Tuesday, July 29, 2008
I've only been a priest for about six weeks, but already I've fielded repeated questions about "my parish."
The truth is that I don't really have a parish.
Most people's understanding of the priesthood is according to their experience of being a member of a parish, where there is usually a permanent priest assigned, usually a diocesan priest. So it is not surprising that most people would think that all priests are assigned to a parish. This, in fact, is not the case, especially for priests like myself who belong to a religious order. Yes, some of us do spend time working in a parish. However, at least as far as Jesuits are concerned (and I expect this is true of many other religious priests), many if not most of us are unlikely to be permanently assigned to a parish in the same way a diocesan priest is (diocesan priests are often assigned to parishes for a minimum of six years at a time, and often end up staying longer). Even Jesuits who are assigned to a parish often after several years are assigned to another ministry. Our association with a parish, then, tends to be different than that of diocesan priests, the majority of whom spend most of their priestly lives in parish ministry.
How is it different? Well, take, for example, my current situation. I do have a parish, in a sense, as I am currently the only priest regularly serving the parish here. Nevertheless, I am not "on the books" as the pastor, another priest who lives here is officially listed as the administrator of the parish. It is also an international community of people who worship in English here in Germany, one in which the community takes a lot of responsibility for what happens in the parish. I, more or less, just show up to say mass, hear confessions, etc. Yet, still, it is "my" parish, in a sense, for at least the next few weeks. For better or worse, the community has had only me saying mass and preaching for about two months. So, we've developed a relationship, and I have the luxury of being able to refer back to things I've said previous weeks, hoping they might remember (!).
Some here have asked what parish I am going back to, and I've had to explain my situation. Though I am a new priest, I have been missioned to further studies, not to a parish. This does not mean I will not be working as a priest. What it means is that I have to find some regular work for myself as a priest. And, as you might imagine, there is no lack of opportunity. What I am hoping is that I will be able to be involved in some of the student liturgies at Boston College, and I will also try to arrange with a local parish for me to come each weekend and take one of the masses there.
As a religious priest, then, one becomes something of a guest in the places where he offers mass. This is nice in one sense because I don't have all the responsibilities that come with a parish. I can come in and bore or inspire the people (hopefully the latter!), and then go home again. It also has its challenges because, since I am a guest, I don't have the luxury of doing everything precisely the way I would want to do it. Each parish has its own peculiar way of doing things and, as a visitor, it is not necessarily my place to insist on doing things otherwise. If they were guilty of some egregious error, I might have to take a stand, but usually this is not the case.
I must admit I kind of like this way of being priest, because you get to meet a variety of different people, and it fosters the humility required to appreciate approaches to worship that, given my own preferences, I might not otherwise be involved with. I get to experience the richness and diversity of the Catholic faith from a rather unique perspective, while also experiencing the wonder of the one common Eucharist we share, and this whether I find the community's approach to worship joyful, prayerful, or exceedingly dull. Christ comes there to be with us whether or not the community is inspired, whether or not the music is good, and whether or not I say the mass perfectly while I try to do things their way.
So, I guess "my parish," then, is not a place, but rather a unique mix of experiences, with a wide variety of people, who I am grateful to have the opportunity to serve as a priest.