First Month in Ordinary Time

Friday 10 October 2012 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Second day of  Succot (Jewish calendar)

They say time flies whether or not you’re having fun. Bishop Edgar da Cunha will soon complete his first month as ordinary. Where does the time go?

I am in no way privy to what goes on at diocesan headquarters. I have a hunch, though. I do have experience with the first month of being a “priest in charge.” At the risk of boring you to tears, let me briefly highlight my resume. 

I was first named a “priest in charge” by Bishop Daniel A. Cronin. He used the technical term “administrator.” This was due to the simple fact that the Vatican had already announced his appointment to the See of Hartford. He could only appoint me as an administrator. 

After a few years, I wrote to Bishop Sean O’Malley and suggested he might consider naming me pastor instead of administrator. 

He did — but of another parish altogether. 

Bishop George W. Coleman contacted me 13 years later. “Tim, you’ve been there a long time. Might it be time for a change of assignment?” It was. Off I went to pastor another parish.

Eventually, I was named simultaneously a pastor of the neighboring parish. If you’re counting, the number is four.

Then both of those parishes closed and a new parish was formed. I was named pastor of the new parish. That makes five.

A few years after that, I was named pastor here in Falmouth. And so, dear readers, having gone through this process six times, I know more than a little about what the first month is like. Here is what I have observed.

Before I even report for duty, I try to learn a little something about at least some of the members on the parish staff and leading parishioners. More important than what they do is who they are. I eventually want the right people in the right positions before initiating long-term Church strategies. It’s people first, programs second. Get to know people and let people get to know you.

I tend to get all excited about new pastoral assignments. I have visions of finally arriving in the perfect parish. I must force myself to be realistic. Just as there are no perfect families, so there are no perfect parishes. There is some degree of dysfunction in every family and in every parish church. 

I also set out immediately to learn as much as I can about the history of the parish. A church carries its history with it. The past forms the community into what it is in the present. I want to know the stories of the “good old days” better than anyone else in the parish. It’s vital for planning the future.

Just as important is the personal history of individuals. People have interests and experience in particular areas and are therefore eager to see these areas addressed by the parish as a whole. Initially, I expect a flood of parishioners asking to meet with me privately. They will express all sorts of opinions about what needs to be done in the parish as soon as possible. There’ll be more ideas than I could ever accomplish (or even want to). 

I listen actively but pace myself. Sometimes I take notes after the person has left. I want to get to know people and allow people to know me. Like everyone else, I also come with a history. I need to be myself.

Then we have that old axiom, “Never change anything your first year.” Well, yes and no. The rule of thumb should be “Don’t change anything in your new parish unless you are absolutely convinced it needs changing sooner rather than later.” Sometimes there are little things I can immediately impact and change for the better — things that everyone will agree upon without long discussions or significant expenditures. By acting, I can show confidence in decision-making. 

There are always a few major issues I would personally like to change as soon as possible. Maybe I could “get away with it” because I am new and still in the “honeymoon period.” That would be counterproductive in the long run. I must be patient and recognize that some changes are too big to launch quickly. I line all the critical issues up single-file so that I might deal with them when the time is right.

I also like to occasionally do the unexpected. It keeps people interested. Sometimes I will enter or leave the Sanctuary by a different door. Sometimes I will suddenly stop to chat with someone on my way up or down the aisle. My favorite is when I sprinkle everyone with copious amounts of holy water at the beginning of Sunday Mass. People just never know what’s coming next. That can be a good thing. 

Most importantly, I want to foster in my parish a sense of hope and trust. 

I hear Pope Francis prefers bishops with pastoral experience. I know what pastoral experience implies. I have never personally discussed such matters with the Holy Father, you understand. Just saying.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts