Five Years Ago Today I Became a Pastor

Fr. Joel God & Faith, Priesthood

I started my new assignment 30 miles (50 km) north of Green Bay. I had been a priest for 38 months and had never spent any significant amount of time north of Green Bay. I felt like I was being sent somewhere off the map. And three parishes! Once again September 1st falls on a Tuesday, and it is also the first day of school. It makes me look back and reflect on where I have been.

This is very much a personal milestone for me. Five years is the longest I have lived in one place in twenty years. In the back of my mind I always expect that as soon as I get comfortable, I’ll have to move. On the other hand, these strange lands now seem very much like home. I know a lot of wonderful people and we have a history together. I had a wedding for a groom whose father I had buried shortly after I arrived here. I’ve had the privilege of doing a few baptisms for children from weddings I celebrated. I just reviewed a wedding program and realized I know half the couples standing up in the wedding. It feels good to be part of a community, and part of peoples’ lives.

It was a big jump to go from being an associate to being a Pastor. Some say it’s like going from married to married-with-children. I thought I’d have a lot more figured out by now. In that way it’s probably very much like marriage: no matter how much you learn, you never really “get there” as a parent. Kids and life always seem to throw new stuff at you. I feel like I’m still learning lots every day, and there’s so much more to do than has already been done. It feels like success is more about showing up and caring and trying than about getting something done.

Speaking of getting things done, there’s been a lot in five years. My first big project was the big $85,000 renovation at St. Anthony to spruce up the church and install kneelers. It was part of the transition to the new Roman Missal (“And with your spirit,” everyone). I was very nervous about the project, but I had a good committee and it went very well. It was a good preparation for what came next when the  fire happened. It’s hard to describe how, “Father, the school is on fire!” changes your life forever. I’m now writing this from the 4th office I have had at St. Anthony in 5 years. I can’t believe we made it through, and it ended up being a big blessing.  Now we are laying the groundwork for a new church building in Oconto. Each thing I thought would kill me did in fact make me stronger, and it also prepared me for the next thing I thought would kill me.

More than anything I have been surprised at how much “my” priesthood belongs to others. The St. Anthony liturgical renovation and the fire recovery both depended on a lot of really great people who stepped up to help. Making our Bishop’s Appeal goal, the blessing of my installation Mass as Pastor, and the wonderful First Mass and Reception for the new Fr. Edward Looney are all thanks to the hard work of lots of other people. Pretty much all the ‘successes’ I can count, from the little to the big, had other people heavily involved. It’s hard to take credit for anything and still be honest.

I’ve also come to rely on God more and grown a lot spiritually. I’ve been in over my head since the first day. I’ve had to fall back on prayer because I frequently exhaust every other option. Some weeks I just live at the end of my rope. But that isn’t such a bad thing, as God and the Blessed Virgin Mary seem to really step up and help. As do Joseph, Anthony, Peter, and all my other favorite saints. I feel like I am surrounded by good and holy people on earth and in heaven, and this cloud of people you can’t see really deserves the credit for “my” successes. In the end, all I can honestly say is that I’m incredibly grateful: grateful that people welcomed me as a new pastor, have allowed me to serve as their priest, who have been patient and encouraging, and ran with good ideas. I’m hoping for another five years here. A decade would be a good run. Maybe by then I’ll have this priesthood thing figured out. But probably not.

Inspired by a parishioner (of course), here’s an adaptation of Psalm 118 to fit the occasion:

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good,
for his love endures for ever.

Let the children of Oconto say:
“His love endures for ever.”
Let the children of Oconto Falls say:
“His love endures for ever.”
Let the children of Stiles say:
“His love endures for ever.”

I called to the Lord in my distress;
he answered and freed me.
My troubles all encompassed me;
in the Lord’s name I crushed them.
They compassed me about like bees;
they blazed like a fire among school books.
In the Lord’s name I crushed them.

This day was made by the Lord;
We rejoice and are glad.

Go forward in procession with branches
even to the altar.
You are my God, I thank you.
My God, I praise you.

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good;
for his love endures for ever.