At the 7:30 a.m. Mass at Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Colorado Springs, I had the privilege of concelebrating with the pastor, Fr. Paul Wicker. Fr. Paul's been a great supporter of the work of the Institute and has been a wonderful and inspiring mentor to me.
As we began the liturgy, I was suddenly struck by the fact that Fr. Paul has been pastor of this parish for something like 26 years or so. That's very unusual these days, when in most dioceses priests are moved every six to twelve years. With religious communities that staff parishes, the transitions can be even more frequent. One university parish which I served for six years has had four or five pastors in the six years since I left.
In the case of Fr. Paul, his longevity with the community means that he knows the parish pretty well. His homily reflected that intimate knowledge, too. He knows his parishioners and can speak to them from that comfortable intimacy: lovingly challenging them, affirming their genuine goodness and selfless acts. He is patient with them, even when individual members are not altogether reasonable (after his homily, in which in a variety of ways he emphasized Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist, one parishioner chided him for "not talking about metaphysics!")
Not only that, he knows the city well, and has been able to help connect the parish and parishioners to various agencies within the city, both Catholic and secular. He has also led the parish community to examine to what role they may be called as individuals and a faith community to work to change the structures and institutions within the city. This would be much less likely to happen if he had been a pastor in several different cities in those 26 years.
I have been told (and this could have been idle speculation, perhaps based on personal experience) that priests are moved regularly "so that they don't become 'little kings' in their parish," or "so that a parish doesn't get stuck with a bad priest for a long time." While that may reflect reality, it certainly doesn't reflect the ideal. That ideal is described beautifully in an article in Seminary Journal titled, "Priestly Spirituality, Seminary Formation, and Lay Mission" by Deacon James Keating, Ph.D., director of theological formation at the Institute for Priestly Formation, Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska. In it, Keating writes of the relationship between pastor and parishioners
Charity takes up residence in a priest’s soul as a gift. This charity is God revealing, sharing, and communicating himself in a continuing and eternal act of spousal care toward humanity. This care reaches its ultimate self-gift in the nakedness of Christ upon the cross—the marriage of the Lamb and the Bride. This charity, living in the soul, is no different then the supernatural gift, the very indwelling of God, that inhabited this man’s soul at baptism (CCC 1266), confirmation, and Eucharist. It is the same charity, now bearing the grace of a call summoning him to come out from among the members of the church and “be Christ” by serving "His bride" as priest. The grace of ordination allows the charity that is in everyone’s heart (love of God, love of neighbor) to be specifically the grace of ‘being with Christ in His spousal love for the Church.’” There is something about this new “ordering” in the sacrament that places the priest in relationship to the body of Christ AS A WHOLE. He relates to all the members of the Body, sharing in the prophetic, kingly, and priestly ministry of Christ. The laity relate to the priest out of their own distinctive participation in these same Christological realities. The mode of existing in and among the members of the church is always inter-relationship. The communion between this man, the God who calls him, and the laity constitutes a spirituality—the breath of life between them all—that binds the facets of priestly formation together. The goal of this communion is to form the contemplative heart of the husband-priest. It is this priest who gazes upon the body of Christ, the church, the bride, not with a sense of entitlement or “lust” but with an ever growing pastoral desire, a desire born of this spiritual communion and finding its purpose and rest only in charitable service.
If the reasons given for moving pastors regularly are anywhere near the truth, then the problem is in our formation of priests - or our mutual discernment of those possibly called to priesthood. The ordination rite clearly indicates that the community has been involved in the discernment process, as they are invited to show their acceptance of the candidate by acclamation. What we seem to have accepted as the norm is the equivalent of "serial monogamy" in the realm of marriage between an individual woman and man.
Unfortunately, this serial monogamy also happens at the episcopal level. When I first went to the archdiocese of Portland, OR, the see was empty. Archbishop George had only been installed for ten months before he was moved to Chicago. In my first year as pastor in Tucson, AZ, the secular newspaper openly speculated how long bishop Kicanas, who had been there only a year or so, would remain before "moving up." I do not mean to suggest that either Cardinal George or bishop Kicanas were or are seeking "greener pastures." I just know that whenever a large see becomes vacant in this country, many of the clergy and laity in Tucson hold their collective breaths because they might lose a bishop who is articulate, pastorally sensitive, and genuinely fatherly.
I think Deacon Keating has named a vice of clergy. We can easily "lust" over the bride of Christ - succumbing to clericalism, seeking privileges like pharisees, or desiring luxurious digs, fine foods, alcohol, cable TV and more to make up for "all we've given up." Just as in a beautiful sacramental marriage the spouses call one another to holiness (and give each other daily opportunities to be patient, kind, patient, not jealous, pompous, inflated, rude, self-seeking, quick-tempered or brooding over injuries - cf. 1 Cor 13:4 ff), so, too, in a healthy pastor/parish relationship all involved invite one another to love in these ways.
St. Paul called spouses to be "subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ," and for husbands to "love their wives even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish." (Eph 5:25-27) That would be a wonderful goal for pastors and the parishioners to whom their lives are ordered by virtue of their ordination.