“When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go one to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’” (Mk. 1:37-38)
Jesus took the same approach with his disciples when he sent them out, instructing them to travel lightly so they could be free to bring his word wherever they were needed. In my life moving to different assignments was always a challenge, because as a priest I came to feel very much a part of the community I served. On the other hand I also found this movement to be a very rich time in my own understanding of my calling and my commitment to it. Jesus calls the rich young man to lay aside his other attachments and concerns and to “Come and follow me.” This is a call that echoes through the ages and continues among us today. Priests are called to be radically committed disciples of Jesus Christ who reflect his way of life and ministry.
By the time you read this a number of new assignment for priests in our Diocese will have been announced. If your pastor is among those moving I am sure this will be painful for you who have come to know and love your pastor over a number of years. In this Diocese many priests have been left in their parishes for a long time and so when they are moved it can seem almost like a punishment. Some will conclude it is simply change for the sake of change.
I can assure you that the regular movement of priests within a diocese is neither a punishment nor is it simply for the sake of change. This is a normal part of priestly ministry. Like the first disciples we do not claim a specific place as our own. Diocesan Priests are Ordained for the service of a particular diocese, not for a particular parish. We each bring certain gifts and talents. We also have very human shortcomings. Some priests are very effective with the youth, others with the elderly. Some are more effective with one culture or language group than another. Regular movement allows for those gifts and talents to be shared more broadly and for the weaknesses only to be experienced for a time by the community.
When a priest is in one place for too long a time, since he is a key sign of Christ within the community, the people can overly identify Christ with the individual priest. No one priest can represent Christ in his fullness. Each Christian community is a special locus of Christ. It is not healthy for it to be seen simply as “Fr. Jones’ Parish”. It needs to be identified as the “Parish of St. ________, served by Fr. Jones”. When Fr. Jones moves to another parish the community retains its identity and its mission.
I am not attempting to do this work of giving priests new assignments on my own. I have formed a personnel board made up of well-respected priests of the diocese. They are: Msgr. David Fierro, Fr. John Telles, Fr. Frank Lopez, Fr. Saul Pacheco, Fr. Joe Molina and Fr. Tony Celino. I am working with them to find the best ways to fill the needs that lie before us. And we are praying earnestly to the Holy Spirit for guidance. At least for the short term we are also seeking priests from other places who may be able to assist us. Our need for Vocations coming from our own communities for the future is great.
As I asked you when I wrote on this issue last Fall I would once again ask you to do your best to make a challenging moment in our priests’ lives as smooth as possible. Encourage your priests who are being asked to take a new assignment. Assure them of your support and your love. Don’t make them explain over and over why they are being faithful to their calling. When your new pastor arrives go out of your way to show him the same hospitality you showed me upon my arrival in El Paso. It made what was a challenging time in my life, leaving the place I had been for more than 40 years, into a real joy and a time of growth for me.
On a related topic I have invited the Fraternity of St. Peter, a community of priests dedicated to preserving the Liturgy as it was celebrated prior to the renewal that came with the Second Vatican Council, to come to our Diocese and to serve the parish of Immaculate Conception in downtown El Paso. The Vatican has told bishops around the world that where a stable community attached to the Tridentine form of the Liturgy exists we have a responsibility to assure that this group has the opportunity to celebrate the Sacraments in this way.
We do have a significant group here seeking this option. At the same time it was becoming more and more difficult to provide a priest to serve the parish of Immaculate Conception. Bringing in priests from the Fraternity of St. Peter allows us to continue to serve Immaculate Conception and to meet the needs of those in this Diocese who are requesting the Liturgy according to the Extraordinary Form.
The Fraternity is not a group that denies the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council or criticizes the proper celebration of the Liturgy as it has been renewed. They simply prefer the former ways and find in them a path to a closer relationship with God. They have agreed to allow the 12:00 Noon weekday Mass at Immaculate Conception to continue in the vernacular according to the Novus Ordo with priests the Diocese will send. In this way we will be able to continue to serve the local business community as we have in the past.
We welcome the coming of the Fraternity of St. Peter and wish them every blessing in our midst. May God’s Holy Spirit guide us all to make these changes a source of much fruit in our midst. May we be known by the love we have for one another.