By now the boxes have been unpacked and all the U-Hauls have been returned. The annual migration of priests is as predictable as the swallows migrating to and from Capistrano. These first few weeks of a priest’s new assignment or first assignment are crucial moments. Parishioners discovered so much about you between the first moment they heard you were coming and your arrival. Your name was Googled, tweeted and surfed through the internet. Any parishioner at the new parish who knows you from a previous circumstance becomes the most sought after person for information. You were sized up before they knew if you were a tall man or short in stature. Observations (aka judgments) were made on what was discovered.
You only have one chance to make a good first impression and/or unravel the observations already determined. The impressions may occur over a few weeks as the many “firsts” at the new parish take place. Those first weekends of newness can also be an opportunity for the priest. You can play dumb about not knowing the parish idiosyncrasies while innocently pushing buttons, just to see what the hot buttons are.
By the end of your first weekend you will be pegged for being a good preacher or not so good. Some will be praising you that your Mass was finished well within the hour while others will be saying you rushed through it. Those who attended your first funeral will say more about you than the eulogist did about the deceased. Both sides are sizing each other up. The priest is treading lightly while looking for the land mines early on while he can still ask forgiveness for not realizing that this was one of the many sacred cows of the parish. The people are wondering whether he really wants to be here.
Of course, a lot depends on who (and what) you followed. Some parishioners are thrilled you have arrived (not necessarily you, but anyone but the priest whom you succeed), and others are still pledging allegiance to your predecessor.
The process of matching Father A with Saint Z Parish is not easy. As clergy personnel offices play musical chairs with the parishes, the director of personnel knows that, when the music stops, there are empty chairs — that is, parishes. As the years unfold it is becoming more and more common that Father A needs to be compatible with both Saint Z Parish as well as Our Lady of Y Parish. The parishes may have only one thing in common — their ZIP code. If Saint Z once had a liberal priest, those in the ZIP code with leanings to the left flocked there. If Our Lady of Y had a more traditional priest, the right leaners flocked there. Now the two parishes have the same priest, and Father “Solomon” needs not only to be wise enough to please these two flocks but also to remain true to himself to assure that at least one person is pleased. Father Solomon is starting off at a disadvantage, as parishioners at both parishes now have to share their priest and each parish is vying to be the favorite child.
The decision of downsizing clergy staff and sharing clergy staff is still a battle in some places even after two or more decades of doing so in some dioceses. Recently there was uproar that the first Communion celebration was combining the second graders of the Catholic school with the second graders from the religious education program. I thought that battle was over decades ago; some wars never end. Each spring, as migration season starts, parishioners worry: “Will we get our own priest?” “Will we have to share?” “If Father Associate leaves will he be replaced?” “If we lose a priest, will the Mass schedule change?” “Will we be left with one of those lay people running the place?”
Clergy personnel offices have to assign as if the whole process is a dating service. Maybe the parishes and the priests need to sign up for E-Harmony for Clergy Personnel offices. The ‘E’ stands for Ecclesiastical. Does this new priest’s ecclesiastical style match that of the parish? Pendulums shift along the ecclesiastical spectrum as each generation hopes for different things from the Church.
The diocese may purposefully send a priest with a different ecclesiology to moderate the predominant ecclesiology at the parish. If the parish is too devotional in its practices, with little social awareness, the diocese may send a priest who is more attuned to the social needs of the ZIP code and beyond. Or, if the preceding pastor and the parish were driven by social concerns and were not attentive to sacred rituals, the next pastor may need to pull the pendulum in that direction. The priests in these situations might need to take the stance “all things in moderation.” If piety is driving the mission of the parish, maybe a few reality checks on how the rest of the world lives, such as these, who might see a priest only once a month. If social concerns are the driving force, with little attention to foundation in prayer, moderation may be the key.
Then there are the cultural or sociological questions. A study around the age, race and simple geographical preference would be interesting. How much of a factor are these? If the parish is predominantly comprised of seniors, is it assumed that they want a peer? A priest their grandson’s age may be a welcome unwrinkled face every day for Mass.
Then there is the senior priest in the midst of young adults or young families. Maybe the young adults in a parish with many peers with whom they hang out, do not want a priest–peer. The young adults who are away from home for the first time, living on their own, at times want a father figure — a wisdom person in their life. Or maybe not. Maybe they want a “peer–friend priest.” Will the young engaged adults who are living together hear the message of creating a period of chastity before marriage differently from a priest old enough to be their father than from one who is a peer?
As society is so much more mobile, does a young family with school-age children whose grandparents live hours away enjoy having an older priest assigned so the children can interact with an older adult of another generation from their parents. Or maybe the young children want a young priest who is like an older brother. The right fit is not easy.
The list of questions and what makes a right fit is endless. Does a priest of African descent or a native-born African do better in a predominantly African–American parish, or does the familiarity breed contempt? Does a priest raised in a rural area survive (not the parish) the suburban life and vice versa? Will the city-raised priest survive a parish in the sticks? All the people are great, but sometimes the setting can make or break you.
Then there is the moment of reality when the clergy personnel office says out loud, “Though we have all these open places (parishes and special ministries), Father Y will not fit in any of them” or, “Father Y does not want to go there.” These are not new words for clergy personnel directors. It is just that, nowadays, the words are heard louder with fewer priests to absorb the sound.
If we ever wonder whether the Church is guided by the Spirit and nudged along the way by the grace of God, it is this dynamic of finding the right priest for the right placement.
More often than not it becomes the right fit — maybe not in the first weeks of awkward getting to know each other, but in time making it work for the communal good.
Like any relationship, it takes work. It will be the right fit for priest and people only if each side carves out enough time and space to fit God right into the middle of them.
FATHER CARRION is pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore and the Director of the Baltimore Archdiocesan Office of Cemetery Management. email@example.com