On receiving a new pastor
He may be working for the Lord,
but he’s still the ‘new guy’
By Father Kenneth Van Haverbeke
He was waiting for me. I was sure of it. People waiting for the new pastor have a certain look. Often times it’s a look of: “Who are you replacing our beloved pastor?” Or it can be a look of: “Finally, now maybe this new priest will ….”
Amid the chaos of people moving boxes, introducing themselves, and cleaning out space for more boxes, a little man sat in the corner of the rectory office watching it all. But most of all, he was eyeing me. After the initial rush of boxes, my former and new parishioners (“new” by about ten minutes) take their leave for me to unpack in privacy.
I am alone … except for the little man in the corner of the office still watching me.
I know I need to see what I can do for him, but I am hesitant to begin. The first surge of parishioners in a new parish can often be challenging because often they have “beaten a path” to my door either wanting something the former pastor would not give them, or with a suggestion.
The stability of the Church is a gift from God. When one parish priest leaves, another comes. (Please pray for vocations, encourage your young men to become priests so this gift continues! What a wonderful life it is!) Coming to a new parish for a priest is barraged with newness: new parish, new family community, new surroundings, new church building, new faces, new names, and in many ways, a new job.
No wonder one of my seminary professors said with all that newness get your priorities straight: know where all the bathrooms are! Even those are new to you!
Taking the place of a brother priest is daunting. You want to be yourself, but you can’t help but compare yourself to what you perceive the other pastor to be. Sometimes you replace a brother priest who seemed to walk on water in your eyes, only not to give you a map detailing where the rocks are beneath the surface.
Or you replace a brother priest who had to make some difficult and unpopular decisions. Then you can catch yourself trying to be everyone’s friend, not wanting to offend anyone and wanting to be known as “the nice guy.”
Compare, competition, and complaining are the three cancers for a priest. We sometimes find ourselves comparing our ministry or parish with that of another priest, competing for popularity, and complaining about our assignment, authority, or brother priest. A deadly disease these three “C’s.” A disease that deadens a priestly heart.
I decide to get my priorities straight. I first go to the Church for a prayer (subsequent to finding the restroom!). After a short prayer of thanksgiving before the Eucharist, “wondering thoughts” begin to distract me. Thoughts such as: “I wonder why it is so cold in this church? I wonder who is responsible for setting the temperature? I wonder who trains the altar servers? I wonder what the story is behind that beautiful statue? How in the world do you get a casket down this aisle?
Giving up on any real deep prayer experience, I wander back to the rectory.
“What’s this?” I think. On the kitchen table is a basket from the new parish’s Altar Society and filled with some easy-to-prepare food items and homemade chicken and noodles. Perfect for dinner tonight! Now I won’t have to go the grocery story immediately and replace all the rice cakes and low salt (read no-taste) soups in the pantry left by the former heart healthy conscious pastor.
Returning back to the rectory office I suddenly remember the little man in the corner. He was busily talking to my new secretary, whose name I keep getting confused with the school secretary. Not a good start!
When he sees me, he gets up and walks across the room.
“I didn’t want to disturb you before, Father, knowing this was your first day here, and I know you are busy getting settled. I was here getting a Mass said for my wife who passed away this time last year.”
Then he went on to say, “ Father (Former Pastor) was such a gift to me during that time….”
Oh, here it comes, I thought…. “You got pretty big shoes to fill” or “I think you should consider….” I’ve heard them both on my first day at a new parish.
But how little faith I have … for he went on to say, “and I look forward to the gifts you bring to our, parish too. Welcome! We are glad you are here!”
Suddenly, I was glad that I was there too!
Father Van Haverbeke is director of the Spiritual Life Center in Wichita. This article is reprinted with permission from the Catholic Advance.