The Rest of the Week
12 a.m., Sunday
I sat in the living room as I had hundreds of times before, but this time it was different. Outside a strong winter squall rolled in with the ferocity of a late winter blizzard, while inside the last vestiges of Christmas made their final stand, as if in testament to the simpler times of the past. As the winds whipped and snow fell, the old grandfather clock by the stairs that had watched countless priests come and go over the years, slowly whispered her haunting words, rhythmically marking time and counting down as I sat, listened and waited. The rectory, like the church, had all but gone quiet for the night, sleeping as the world silently passed by.
When the clock struck midnight and sang her sweet melody, I arose from my chair. It was time. I looked over at the dining room table where many meals had been shared, at the place where Bishop McCormack always sat gingerly filling everyone’s glasses with water from a pitcher that is far too heavy for regular use; to Father Eric’s place across the table where after every meal he would sneeze three times because he had added too much pepper; to Deacon Matthew’s seat, filled during his weekend visits, and Msgr. Anthony’s place at the head of the table, rarely filled, but always held open for those welcomed visits back from the seminary where he would regale visitors with tales of seminary life and riddles and jokes he stored up for such grand occasions. The quietness of the rectory was more apparent now than ever. It was time for me to bid her farewell. My assignment was complete, my mission accomplished, another community awaited my arrival: more people to meet, more lives to serve, more work to be done.
For Catholics, priest transfers are something we have grown up with for our entire lives. We instinctively know that when a priest invites us to sit down for an announcement at the end of Mass, it is going to be big news. I remember in my own young life every time the “please be seated” announcement was made, my stomach dropped. If l liked the priest, worry and sadness immediately followed, and if I didn’t, hope set in that a change was coming. The one thing I never considered was what it felt like on the other side.
As hard as it is for a parish to hear the news and to say goodbye, for the priest it can be much the same. There is sadness in the heart as one looks out at good and dear friends to whom one must bid farewell. There is worry for the people you look out for, the lost souls invited in from the storms of life, souls that may not be able to weather this newest storm, and if things have gone well, a peace that comes from accomplishment and surrender.
As I made my way to the door of St. Joseph Rectory, I stopped in the office and removed the keys that I had used to open and close the church hundreds of times, the keys I used when I burst into the office to tell the staff of my latest adventures or to ask them if I was crazy for dreaming up a new project or idea. I carefully worked them around the key ring whose grip was unrelenting and laid them on the secretary’s desk just beside the note left to greet her the next morning and thank her for being the heart and soul of the place.
I grabbed my bag and at last ventured out into the snow. Like something out of the movies, the door shut tight behind me and snow came down hard. Off in the distance the sky lit up with a light of fireworks that celebrated the arrival of the New Year and bid a priest filled with a mix of emotions farewell on his new journey. I took one last look back at the church and the quiet rectory with the dancing light of the chapel sanctuary lamp beckoning through the window, then started the car and drove away.
As the snowflakes melted on my face, they mixed with tears, sadness, gratitude, hopeful anticipation and peace. One chapter drew to a close and a new one was waiting to be opened. The feeling deep in the pit of my stomach the day I had to make the announcement of my departure, as if like a chrysalis, was slowly transforming into butterflies tinged with hope. As I grabbed the steering wheel and negotiated the snow-covered roads, my mind began to race again with questions. I wonder what it will be like at the new place? Will the people be as excited to have me as I am to have them? Will they know that I love them? Will they love me and accept me for who I am? Will they know that I have been praying for them? Will they know that when I said, “Yes, bishop. I will go and serve the parishes you have asked,” that my response was not only out of love and surrender to God’s will but with a joyful hope for the future?
As I write this article I don’t know the answer to these questions. By the time you read this, two parishes on the Seacoast will.