A few years ago, I do not want to remember the exact date, the local church authorities decided it was time for a change at our home church. It was part of a system of changes where some congregations were left homeless and others were forced to share each other’s company the way telephone party lines brought strangers together in the 1960s. It was wrenching.
We’d come to think of this church as our spiritual home even though I doubt I would have put it that way at the time. We took everything for granted. We wanted the similar, the familiar, the reliable, the expected. That’s what churches give you. You always know what to expect, and that is comforting the same way it’s comforting to know all the words to Hey Jude. You just know how it ends and you can suspend the craziness and the upheaval of everyday life in New York for a minute because you can predict the future.
I would guess the priests knew something was coming. I would guess, at first, they expected the church authorities would take their sense of an inclusive, caring community into account when deciding what was going to happen next. But I was blindsided. The new administrator was a priest foreign to everything I had known from the Church over decades of going to Mass.
He was abrupt. He was rude. He made fun of people in the congregation. He’d ask at the end of Mass, “Is anyone here for the first time?” and when anyone would say, “Yes, I’m here from Buffalo or Denver or Houston,” he’d crack a joke about how they were now better off here than wherever they had said they were from. He said we were all welcome by naming the ways other people divide us: gay, straight, divorced, married, single. We had come into the church like tiny lit votives, all the same, all together, and suddenly we were a member of a group that is not like another group. We’d been set off and away from each other by our category.
And he intruded on the sacred space of the other priests. During the Mass of another priest, he would come onto the altar, interrupt the service, without vestments, and recount what we could all read in the church bulletin. All the while, the priest who had been saying Mass was relegated to sitting quietly, subserviently, until he was finished with the bulletin and the stand-up routine that followed. “Who’s here for the first time?” “Oh, now you’ve truly been saved!” Yuck, yuck, yuck.
I became an itinerant Catholic. I followed the former pastor downtown to his new parish and saw him a handful of times. And I went to two other churches to catch up with another one of the priests, but the routine and the comfort were gone.
Until last week.
This new priest abruptly retired and was then summarily removed from his ministry by the same church authorities who placed him in my church in the first place. I was stunned. We all were stunned. At Mass there this morning, a woman was in tears and the head of the parish council mentioned there would be a service of prayer on Tuesday. They even remembered this priest during the prayers on the altar. “Change is difficult” was the clear message. There had been serious allegations of his abusing authority.
Immediately, I wanted to be able to go back to the church I had left. I’m sure the parishioners at Notre Dame in Paris want nothing more than to do that as well. And while I can hardly compare handling the imposition of an unsympathetic priest to the fire that claimed the roof in Paris, it’s that routine I associate with the former pastor that I grieve.
I sat there for a few minutes after Mass this morning, trying to fill in the blanks. How was I really feeling, could I find my way back to this church after having left it, did I still need a church home, or was my itinerant Mass-going sufficient? I don’t know.
It’s going to take a while to find the answers. But isn’t that what a church is supposed to do?