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10-PRIEST

Say a prayer for the priests moving parish

Fr Jamie McMorrin discusses settling into a new community, becoming part of the family, and then moving on—the unique journey of Catholic priests

At a retreat during my time in seminary, the preacher told the story of a bishop sending a zealous and energetic young priest to his first parish assignment with the advice ‘Try not to do too much damage!’

When he appointed me to the Catholic parishes of Falkirk, the archbishop didn’t quite repeat the advice of the story but he did (very gently) intimate that seven years in seminary didn’t mean that I knew everything I would ever need to know: that, in a sense, the task of learning how to be a priest was just beginning.

My own first appointment took place over the telephone. I was in the library of the Scots’ College, studying for my final exams, when an incoming call from the archbishop appeared on my phone. Taking the call outside into the grounds, overheard only by the Roman mosquitos, I walked around the football pitch as he described the parishes where I would spend the first years of my priesthood: places which I’d seldom visited but which were very soon to be my home.

Returning to the library, the theology I’d been trying to cram faded into relative insignificance: putting aside the books, I joined the ‘Falkirk Catholics’ Facebook group, downloaded the latest newsletter, and tried to imagine being a part of the activities it described. I dug out my copy of Broderick’s biography of St Francis Xavier, and began adding him and St Anthony to my own litany of intercessors.

A few months later, after the exhilaration of ordination, the joy of my first Mass in my home parish, and a restful summer visiting friends, I packed up my worldly belongings and headed for Falkirk. When Jesus sent out his disciples on their first missionary journey, he told them to take ‘no staff, no bag, no food, no money, no extra shirt.’ Setting out on my own first mission as a priest, I packed about 20 boxes of books, and, to the relief of those who have to share their personal space with me, a couple of extra shirts too.

Thankfully, like those first disciples, I didn’t journey alone. I was assigned to a parish with two wise, hard-working and experienced priests, not to mention a dedicated and supportive lay pastoral assistant, a lovely housekeeper and countless enthusiastic volunteers. With great tact and encouragement, they did their best to limit the damage the retreat director had warned us against: with a wry smile, one of the regulars pointed out that although this was my first parish, I was not the parish’s first curate!

The months passed with a succession of priestly ‘firsts’: my first Baptisms, weddings, funerals; my first Christmas, Lent and Easter; my first deathbed anointing and my first school nativity play. In time, that crowd of unknown faces who I addressed at Mass as ‘my brothers and sisters’ really became my spiritual family: the hundred-fold share of fathers, mothers, siblings and children the Lord had promised to his disciples all those years ago.

Looking out at the congregation, I could see no longer anonymous strangers but friends and companions on the pilgrim road through life. I knew why that elderly man looked especially sad that morning at Mass; I knew the story behind the beaming smile of the mother of three; I got used to the quirks and habits of the regulars and they, I hope, got used to mine.

Then, one sunny morning in May, having just celebrated the high school’s Leavers’ Mass, my mobile phone rang again with another call from the archbishop’s office, asking me to come in and meet with him later that day. He asked me to take up a new assignment in Edinburgh, beginning the following month. I accepted immediately, of course, but driving back to Falkirk I realised how difficult it was going to be to leave.

All the familiar faces flashed through my mind, all the memories, happy and sad, all the future plans I’d mentally postponed until ‘after the summer’ that would now be left to my successor. Returning home to phone messages, emails from the school and a cup of tea with the housekeeper, I realised that this wasn’t my home any more. I was just passing through, like many had done before me and many would after I’d been forgotten.

In his spiritual autobiography, the Swedish politician Dag Hammarskjöld once wrote, ‘For all that has been: thank you! For all that is still to come: yes!’ I don’t think I could write a better prayer for a priest moving to a new parish. Once more, with a car full of boxes, a grateful heart full of memories and plenty       still to learn, I was heading for Edinburgh to begin the next chapter.

Pray that I won’t do too much damage.

 

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