Bishop’s May Reflection: Prepare for Pastoral Changes with an Open Heart

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by Bishop Michael Duca

Every year brings new challenges to a bishop. This year the challenge is the retirement of three of our priests/pastors:  Father Pike Thomas, Father Phil Michiels and Father James McLelland on June 1, 2017.  I bring this part of Church life to your attention this month because I expect there will be a rather unprecedented number of changes throughout the diocese because of the retirement of these three pastors which will affect several of our larger parishes.  In fact, by the time you receive this issue of The Catholic Connection, you may have heard some of the changes already.

When I assign a priest as your pastor, I choose them first and foremost to love you with a pastor’s love and, as a spiritual father, to nourish your spiritual life (as well as his own) through the sacraments, preaching and in his pastoral leadership of the parish. I want the pastor to build a strong parish family that has, as its mission, to reach out beyond itself in charity and give witness to Christ in the larger community.  Your pastor must also administer the temporal goods of the parish (that’s paying the bills and keeping the air conditioning on in the summer) and reach out to all members of the parish: the young, single, married, divorced, elderly, infirmed, those preparing for marriage, the doubtful, the troubled, even the mean and stubborn. In short, I ask a lot of my pastors and their parochial vicars (these are harder to find today), but I know each of them works hard and faithfully to fulfill the responsibilities I have placed on their shoulders.

Yet a pastor cannot accomplish all the above responsibilities (and more) without his parishioners.  Your place is not only to sit back and grade the pastor; no, more is asked of everyone in the parish.

Have you ever thought that it is your place to love your pastor and to contribute in an active way to make your parish family a witness to the love of God and neighbor?  Every parishioner should actively join with the pastor in building up a vital parish.  Don’t be afraid to give an honest, even differing opinion on some aspect of parish life, but do give it with love and respect.  When I was a parish priest with many pastoral responsibilities, I often needed help and input from the parishioners.  In fact, much of the success attributed to me was accomplished through the willingness of the parishioners to work with me and I with them.  Working together in this transition will be essential to a successful pastoral change.

If your parish has a pastoral change this spring, here are a few helpful tips to make the transition smoother:

Give the new pastor a chance.  Don’t believe negative gossip that you hear about him.  Social media, texting, Facebook and even old fashion gossip has often made the changes for our pastors more difficult as they are judged and either sanctified or condemned before they even arrive at a new assignment.  Most of what you hear on the parish grapevine is vastly exaggerated and social media can make the concerns of a few seem larger and more important than they really are.  Make it clear to other parishioners that criticizing a pastor behind his back is always a mistake.  If there is a legitimate concern about the new pastor, talk to him about it.  Chances are it is some misunderstanding that can be easily fixed. Give a new pastor the time to let his actions and words speak for themselves.

Remember that it takes a while for a new pastor to learn the names of parishioners and to become familiar with parish ministries.  Pastors and parishioners need to be patient with one another, listen to each other and work together for the good of the parish.

Be open to change.  Let your new pastor be himself.  Recognize that he has unique gifts and talents that he will bring to your parish.  Allow him to minister in his own way.  Don’t keep telling the new pastor how the old pastor used to do things.  Be willing to consider that the new pastor has been sent by God’s grace so the parish will be challenged to develop in a new spiritual way.  I do believe that even through all my practical considerations and consultations that the Holy Spirit guides my decisions and is at work in this process.

Of course in all things be charitable.  I pray that the changes this year will bring new life, not only to our parishes, but will also revive and challenge our priests to a deeper commitment to their priesthood and they will be nourished and inspired by the zeal and support of their parishioners.  A parish succeeds when the pastor and parishioners work together.  May Christ remain at the center of these changes in our parishes.

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