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Posted June 2, 2008

A priest's perspective on pastoral assignments

Catholic News Service

Responding to editors' requests for a regular sampling of current commentary from around the Catholic press, here is a column titled "A priest's perspective on pastoral assignments," which appeared in the May 25 issue of the Eastern Oklahoma Catholic, the newspaper of the Diocese of Tulsa, Okla. It was written by Msgr. Patrick Gaalaas, pastor of St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish in Tulsa and vicar general and director of ecumenism and interfaith relations for the Diocese of Tulsa.

This year's clergy assignments have just been announced, and I was asked by the editor to write a few words about what it's like for the priests involved. Having served in 15 parishes, I suppose she thought I was something of an expert.

It is safe to say that we priests take these things very seriously. Which is why we talk about them so much. The assignments aren't official until we receive our letters of appointment from the bishop. That's usually sometime in the month of May. However, beginning in about January, the new assignments are a frequent subject of clerical gossip. This is generally based more on speculation than on solid information, but that generally makes it all the more fun.

I have kept every letter of appointment I have received. I suppose that other priests have kept theirs, too. This is another indication of an assignment's importance -- of any assignment's importance. Where we are going is where we will be, for an unknown number of years. Will we do well there? Will the people like us? Will we like them? Will we be happy there? Will we grow in our priesthood there?

Looking back at all the assignments I have ever received, I can honestly say "yes" to every one of those questions. But, then, looking back is never the same thing as looking forward. The unknown is often frightening. Especially when the priest is young.

Being no longer young myself, I can still look back at my first assignment out of the seminary, or at my first assignment as a pastor, and remember, if only vaguely, just how frightening it was. In my first assignment after ordination, the most frightening thing was the prospect of hearing confessions for the first time. In my first assignment as a pastor, it was the prospect of being alone.

The Second Vatican Council says that the followers of Christ must share in "the joy, the hope, the grief and the anguish" of the age in which we live, especially of the poor. Every assignment I've had (and I suspect this would be true for my brother priests as well) has in some way offered new perspectives on all four of these things. There have been new joys and new reasons for hope, as well as fresh grief and anguish.

For priests like me, who have their share of self-doubt, a new assignment may seem -- in advance -- more reason for grief and anguish than for joy and hope. But God has been full of surprises. My worst fears have been seldom realized, and the happy surprises have far outweighed the not-so-happy ones. And that's what often makes it hard to move.

Receiving a new assignment means leaving an old one.

I remember the day I left my first assignment, at the Church of the Madalene. As I drove away, there were tears in my eyes, not because I was sad about my new assignment, but because I was sad about leaving my old one. It's hard to uproot yourself from a place you have come to love. But that's often the meaning of a new assignment.

There are many reasons I am thankful to be a diocesan priest, but one of them is that I'll never be far away from the people and places I've grown so attached to.

Still, it's good to be uprooted from time to time. It is possible for a priest to become a little too comfortable, a little too set in his ways, a little too attached. And a change of assignment is often good for the people, too. Every priest brings something new, something different, something fresh.

A parish, too, may have grown a little too comfortable, a little too set in its ways, a little too attached. Even Jesus said that it was good that he should go, because if he didn't go the Spirit couldn't come.

According to Cardinal Newman, "Change is a sign of life, and to grow is to have changed often." Our bishops have changed my assignment very often, and I feel that I have grown because of it. Every one of those changes has brought me into contact with people I would not otherwise have met, people who have had a positive effect on me -- whether or not I've liked it at the time.

Moving priests from place to place is not something that should be done for the same reason that one moves furniture: just for the heck of it or for a change of scene. But in a diocese as small as ours, one move often entails two or three others. Now we have heard about this year's new assignments. Please pray for the priests and parishes involved.