CAUGHT NOTHING – EXCEPT MAYBE A COLD
I believe that one of the hardest things which bishops have to do is to assign priests. Thankfully, in this diocese I am assisted in this task by a fine group of priests who serve for five years (Fathers Pellegrino, Hunter, Malley, Johnson, Plazewski, Piotrowski, Morris) and who are very happy when their term ends. In a collaborative Church, the bishop must listen to many voices on clergy assignments. Our process runs something like this:
In January/February every priest is written to by myself under “Confidential” cover and asked if they would like a change of assignment in the Spring. Admittedly we do not receive a 100 percent response rate but those who are thinking of moving usually use this occasion to signal their openness.
Once we know the parishes which are going to be open, two members of the personnel board visit the parish and meet with the staff, pastoral and finance council membership and others who are either invited or interested enough to come. Those meetings are usually helpful. We warn that we are not looking for names of candidates for pastor but we get them anyway, usually the same person.
During February, Father Morris and I spoke to several priests who are past the retirement age of 75 to determine their wishes, which this year along with one retirement at age 70 created four pastor vacancies. Information on the four parishes outlining the sacramental life of the parish as well as the financial resources was sent to every priest eligible to apply. Finally, on Tuesday of Holy Week, we interviewed the two men who will be ordained to the priesthood this May to ascertain what type of assignment would best fit them.
The Chancellor of the diocese (Joan Morgan) assembles all the responses and relevant information for the use of the Personnel Board in their discussion. Our deliberations are supposed to be confidential and contained to the meeting itself. Sometimes I or the Vicar General know something about a parish or a priest which would exclude them from normal consideration. Additionally, we get “demands” which I don’t think are particularly Church-centered, such as “don’t put me with a smoker” or ”don’t put me with someone with dogs”. There are many dioceses in the United States which still follow the old procedure of “you go where I tell you, Father, like it or not.” Here we strive as best we can for happiness on all sides. A new priest who is miserable about his assignment from the get-go is not likely to get off to a good start in a new assignment.
I personally require that every newly ordained priest spend their three years or more of their first assignment in a rectory setting where the pastor lives under the same roof, eats at the same table, and is open to mentoring his new associate in his infancy as a priest. Sometimes people will ask me why their parish never gets a young priest or a newly ordained and nine time out of ten times it is because there are separate houses for pastors and associates. It is a personal “hang-up” which many other priests in this diocese understand and support.
Meeting day(s) come, lively discussions occur, phone calls are made to see if the receiving pastor will accept the person being proposed and associates we are considering moving are called and asked on the spot if they would be open to going to St. Dymphna. It is a house of cards – when you think you have it built, someone says no, the house collapses and one starts all over. There is no bench with priests waiting to be assigned to which one can turn and I and my colleagues must keep in mind obligations in justice to older men who transferred into the diocese and younger men who were ordained for the diocese to see that they become pastors of parishes in due time.
Basically, and I end where I started, we play with men’s lives and happiness and it is not something we cherish. It is hard work. I think we have concluded most of the assignments for this Spring but it was very hard this year, very hard indeed. Perhaps these words give you some insight into how this diocese goes about choosing your pastor or associate pastors.