So, Your Pastor is Being Transferred

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

So, you just learned that your pastor is being transferred. How do you react?

For some Catholics, even regular church-going types, it doesn’t make a lot of difference. They don’t have a strong personal relationship with their pastor; their feelings about his performance are neutral; and they just presume that next week someone else will show up to say Mass.

Some Catholics are thrilled when they learn that their pastor is moving on. They never really liked their priest to begin with; they thought he was an incompetent, irreverent and lazy bozo; and they think it’s just fine that he’ll be imposed upon some other unsuspecting congregation somewhere.

(In writing this, I recall that when my transfer from Youngstown to Providence was announced in 2005, one of my fans in Ohio wrote to me to say that when he learned of my reassignment, his heart “leapt with joy.” He added, “What a pity for your new Diocese.”)

And some Catholics are really disappointed, even angry, when they learn that their pastor is being moved, and they don’t hesitate to tell the bishop exactly how they feel.

For example, just recently, one nice lady whose pastor was being moved wrote a heartfelt letter to say, “I do not understand why priests have to be transferred to another parish. It just doesn’t seem fair when a parish loves the priest they have, that they get transferred somewhere else after a few years. I would just like to know why this has to happen.”

I wrote back to the parishioner to say that transferring priests is a normal and longstanding practice of the Church everywhere, and I reminded her of the obvious – that if priests weren’t moved from time to time and from place to place, her beloved pastor would’ve never been assigned to her parish to begin with!

Not every letter is quite as respectful though.

I got a letter from another lady, very upset by the clergy changes taking place in her parish which said, “Why would you go and uproot a parish of this magnitude? Do you ever take into consideration the parishioners? I am devastated. My husband and I have decided to stop going to church for a while. I hope you are happy with your choices, because we certainly are not.”

So, let me get this straight. This self-acclaimed faithful Catholic has decided to break the Commandments, deliberately miss Sunday Mass and deprive herself of the Eucharist because she’s not happy with the change of pastors in her parish?

As most folks can appreciate, the assignment of priests is a complicated task and there are many reasons that might prompt the change of priests, some of which are very personal and not appropriate for public discussion.

For example a priest might be moved: Because the priest himself has requested a change of assignment; or to deal with a health problem he or a member of his family is experiencing; or because the priests in a parish aren’t getting along and can’t work together; or to meet the specific ministerial needs of a parish such as facility with a second language; or because the priest or the parish is going through a time of transition; or to allow a priest to assume an extra-parochial ministry, etc. . . . etc. . . . .

In the Diocese of Providence, in dealing with clergy assignments, we are indeed blessed by the dedicated and competent service of Auxiliary Bishop Robert Evans who knows the priests and parishes of the Diocese extremely well, is highly respected, and has years of experience dealing with clergy issues. Bishop Evans doesn’t work in isolation, though, but in consultation with members of diocesan staff, other priests, and the priest personnel committee. Although the final responsibility for assignment of priests is mine, as it must be, I’m really grateful that Bishop Evans is there to quarterback the process.

There’s no question we’re living in a time of rapid change in the Diocese of Providence, especially when it comes to priestly ministry. As already well-documented, the number of priests available for assignment is dwindling rapidly. This year, for example we have eight more priests retiring. In the last six years, including this year, we’ve had 45 priests leave active ministry, mostly through retirement, and only ten new priests ordained. In the very near future, the Diocese of Providence will have more retired priests than active priests in its ranks.

What does all this mean? It means that changes in priest assignments are coming to a parish near you, and probably to your parish. And it means that everyone’s patience, understanding and cooperation will be necessary. Although we will do our very best to meet the pastoral needs of the people of this diocese, be assured it will not be the same in the future (the very near future) as it has been in the past.

So, if your pastor is being transferred, pray for him and his new ministry. Keep in mind that he was ordained to serve the needs of the entire Diocese, and not just your parish. If you’ve benefited from his ministry, thank him and thank God. And welcome your new pastor too; support and encourage him. Of course he won’t be identical to your former pastor and undoubtedly he won’t be perfect. But if you wait for a perfect priest, the pulpit in your church will be empty for a long, long time.