My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
This issue of Catholic Times includes the listing of Official Appointments, most of which will be effective on July 1. These announcements of clergy transfers often bring questions from parishioners about why their beloved priest is being reassigned to another parish. Their departure brings with it a sense of separation along with anxiety about what the new priest will be like.
There are a variety of answers to these questions on a number of levels. On a practical level, changes are inevitable as priests reach the age of senior status or die, setting off a chain reaction of transfers to find the most suitable priests to replace them based on the size, demographics, and unique pastoral situation of each parish.
There is also an ecclesial dimension in that clergy are ordained for a diocese or religious community, not for a specific parish congregation. A parish does not get to keep its pastor permanently as a congregational church might. Our Diocese of Springfield in Illinois has 129 parishes, to which there are currently assigned 67 diocesan priests and 12 priests who belong to religious orders. As you can tell by doing the math, some priests are assigned to more than one parish.
There is also a missionary dimension to priests being reassigned from time to time. Our Risen Lord gave his Great Commission when he appeared to his Disciples and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). We are not to get too comfortable or too complacent in any one place, knowing that we must be ready to go where we are most needed at any given time.
Priests understand this as the basis for their promise of obedience that they make to the diocesan bishop and his successors at the time of their ordination. The rationale for this promise of obedience was beautifully explained by Pope St. John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Formation of Priests, Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I will Give You Shepherds”), in which the Holy Father said that obedience takes on three special characteristics in the spiritual life of a priest: an apostolic aspect, a community dimension, and a pastoral character.
With regard to the apostolic aspect, Pope St. John Paul II said that a priest’s “submission to those invested with ecclesial authority is in no way a kind of humiliation. It flows instead from the responsible freedom of the priest who accepts not only the demands of an organized and organic ecclesial life, but also that grace of discernment and responsibility in ecclesial decisions which was assured by Jesus to his apostles and their successors for the sake of faithfully safeguarding the mystery of the Church and serving the structure of the Christian community among its common path toward salvation.”
The community dimension is understood from the fact that it “is not the obedience of an individual who alone relates to authority, but rather an obedience which is deeply a part of the unity of the presbyterate, which as such is called to cooperate harmoniously with the bishop and, through him, with Peter’s successor.”
The pastoral character “is lived in an atmosphere of constant readiness to allow oneself to be taken up, as it were ‘consumed,’ by the needs and demands of the flock. These last ought to be truly reasonable and at times they need to be evaluated and tested to see how genuine they are. But it is undeniable that the priest’s life is fully ‘taken up’ by the hunger for the Gospel and for faith, hope and love for God and his mystery, a hunger which is more or less consciously present in the People of God entrusted to him.”
As an Alter Christus (Another Christ), the priest is called to emulate Christ the High Priest. In this regard, Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “Jesus Christ, who brought his pastoral charity to perfection on the cross with a complete exterior and interior emptying of self, is both the model and source of the virtues of obedience, chastity and poverty which the priest is called to live out as an expression of his pastoral charity for his brothers and sisters. In accordance with St. Paul’s words to the Christians at Philippi, the priest should have ‘the mind which was in Christ Jesus,’ emptying himself of his own ‘self,’ so as to discover, in a charity which is obedient, chaste and poor, the royal road of union with God and unity with his brothers and sisters” (cf. Phil. 2:5).
Please pray for your priests, especially for those who will be moving to new assignments this summer, that God may help them and their parishioners during this time of transition.
May God give us this grace. Amen.