Leaving....March 2014 Rector's Conference from James P Moroney on Vimeo.
There’s an immemorial tradition in a small Eastern European town for leave-taking. Whenever a child is about to head off to school in the big city or a son or daughter is about to move away or anyone is about to leave home for whatever reason, all the inhabitants would walk to the town’s border, a location uniquely located at the joining of two streets, one heading out of town and one returning and each separated by an increasingly distant crevasse.
The ritual to be scrupulously followed was for the person closest to the departing person to hold their hand and walk along the road into town while their beloved walked on the departing road. As they walked along the crevasse would gradually increase the distance between them until clasped hands would turn to touching fingers and soon they would no longer be able to reach each other at all. And then they would just follow the road in front of them and go where God was leading them.
Few things in life are as tough as change and few changes are as tough as taking your leave. As a Priest, you will experience innumerable leave-takings, from deaths to transfers.
And each is a rehearsal for the next and a preparation for that final leave-taking which is my death, that complete letting go, when you will be called to let yourself fall into the arms of God in a final great kenotic imitation of Christ upon his cross.
Like my father’s death last year. It was a friend of mine who encapsulated my feelings best when, a few years ago, he buried his mom. I remember asking him what was the most painful thing about burying a parent. He thought for just a minute and said, “The idea that I am next!”
My father's death helped prepared me to die by bringing me so close to the grave that I could smell it, taste it and feel it.
Just as every leave-taking in life, each little death is a participation in Christ's death upon the cross, and an anticipation of the resurrection of those of us who follow the first born of many brothers.
If we have died with the Lord, we shall live with the Lord: that’s the root meaning of every death, big or small.
Sometimes those deaths, big or small, happen in a seminary, for it is, by definition a place of formation and discernment. Sometimes those leave takings are the result of long days of wrestling in a seminarian’s heart. Sometimes they come from Bishops or rectors or faculty councils. But always they are painful, both for the man packing his bag and for the ones he leaves behind.
For you see, leave-taking is never a solitary act. It deeply affects entire communities of people, just like the folks in that small town gathering on one side of the crevasse.
We were a bit like them a couple weeks ago when two of our brothers left, and those half a dozen times in the past years when others left. It’s never easy. As at all leave-takings, we were filled with emotions. Some with anger: I don't understand! It's just not fair! Some were filled with fear: If him, then why not me! And some with a kind of creeping nausea that started in the back of the stomach and crawls up the spine.
Some were overwhelmed with a sort of creepy bargaining, an attempt to make sense of things in order to gain some sort of control. For you see, in the face of an uncontrollable reality, a drowning man will grasp at anything that happens to be floating by in order to keep afloat, to make any kind sense of it all. That leads a person to cling to rumors and even make things up (although you never admit it to yourself) in order to try to understand: Did you hear why he left?
I still remember the first time one my friends left the seminary. He was asked to leave. Actually that 's not true, they didn't ask him to leave, they told him. It seemed like he left in the middle of the night with nothing but a one line announcement on the bulletin board. And in the wake of his departure we were left with nothing but a raft of speculation.
Why? When? Where? Who? What? All tinged with free-floating anger and fear.
Over the past two years I thought a lot about those days. I remember complaining bitterly about the rector...uncaring, incompetent and totally insensitive to the realities of life. This just ain't the way it’s supposed to be done.
So God, the master of irony, made me a rector. Good luck, he said, and then I think he smiled.
When it comes to leave-takings, however, I think, I've started to get a couple things right. What is a rector supposed to do when someone is leaving?
First, I believe I owe this departing brother and son the unvarnished truth, spoken in love. Otherwise he will never have the chance to grow to that full stature in Christ to which he is being called. As a wise man once said, "the most loving thing you can tell somebody is the truth."
Second, Make sure, I tell myself, that he's ok. Tell him you’re still his pastor, and mean it. Follow up and support him and encourage him to continue to discern what God has planned for him.
Seek out his friends and make sure they're ok. Sure, you can't tell them much, you can't tell anyone much out of consideration for good reputations and because, frankly, it's none of anybody’s business...but care for them, listen to them, and do what you can to let them know of God's presence and loving care
Then talk to all his brothers. Encourage them to continue to be his friend. Allay whatever fears you can, but always only speak the truth, with discretion and prudence and love.
That's what I try to do. It's still not perfect, but be patient with me...I'm still learning how to do this thing.
Ways of Leaving the Seminary
There are, of course, different ways a person leaves the seminary.
Sometimes the seminarian himself decides to leave. It might be that there are some bumps in the road, some things about himself he needs to face, some ways he needs to grow. He's still pretty sure God's calling him to be a priest, but he just needs to get off the conveyer belt and slow things down. This is gonna take some time.
And so he takes some time in a parish, a natural place, since if he is eventually ordained a priest it's where he will spend the rest of his life anyways. If he wants psychological counseling, we'll get it for him, if he needs to develop specific pastoral skills, we'll find the place to develop those, as well. He's still in formation and he's still a part of this holy house. He keeps his spiritual director and formator and comes back for house events and formation, and, eventually, he returns.
Then there's the seminarian who decides to leave, period. He withdraws from seminary and withdraws from his bishop's sponsorship. He's pretty sure God's not calling him to be priest, and when he leaves he will no longer be a seminarian. By the way, I have an important message to share with all such men; never definitively burn bridges. When you entered you never thought you'd be leaving, and after you leave?...who knows? In fact, as several of you could attest, you never know where the road God sets before you will lead. All you can do is follow it as best you can.
Sometimes a departure from seminary is not voluntary. Most of the time this is the result of a negative vote by the faculty, discerning that for one reason or another this is just not the right place for this man. Which might result in a pastoral year or even an invitation to the man to withdraw. Much of what I have already said above about both of these realities applies here as well.
And then there is dismissal from the seminary. This can come about as the result of a Disciplinary Board convened by the rector or, for sufficient cause, by the Rector’s personal initiative.
Dismissal is probably the most agonizing decision a rector is called upon to make and usually it is in response to an extraordinary occurrence or situation so potentially harmful to the seminary community and the individual that the only appropriate response is immediate dismissal.
But even dismissal is not always a dead end, but sometimes a well placed detour, and if a person deals effectively with the issues at hand, the Program for Priestly Formation provides the opportunity to reapply both to the bishop and to the seminary after a period of two years.
Finally there is the way most of you will leave the seminary, departure by ordination.
But even here there are tensions to be understood and changes to be maturely embraced. Seminary forms real and lasting bonds between men, a few of which will continue to nourish and challenge you for the rest of your priesthood.
Where you went to seminary and who you went to seminary with will stay with you for the rest of your life. And while this leave taking is usually bathed in a flood of unmitigated joy (and a little bit of fear) that finally I am going to be priest, your heart will also ache a bit that you won't be with them and you won't be able to do that and the business of your life will keep you from being in touch quite as much as you'd like to.
So even leaving the easy way, isn't really all that easy.
Leaving the Parish
So, that's leaving the seminary. But just as other deaths are a preparation for our own death, so leaving seminary is a preparation for all the other leave takings you will face as a priest as well.
Perhaps no one leaves as often as the diocesan priest. In the beginning you get transferred a lot because you need a lot of experience. And while I never really believed it when I was sitting where you are, there is nothing like experience.
And then you get moved for all kinds of other reasons, some of which will make sense to you and some of which will not. But in obedience you go and do whatever he tells you, ever cognizant of what you said when you knelt before the bishop and placed your life in his hands.
I left my first parish after burying my first pastor, who dropped dead at the end of a parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Then I went as an associate to Father Bill O'Brien at Saint Leo's in Leominster, then off to Catholic University for a year. I came back as an associate to two parishes in Spencer and was then named pastor there. After the two parishes were joined I went to the Bishops' Conference for thirteen years to run the Liturgy shop. I left there to become Rector at Saint Paul's Cathedral in Worcester and now here I am as Rector of Saint John's Seminary
That's a lot of moving (an average of once every 5 years) and a lot of people to say good-bye to. But as the contact list in my iPhone will tell you, I keep in touch with some. But the leaving is never easy.
It's never easy because you have become their father and you have witnessed them at their very best and their very worst. You are there when they are perfect reflections of Christ's love and when they have been hateful and vengeful and spiteful. Like any good shepherd you know and love your sheep. You may not like them all, but you love them so much that you are willing to lay down your life for them.
And so leaving a parish can be very very hard. For when you leave, the tears and the smiles will make something very clear. That some have loved you and through your personality, your actions and your good self, Christ was able to touch their lives. And that some have not been fully appreciative of your presence and are more grateful at your going away than your arriving.
And the truth is that whether they’re happy at your coming or your going usually has very little to do with you. Oh sure, it’s your personality or other things they see on the outside that either excite or revolt them. And yes, your pastoral skills and self sacrificing love will do a lot. But most people will love or hate you not for what you do or what you are but what you remind them of from their past. And like the father of an adoring child or a rebellious teenager, you just keep trying, through self sacrificing love, to decrease that Christ might increase for them.
And it is good to change assignments. Change reassures us that we are not God, but only an unworthy servant doing whatever he gives us to do, for whatever time he chooses, through the wisdom of the Bishop. Change is good for you and for me, for each time I have been transferred I may leave behind my successes, but I also leave behind my failures which, by the grace of God and the fading of the memory, will slowly disappear.
Change is good and the Bishop is wiser than we can ever know if we just give into God’s mysterious plan. God taught me that lesson during the year I celebrated my tenth anniversary as a Priest.
I was living at Divine Word College in DC, working to finish my license and doctorate in liturgy. Bishop Harrington had given me three years to do so and I was nearing the end if my first year. The license was almost done and I was working on the proposal for my dissertation.
I had returned to Worcester to celebrate my tenth anniversary as a Priest by celebrating Mass with a small group of family and friends at the same church where my first Mass had been celebrated. I preached on obedience.
The next day, I got a call from the personnel director who told me that as the result of a fiscal problem the diocese was facing they were piling everyone out of school and I was to go to Spencer as a Parochial Vicar.
I remember smiling to myself and remembering that I had preached on obedience the night before. And while I was disappointed…no more doctorate...no more world renowned liturgist...no more great liturgical guru.....I still had enough perspective to figure that God would make the best of it.
And you know what. He did.
For if I had stayed in DC, I would never have gone to Spencer, and if I had not gone to Spencer I would not have gained the reputation for being able to get people together, and if I had never gotten the reputation for being able to get people together, I would have never been invited to direct the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, which means I would never have been made a consultor to Culto Divino, or edited the Lectionary for Mass, or directed Vox Clara, or come to the Seminary.
So, in God’s plan, I never got my doctorate, but I got you. Go figure.
Leaving and arriving and leaving again. Saying yes to it, opening your arms to it, accepting whatever he sends your way. That’s doing the will of God, and what more could we ever want?