Last Sunday, the choir at my parish took me by surprise by singing “Totus Tuus” by Marco Frisina for the meditation after communion. Though I’ve only heard the song a few times, it never fails to take me back to the emotional weeks surrounding Pope John Paul II’s death and funeral. I was given the grace of being in Rome during that time, and I’ll never forget the strange mix of feelings that pervaded those days—the feelings of peace and victory, knowing our beloved Pope was now relieved of his heavy cross, mixed with the inevitable sorrow and emptiness that filled our hearts and was even palpable in the city streets while it mourned its shepherd. As the choir sang the haunting melody, tears filled my eyes. I miss Pope John Paul II. I miss those days in Rome, my friends, and the happy innocence I had as a twenty-one-year old living in the heart of the Church. The unexpected reminder in the form of Frisina’s Marian hymn brought on the warm tears quickly, and I barely had time to think about why the water was now threatening to spill over onto my cheeks.
Not five minutes later, while I was in this fragile state, our well-loved pastor announced to us that he had received a new assignment and was leaving the parish. Again, the tears hovered precariously on the edge of my eyes. The news was softened by the fact that a friend of mine was coming to replace him, and I should be quite happy. But it’s still hard. Change is difficult, as I have written here in the past.
Later I thought more about my post-communion emotions and the connection between the onslaught of Roman memories and Father’s announcement. There is nothing wrong with admitting that change is hard or even mourning the departure of a beloved pastor. But there is also a temptation to become too attached to the instruments in Christ’s Church.
We know in our hearts that the Church belongs to Christ, but we get used to a certain Pope or a certain pastor, and we begin to identify the Church with them. After John Paul II died, I was face-to-face with the realization that he wasn’t just a Pope for me—he was the Pope! He was the only Pope I had ever known, and I was convinced that anyone else in the papal cassock would look ridiculous and fake to me. Thankfully, I was wrong, and seeing Pope Benedict XVI on the loggia the night he was elected, at his inauguration Mass, and at his first audience was as natural as could be.
I have friends in other dioceses who are facing much more abrupt pastoral changes in their own parishes than I am in mine, and I pray for them. It is not easy to adjust to a new pastor, nor is it easy for a pastor to adjust to a new flock! But in the midst of the growing pains and the crosses, we are reminded that the Church is the Body of Christ. It is bigger than Father’s idiosyncrasies or my personal preferences. It is full of saints and sinners; it is temporal and eternal.
Maybe some of us long for the days of John Paul II, while others can’t imagine life before Pope Francis. Maybe you wax nostalgically about the pastor you had ten years ago, while others think your current pastor hung the moon. Priests and popes are humans, which means each one is different. Pius XII was not the same as John XXIII, and Father Smith isn’t the same as Father Jones. The Church is full of personalities and characters, which is what makes it simultaneously lovable and trying.
Will I miss my pastor? I will, without a doubt. He preached engaging homilies and celebrated a reverent liturgy. He was always available for confession, always greeted us after Mass, and was fun to be around. But ultimately, our parish was not about him. It is made up of us, the parishioners, the living stones, who gathered with him to offer sacrifice. The new pastor will lead us in offering that same sacrifice.
That is the beauty of our Catholic Faith. It is not a cult of personality around a charismatic preacher or a dynamic personality. Rather, it is the body of Christ, united in worship. The priests are the servants of the people: “the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood… It is a means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church” (CCC 1547). They are the means, not the center of attention. Perhaps this is best manifested by the way my pastor celebrates the liturgy: ad orientem, or facing the altar. Some people who come to St. Mary’s might find this jarring, but I think most parishioners don’t even notice it anymore.
Yes, I’m looking at Father’s back… but I’m looking at the back of the person in front of me, too. And we’re all facing the altar, the place of worship. Father and I are together making the sacrifice, worshipping the Father through the Son. “Pray brothers and sisters that your sacrifice and mine may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father…” He is leading us in worship. And now another priest will come to lead us, building us up to go out and preach the Gospel and serve our brothers and sisters.
Is change difficult? Definitely. For those of you facing the hurdle of new pastors, and for all the priests facing daunting new assignments or parishes, I’m praying for you. Let us always remember that this Church is the Body of Christ. We can mourn the loss of a beloved Pope or the assignment switch of a favorite pastor. But ultimately, what matters is what happens on the altar and whether or not we take it out to the streets.