When Your Parish Struggles

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Our parish has been through a lot in the last 4 years. In July 2011, we were assigned a new pastor, Father K. He had been ordained 2 years before that and is a priest who takes the Faith seriously. He loves orthodoxy and works to educate his flock on the teachings of the Catholic Faith, including the difficult ones. He once offered a votive Mass for families who had lost children through miscarriage or early death. He told us it was his desire to make this an annual Mass, offered for the healing of parents who are often overlooked. He was the first person to read my outline for what has become a manuscript, too. He and I are the same age, and we clicked as soon as we met. Sadly, circumstances in the Richmond Diocese needed him to relocate only 2 1/2 years after he arrived; he was reassigned in a domino-effect of reassignment around the state. (For what it’s worth, he landed at a parish with a parochial school, and I suspect we’ll see a great many vocations born from that school.)

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We were assigned a new priest as of January 2, 2013. Father M. was a late vocation, but has a talent for amazing preaching. He had been a lawyer and law professor, and would take the pulpit with no notes at all, weaving his homily together from bits of information that seemed unrelated until he got to the end of the homily and suddenly revealed the connections and made me wonder how I couldn’t see it at first. He’s a Whovian, which delighted my children to no end, since they discovered Doctor Who a year or so prior to his assignment. He had a heart for service and the sacraments, but, alas! He took ill not even six months after he came to our parish, and was forced into retirement by a heart ailment that had gone undiagnosed for 20 years or more. When he first took ill, we didn’t know he would eventually retire, and we had priests come in from all around the diocese to sub in for him. Every weekend would bring us a new face, and though we never lacked for Saturday Confessions or Masses on Saturday or Sunday, our parish started to shrink during the three months between his illness and the assignment of a parish administrator — the priest who would run the parish until a new pastor could be assigned to us.

Our temporary priest arrived the day before the Assumption, and everyone was glad to finally have someone more permanent at the parish. A priest on loan from Nigeria, Father T. was gregarious and had an easy laugh. But we started to hemorrhage parishioners, losing 10% of the parish and an even bigger percentage of our income in the 11 months he was there. I learned later that he had been discussing his difficulties with some parishioners with other parishioners, creating a rift in the parish that was incredibly harmful. (I thank God I never was on the receiving end of any gossip during that time.) During that time, our parish went from being debt-free (including our paid-off mortgage!) with an emergency fund to being in serious financial trouble. People were unhappy in the parish. Our community was hurting in a big way.

Enter Father McKay. Our bishop had decided to reach out to the Redemptorists, who originally founded our parish nearly 100 years ago, to help fill the vacancy. The first time I met Father, I was a bit surprised. A 5’4″ Scottish priest with a wicked sense of humor and a great, big heart, Father McKay’s first homily was a call to unite as Christ’s Church, to love each other again, and to be one again. He spoke about this for several weeks, weaving that into his homilies as he preached the Gospel. He talked about meeting the financial needs of the parish, and he began the process of healing the rifts that had sprung up.

My girls had been struggling, too. Father K had been a friend to our family, coming to dinner and BBQs and even bringing over the seminarian assigned to our parish for a pool party. Between his departure and Father McKay’s entrance, there had been a great deal of instability, which is tough on everyone, but especially on the children of the parish. The priest is a father figure, even if we don’t talk about it very much. We call him “Father,” and we look to him for guidance in the parish. And when you spend a summer with a different priest every weekend after only having your last pastor for 5 months, it can take a toll.

IMG_5447Father McKay brought us together again, helped us work through our financial problems, and showed us leadership and love as a pastor should. He had a bit of a rocky start with some people, since his sharp British sarcasm wasn’t what everyone was used to (and it was so dry, it was sometimes hard to discern when he was kidding). But once we got used to his personality, we all loved him. Once again, we had a father-figure in our pastor. Last July, we celebrated his 40th anniversary as a priest, 45 years after he professed as a Redemptorist. We heard stories from his former parishioners in the US, as well as stories about his days in Africa, courtesy his brother Ian, who flew in with his wife and children to celebrate the occasion. One of the things that I remember most about that dinner was Ian talking about the joy his brother had found in the priesthood.

Back in November when I was at the Lay Dominican Congress with my chapter, we got terrible news: Father McKay had been diagnosed with lung and liver cancer. We set prayer into motion, adding Rosaries and Memorares to our daily Hail Marys that Father had requested at the first Mass he celebrated for our parish. Chemo treatments followed, and our parish rallied around Father, praying for him daily, offering up novenas to St. Peregrine for him, asking everyone to pray for him. He seemed to be doing better for a while — until he wasn’t any more.

In early April, the inevitable happened: hospice was called in, and Father went back to the rectory for the last time.  He had held on and celebrated both Easter Sunday Masses, asking another priest to cover the rest of our Triduum. But after that, he didn’t celebrate Mass for us again. Instead, on the evening of April 15, a fellow Redemptorist came to his bedside to administer Anointing of the Sick and celebrate Mass for him. Our choir director sat by his bedside throughout the night, holding his hand and comforting him all night long. In the morning, she hugged him and told him that we loved him, and said goodbye.

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Right when we thought things were better, our parish is right back to struggling again — this time, though, it’s with the death of our pastor. It hurts. It hurts a lot. It feels like a family member has died. We have a priest assigned to us until July (praise God — I don’t think it would help us to go through the priest-a-week schtick again), but we’re all grieving. People from all over have offered condolences, including from non-Catholics in the area. My hairdresser even mentioned it!

But what do we do when we struggle as a parish? How do we hold on? How do we keep the faith, or even just stay at the parish?

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What I told my girls during that Summer of a Hundred Priests, we have to keep our eyes firmly on the One who is the true head of the Church. It was hard to feel like we were blessed that summer. We didn’t know what was wrong with our pastor, we didn’t know if or when he’d come back, and we had no consistency.

However, there was one thing that was consistent: we had the Sacraments, always. We were never without Saturday Confessions or our regular Masses. We always had Christ. Not a single weekend went by when some priest did not come to be with us and offer Mass for us. And there’s the blessing. Not every parish, especially in this time with a shortage of priests, is as lucky as that. And even if we had been without Mass, we had the possibility of going to another parish for that, since there are four other parishes, including a Maronite one, within 30 minutes of here.

I know not every parish is that lucky, but the only way to get through that kind of struggle — or any struggle within your parish — is to keep your eyes on Christ. He is the true head of the Church, and He has promised us that he would never leave us. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that, and I know there are times when we don’t feel like God is listening or paying attention to us, but it’s true. If I keep my eyes on Jesus, I can get through the storm. It’s like when Peter was walking on the water towards Christ: as long as he was looking at Jesus, he was fine. The moment he stopped looking at Jesus and focused on the storm, Peter sank like a rock.

The other thing that really helped me was to pray. Instead of praying about the situation or the priest who might be a problem, I started to pray for God’s will (and for the priest instead of about the priest). While this may or may not do much for the situation, it definitely helped change me enough that I could find peace in the midst of it. I know that’s no easy task, but I recommend faking it until you make it. Even a half-hearted prayer for the right intention is a step in the right direction, and eventually you’ll be able to make a sincere prayer for God’s will or for the priest that you struggle with.

What might one of the most important things, though, is to keep from gossiping or complaining about the situation. First of all, it won’t help anything — in fact, it could do more harm than good. Just because I have a problem with someone or something doesn’t mean everyone does, and if I air my complaints with someone who hasn’t seen the problem, I could cause them to stumble. Secondly, the negativity multiplies around you, spreading like ripples on water. But positivity will spread, too. And let’s face it — we should spread happiness and joy where we can.

Our parish will get through this. We’ll finish our grieving, and we’ll get a new pastor this summer. God will never abandon us, even if we have storms to get through. Like Peter, we’ll just have to keep our eyes on Jesus and move towards Him, even if it’s tentatively for a while. Pray for us, and I’ll pray for you.

Oh, and if you don’t mind, add a daily Hail Mary for Father McKay. It’s the only thing he ever asked us to do for him.

Copyright 2016 Christine Johnson.
All photos copyright 2016 Christine Johnson. All rights reserved.

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About Author

Christine Johnson has been married to Nathan since 1993 and has two daughters whom she homeschools. They live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia, where she tries to fit in as a transplanted Yank. She blogs at Domestic Vocation about her life as a wife, mother, homeschooler, and Lay Dominican.

1 Comment

  1. We had a priest friend who had to step into a parish as the full-time administrator after the pastor went on sick leave, and during his first year as a priest (!!). He tried so hard to fill the shoes (and did extremely well, in my opinion), and while he loved the people, my husband and I could hear how tiring it was to be split between ministries (he was also the on-call priest for the hospital).
    I’m saying a prayer for your parish and hope that the joy of Christ might shine brightly in your parish again soon!

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