I can’t help but wonder if October 13 was the most auspicious date for the bishop’s latest clergy reshuffle to take effect. By the end of the day, removal vans would have transported vast theological libraries, dusty knick-knacks and the other impedimenta of priests’ lives from one end of the diocese to the other.
In most parishes, I’m sure there were sad farewells after the morning Mass, the streets lined with folk throwing flowers in the path of Father’s car as he made his sorrowful progress in the direction of his new appointment. In other places, once the previous incumbent had vacated the premises, the air may well have been rent with the fizzing of fireworks and the frenzied ululations of parishioners performing an impromptu conga around the church grounds. Such, dear friends, is the reality of clergy changes.
There is a nugget of priestly wisdom, passed down the generations, about this very thing: when a priest leaves a parish, 10 per cent of the people will be genuinely sad, 10 per cent will be secretly delighted and the remaining 80 per cent couldn’t care less, so long as there is someone there to offer the Mass on a Sunday. We might quibble over the percentages, but all in all I’d say that’s a fair summation of things.
With the exception of the combined offices of Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury, I struggle to think of any other “job” in which demitting office also involves the vacating of a house and the packing away of one’s worldly goods in double quick time. Of course, we priests ought to be mindful of the itinerant nature of the Lord’s own ministry (Luke 9:58), lest we be caught out by our “dwellings being plucked up and removed from us” (cf Isaiah 38:12) by the bishop.
It is easy to romanticise, or glibly spiritualise, the experience of being uprooted and sent to another place. Of the many challenges of obedience, perhaps this is the greatest. Thankfully, most bishops fully recognise the emotional upheaval involved in a change of parish (or parishes). Indeed, these changes can be doubly stressful since they involve not only a new house, but also a new set of relationships to establish and maintain.
I remember hearing an elderly priest recall one of his past moves. Having recently completed a secondment to a ministry outside of the parish, he presented himself to the bishop who exclaimed (partly in French, as was his wont), “At last, mon père, you have become disponible!” One of the principal meanings of disponible is “available” and, in that sense, this newly liberated priest was indeed available to the bishop. There can, however, be ways in which a priest can be made to feel the less salutary undertones of disponible, namely “disposable” and “usable”.
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