be nice to visit him more easily and often. I am so grateful to the people of St. Stephen for the support you gave me at the time of my mom’s death and the patience you showed with my many absences to care for her the last months of her life. This assignment will enable me to be less absent from my parish as dad ages.
Third, St. Mary is a lovely parish with a strong liturgical tradition. You know me and my love of liturgy! I have learned through experience, that wherever a priest goes, there are wonderful, generous people in the parish who appreciate having a priest to care for them. They are simply new friends I’ve yet to meet.
It has been my honor to be your pastor. You have been so good to me and for me. You’ve made me a better priest. I will continue to have a special place in my heart for St. Stephen Parish. If I have hurt, offended or neglected any of you in my time as pastor, I sincerely apologize and hope that we can be reconciled if not in this life, in the fullness of the Kingdom of God. I promise you my continued prayers. Please, pray for me that I can accept this change in my life graciously and with trust in God to make a new life come from the death I feel like I’m experiencing. Pray, too, for my new parishioners, your sisters and brothers in the Catholic communion we share at St. Mary in Trenton, that they and I will be a good match and that I will come to love them as deeply as I love you. Continue to be “people that make the difference!” You made a difference in my life!
God bless you a bunch!