Transfer time

At this time of year, many parishes have to prepare to say good-bye to one or more priests and hello to new priests. Often this is the occasion for difficult feelings, for the laity and the clergy. However, St. Paul and Pope Francis have a message for us to put this into a Biblical perspective.

On Tuesday the Holy Father preached about the first reading (Acts 20:17-27), in which St. Paul was taking his leave of the Christians in Ephesus. He tells them, rather dramatically, “I know that none of you to whom I preached the Kingdom during my travels will ever see my face again” (Acts 20:25). Given the small geographical area of our diocese, this needn’t be the case when priests are transferred, although in reality often former parishioners rarely see the priests who have gone on to a new assignment. 

Pope Francis told the assembled congregation in the chapel at St. Martha’s House in the Vatican (where he lives), “Let us pray for the shepherds, for our shepherds: for the priests, for the bishops, for the pope; because theirs is an uncompromising life, a life on the go, and a life where they do not believe themselves to be the center of the story and so they learn to leave.”

The pope, in describing the scene in Tuesday’s first reading, said, “It was like a meeting of the presbyteral council, but where the bishop is departing.” The pontiff reminded clerics, “all of us shepherds must leave. A moment arrives when the Lord tells us: go to another place, go over there, go here, come to Me. And one of the steps that a shepherd has to do is also prepare to leave well, not to leave halfway.” This is why priests are called to focus on their new assignment, not with a hand on the plow, but looking backwards (cf. Lk 9:62).

The Holy Father reminded us that we need to go forward: “The shepherd who does not learn to leave has some bond with his flock which is not good, a bond that is not purified for the cross of Jesus.”

Pope Francis urged his listeners to read Acts 20 from verse 17 all the way to the end (verse 38), which is 11 verses beyond where the reading ended, and he pointed out “three attitudes” to be imitated by clerics when being transferred. 

The first attitude to imitate from St. Paul is that of humility in sharing God’s message, a humility which keeps us from compromising the truth. The pope emphasized how St. Paul was able to say to the people, “I did not at all shrink from telling you what was for your benefit” (Acts 20:20). The Holy Father said that the Apostle was able to leave Ephesus with a clear conscience because he was “without compromise.”

This first attitude requires that shepherds have courage. Pope Francis noted that Paul made “something like an examination of conscience” before the people. The shepherd took his leave from them and has in his heart the peace of knowing that he did not lead the Church with compromises. He did not pull his punches.” The pope added that he wants us to read to end of the chapter so that “we will weep, as the priests [in Ephesus] wept. The beauty of truth, of life.”

The second attitude the pope wanted us to imitate from St. Paul was that of not looking to the past, but looking to what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do in the present. In practice, the Apostle says: “I obey the Spirit. I am forced by the Spirit.” Applying it to today, the pope said, “The pastor knows that he is on the go.” Getting back to Paul, the Holy Father said about his leaving Ephesus, “Now the Spirit asks him to walk, without knowing what will happen. And he continues because he does not have anything of his own, he has not had an inappropriate relationship with his flock. [Rather], He served it.”

The pope said that Paul reflects what a good shepherd should have: “a heart always open to God’s voice. I will see what the Lord asks of me, now as a shepherd on the go.”

The third attitude that the pope emphasized was that of realizing that no shepherd (other than Jesus) is the center of the story, neither the center of history nor the center of the little stories which surround us. The pope paraphrased Paul’s saying, “I consider life of no importance to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to bear witness to the Gospel” (Acts 20:24), as “I am not the center of the story.” 

Lastly, the Holy Father asked us to keep our shepherds in our prayers, as did the people of Ephesus: “They kneel, they pray, they accompany him to the ship and go, [what a] beautiful example [of praying] for our shepherds.” May we do the same here in the Fall River Diocese, helping our priests with our prayers, as they move on to the new task that Our Lord has prepared for them. 

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts