Saying goodbye to priests, Sisters: a bittersweet obedience, an act of love
My Vocation is Love / By Lindsey Weishar
Growing up, May perennially filled me with apprehension. Accompanying the end of the school year was the possibility that our priests and Sisters would be called to leave our parish community.
This year, in the midst of so much change, the priest leavings have been more unexpected, happening in months like July and September, when we thought we were “safe” from change. At my home parish, St. Matthew in Champaign, we learned rather suddenly in late August that Father Lee Brokaw was leaving us. When it was announced, there was an audible sigh in the church.
When Father Lee came to St. Matt’s in 2016 after being newly ordained, he was already a friend. In 2013, we had been teammates for Totus Tuus, a summer youth formation program led by teams of young adults who travel from parish to parish. During those long drives between parishes, enveloped by miles upon miles of corn, our team laughed hard, sang “Wagon Wheel” with gusto, and marveled at God’s providence in bringing together such a motley array of personalities.
We are and ever will be connected to those priests and Sisters who have come into our lives for a season.
Each week the team arrived at a new parish, there was both longing to be with those we’d encountered at the last parish and anticipation for the people we were about to meet. Totus Tuus offered me a glimpse into what the call to devote one’s life to the service of the Church entails: opening yourself to new people, inviting them into a deeper relationship with Christ, walking alongside them, and then responding to the call to serve other people in other places.
NOT SO MUCH PARTED AS FURTHER SHARED
The act of letting our priests and sisters go is a way in which we share in living out their vow of obedience. And while we wish them well, I don’t think I’m alone in also wishing they could stay with us always. I think of how Jesus had to tell the people in the towns he visited that he could not stay, that “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God” (Lk. 4:43). I imagine there were people in each of those towns that he looked on with special fondness and was sad to part from.
I’ve often been tempted to see the leaving of beloved priests and religious as loss, but what I’ve witnessed in our diocese in the midst of these changes gives me hope that they are not as much parted from us as further shared with others. As he left the Newman Center in Champaign, Father Chase Hilgenbrinck promised the college students, “Where the Eucharist is, there’s where I’ll be. And every time I’m celebrating the Eucharist, I’ll see you there.” Father Timothy Hepner made a welcome video to introduce the diocese to Father Chase as the new Vocation Director of Recruitment. Even as they’ve been personally dealing with transition, our priests have been intent on lovingly easing us into it.
I’ve also seen beautiful send-offs by parishioners like drive-by goodbyes and kind Facebook posts detailing a priest’s impact on their own or their family’s life. One Sunday in mid-September, I saw families from Galesburg attend Mass at the Cathedral so they could be present for the first Mass of their former pastor, Father Bill Miller, in his new assignment.
To those experiencing the pain of being parted, I offer fellow feeling, and also that we are and ever will be connected to those priests and Sisters who have come into our lives for a season. A friend recently shared a passage from Eugene Vodolazkin’s “Laurus” that meditates on parting: “any meeting is surely more than parting. There is emptiness before meeting someone . . . but there is no longer emptiness after parting. After having met someone once, it is impossible to part completely. A person remains in the memory, as a part of the memory.” In loving the Church, our priests and sisters have loved us, and as they leave us to serve God in other parts of His Church, their friendship remains with us.
In his “Meditation on Givenness,” St. John Paul II says, “God does indeed give people to us . . . Every such person, in some way, is a gift for us.” God gives us in a special way our priests and religious, as perpetual gifts that we are called to help give to new people. They radically remind us, as Father Chase did in his last Newman homily, that “our life is not our own.” As lay people, we, too, participate in this act of love. To all priests and religious in this diocese, thank you for giving yourselves wholeheartedly to us, and modeling for us what it is to be led.
LINDSEY WEISHAR is a member of St. Matthew Parish in Champaign and has a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.