Christmas Eve! What a treasury of memories - seven decades full of blessed memories - come again to mind on Christmas Eve!
This will be my 11th and final Christmas in Knoxville. In my 25 years as a priest I have had three assignments, each of which will always have a special place in my heart. But I have especially cherished these 10½ years, the people I have served here as pastor, the experiences we have shared together, and the extra opportunities which I have had as Dean and Chair of the Presbyteral Council to be more deeply involved in the larger life of the Church in East Tennessee. Here on Summit Hill in downtown Knoxville, I have been challenged to live what priesthood is for what and ministry is about. And I am grateful to the Paulist Fathers and the Diocese of Knoxville for this unique and blessed opportunity.
Of course, 2020 has been a year of unprecedented stress and challenges for everyone. My mother was taken ill on Ash Wednesday and died soon after. I made plans to fly to California to celebrate her funeral, but by then the pandemic was taking over everything. I ended up having to cancel my trip, and her funeral was indefinitely postponed - an experience many have had this year as even the traditional rituals of mourning and their attendant comforts have become casualties of this pandemic.
Soon all public Masses were suspended until the end of May, and I began my daily email to parishioners which has continued until now. Besides trying to stay safe, the practical challenges of pandemic-era ministry have been many. It took time to get up to speed on how to live-stream Mass, and we had to invest in expensive new equipment. Meanwhile, because of the pandemic, my term was extended through December 31, which also enabled me to celebrate my 25th anniversary in October in a more public way than I had originally expected - one notable bright spot in this otherwise lamentable year. (My 25th anniversary Mass was wonderful and may be watched at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liYHVmV7hxQ&t=27s).
But now the time has come for me to take my leave and move on to “Senior Ministry” at the Paulist Fathers’ Mother House in New York City. On the one hand, a part of me would have much preferred to stay as I am and echoes the lament of Call the Midwife’s Sister Monica Jones: “Once it [the Mother House] was a place where I found my new beginning. Now it is where I will likely meet my end … without the purpose that comes from engagement with the world.”
On the other hand, I must also take to heart the words of Pope Francis: “The conclusion of an ecclesial office must be considered an integral part of the service itself … This interior attitude is necessary when, for reasons of age, one must prepare to leave his position … This will allow him to calmly and trustingly take this step, which would otherwise be painful and discordant … [and] to discern in prayer how to experience the stage that is about to begin” (Motu Proprio Imparare a Congedarsi, 2018). Striving to make that agenda my own will be my great personal and vocational task for 2021 as I enter this new and uncharted stage of life!
As we approach the end of this very sad year, when almost everything we took for granted seemed to have evaporated all at once, this terrible time which has so separated and isolated us, so divided and diminished us, and so shattered all our empty illusions of individualism, national exceptionalism, and personal self-sufficiency, may He whose birth we lovingly recall and whose return we hopefully await bless us all, and may our bonds of friendship be strengthened in this new year, which we pray will be a happier and healthier one for us all!