Thursday, May 14, 2009

“Reshuffling”

THAT is the local lingo among some of us diocesan priests when we talk of changes, which often mean transfers, in our (parish or other) assignments. This is where we are now in my home diocese. I was probably absent during the priest’s assembly in which the word was adopted and soon gained fame or notoriety among priests. Webster explains the word ‘reshuffling’ in terms of ‘redistribution’ or ‘restructuring’ of various elements within a system, as when a prime minister ‘reshuffles’ his cabinet. I ask myself if our almost natural penchant for the word could indicate our having allowed some invasion by the political into the realm of the sacred. But then again I realize how na├»ve I could be for asking the question in the first place.

But what does ‘reshuffling’ mean in concrete? I look at the books, sheets of paper, letters, notes, envelopes, cards, cds, DVDs and just plain trash all about my room that I am trying to sort out so I could pack up those I will be bringing home or to my next assignment. It is then that I receive an urgent message about an article I need to submit pronto, to which I could only utter, “Oh, Mother most compassionate…” Still, I leave the chaos in my room aside and begin to type away my grief and joy at the thought of leaving my present assignment and of arriving at a new one.

In the first place, ‘reshuffling’ means putting on a smile to hide a disappointment over a dreaded, unexpected and difficult (which explains the first two adjectives) assignment. It means, sometimes, feigning ignorance of how some parishioners are relieved you will be ministering somewhere else (any pastor knows this part only too well). But it also means genuinely trying to find ways to console parishioners who think, wrongly of course, that you need to be rewarded for your hard work through an extension of your term. “Do we need to write the bishop a petition?” a lay leader asked me. “Please don’t do that,” I answered, embarrassed. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell him, “Please, if you think I have to be rewarded for my hard work (a word which could be debatable in the parish context, not to say in my own conscience), how could a reward take the form of an extension of hard work?”

It is then that I have recourse to my next act. I tell people—and frankly I have become convinced how Spirit-inspired the idea is—that the diocese needs to go through the ‘reshuffling’ of its clergy to remind us collectively of three things.

One, priests cannot become good shepherds if they do not have the Good Shepherd’s mindset. And just what is that, you may ask. I find the Good Shepherd’s words instructive: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I have also to lead them and they shall hear my voice” (Jn 10:16). The priest is not in a position to object. He is transferred because, in doing so, he manifests the Lord’s concern for the flock other than the ones he is ministering. ‘Reshuffling’ is our concrete statement of the universality of the call of salvation.

Two, God’s love is everlasting. What has this truth got to do with priests’ transfers? It is stark to me. When a pastor leaves, another takes his place. In a word, pastors are human instruments that come and go but the One who uses them to express his love for his people always walks with them. I remember a groom who requested a singer friend to sing for him to his bride the words of a song that say: “Tomorrow morning when you wake up and the sun does not appear, I will be there”. Being there for those one loves is a quality only God can really do (I’ll take objections to this but won’t back down). And, truly, he is always there for his people in particular through his priests and pastors. Isn’t this what exactly happens when, as one pastor leaves, another pastor takes his place to continue ministering to God’s people? In fact, ‘reshuffling’ is a living testament to the words of Jesus, “Behold, I am with you always until the end of time” (Mt 28:20). Priests and pastors who willingly, freely and lovingly submit to this sacrifice become instruments to the Lord’s faithfulness to this promise.

Three, everything is temporary and passing in our pilgrimage on earth. I remember being with a group of priests and we were on our way to the rice terraces of Banaue when we stopped by a church under the care of a Belgian missionary priest. He asked us where we were going. The most elderly priest among us almost immediately answered, “Father, we are just passing through.” I was kind of expecting the missionary priest to retort, “So am I.” He simply nodded with a knowing smile. That, for me, is what best describes not only the human condition but also the human aspect of all ministries, including that of ministerial priests. I find the grief of some parishioners, not excluding the priests themselves, over priests’ transfers not unlike the grief of the bereaved. In fact, a few days ago I saw some parishioners behave like their pastor who is being transferred to another parish has just died. There is an analogy of dying in priests’ ‘reshuffling’. But that is also where its positive note lies. I believe both priests and parishioners could take tremendous comfort from the words of the Lord himself: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Have faith in God and have faith in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions. Otherwise how could have I told you that I was preparing a place for you? I am indeed going to prepare a place for you and then I shall come back to take you with me that where I am you also may be” (Jn 14:1-4).

I must confess that I’m often tempted to tell the parishioners of my next parish that we should work together so as to make the rectory I’ll be residing in become a good ‘anticipation’ of those beautiful ‘mansions’ the Lord talks about. But then they might petition the bishop to bring their former pastor back. So, up until this writing, I have prudently chosen to keep my lips safely shut.
Those who grieve over priests’ ‘reshuffling’ say: “The trouble with hello is goodbye”. But, with those who choose the upside of ‘reshuffling’, I answer back: “The good thing with goodbye is hello.”