The Rest of the Week
Friday, 2 p.m.
Never in a million years did I think my first week as a pastor would end this way. Truth be told, I never imagined any week could end the way it did that cold day in late January.
I suppose if I were a great saint destined to be remembered in history, that my first week as a pastor could be recalled as having ended with mass conversions, healings of the sick and some great miracle that would have drawn thousands to our holy sites. Or if I were the great preaching priest that I sometimes dream of being, my homilies at the weekend Masses might have provoked standing ovations. And what if I were the great fundraising priest? I might have convinced a benefactor to welcome my arrival with a spontaneous $100,000 donation. Instead my first week as pastor ended with fire trucks, one heck of mess, and a rather unusual welcoming gift.
That first week was a long one. It was exciting to finally meet so many of the wonderful people who were members of the parish family I was joining. In many ways priest’s assignments are like arranged marriages: when you first meet you pray to God they like you. That week required the usual unpacking of boxes, setting up of the office, and programing of the GPS to remember which of three churches was which, where the corresponding cemeteries were hidden, and where the local landmarks were.
On the second day of that week, as I began the Mass I noticed I could see my breath. I thought it was strange and figured the pastor must be especially frugal when it came to fuel consumption. Then I remembered: I am the pastor. The breath I saw was not the result of budget cutbacks, but rather a boiler that had decided to go on strike in January and a series of incorrectly ordered parts which helped to make a bad situation worse. Four days in January without heat in the church ought to have been a sufficient challenge for this pastor in his first week, but even more excitement awaited.
As this first cold week was drawing to a close, I was driving to the office after lunch and talking to my mother on the phone (hands-free and legal, thank you, Bluetooth). I was hoping beyond all hope that when I came back to the office the much-awaited part to fix the church boiler would finally have arrived, and that fire would have returned to the boiler’s belly to warmly welcome the new pastor.
Suddenly I saw the most curious sight ahead: a row of fire trucks lined up in front of the church. “I have to go,” I told my mom, "the fire department is testing the hydrants in front of the church.” It was only after I hung up that I realized the folly of my words. Fire departments in New Hampshire do not test hydrants in the middle of January, let alone during a brutal cold snap.
As I turned into our parking lot anxious to see what was happening, I saw yet another curious and unexpected sight: a garbage truck as big as a house and plumes of smoke rising from Holy Trinity's parking lot like steam off a New Hampshire river on a first frigid autumn day up north. But this wasn’t the White Mountains! I strained my eyes to look closer and thought I must be hallucinating. The thick steam was billowing up from a four-foot-high river of garbage! What had been a quiet church parking lot when I had gone to lunch was now a massive garbage fire! I’m still not sure what the diocesan priest handbook recommends as the proper response to such a calamity. I did the only thing I could think of: I stepped out of my car and nervously walked over to our facilities manager. Before I could utter a word, he simply turned, smiled, and said, “Welcome to the parish, Father.” I responded, “Well that’s not the welcome present I had in mind, but I am glad to be here.”
What I would later discover is that the garbage truck had been driving down the middle of Somersworth when its driver had noticed huge plumes of smoke coming from the back of the truck. The smoke became giant flames and the truck was in danger of exploding. In an emergency maneuver the driver pulled into our parking lot and dumped everything they had to prevent the gas tanks and truck from exploding and incinerating.
History will always note that St. John Vianney had people dump the garbage and sin they carried throughout their lives in the confessional; that St. Peter and the Apostles had the tongues of fire descend on them on Pentecost, and that Father Andrew Nelson sanctified his new parish with the pungent incense of a large garbage fire.
Sometimes, the path to holiness is messy, sometimes it doesn’t look the way we imagined it would, but God is still at work. God is always at work – ready to welcome us. Sometimes he just needs to remind us that the most important fire is not the one in the boiler, or the parking lot, but the fire of faith in the human heart. Welcome news indeed.