Over the course of the weekend, we learned a few details in discussions outside of class about a reshuffle in priestly assignments that is about to take place in the Diocese of Knoxville. These transfers will mean that a few of my brothers may have to find new spiritual directors, for example, since their current one either will be or may be moved to a location that will not make it practical to continue regular direction. Some of us have grown used to having Father Christian Mathis nearby at St. Thomas the Apostle in Lenoir City when we are on formation weekends, since Father Christian sometimes says Mass for us on occasions when we do not have a priest instructor, as we have our formation sessions within the geographical boundaries of that parish. From time to time we have been known to attend Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle as a group, but we learned that Father Christian will be moving to a new assignment as the Campus Minister at East Tennessee State University, while Father Michael Cummins, who currently holds that assignment and who serves as spiritual director for one of my brother aspirants in our own deanery, will be serving (we are told) as Chaplain at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga. The clerical "shuffling" is causing some minor discomfort among some of my brothers as they will have to make adjustments in the process of their own formation. Several priests will experience reassignment in our diocese, and not a few deacons, aspirants, and laity might ask "why us and why now."
The reassignment of priests, and even of deacons from time to time, is a fact of ecclesiastical life. Learning that the reality of reassignment will impact several of our precious priests and the people of God in the parishes and ministries in which they are presently serving has caused me to reflect on the very nature of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, whether as a deacon, priest, or bishop.
When a man has answered God's call to serve the Church through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, he answers the same question from God that the Prophet Isaiah did, and when the bishop ordains a man who has answered that call, the bishop is affirming that the Church believes that the man who is asking to be ordained has given the same answer to the Lord that Isaiah gave him in Isaiah 6:5-8:
And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”
Those who answer the call to Holy Orders are truly sent. This is true whether the man in question is a deacon who is ordained and sent to minister in his own parish (or in a parish or ministry he was not expecting), a priest sent to a parish or a mission far from home, a bishop sent to a mission diocese in some far-flung and isolated place, or Jorge Bergoglio being called to Rome for a conclave and never coming home again, not as the Archbishop of Buenos Aries.
When someone submits themselves in a spirit of prayerful obedience to God's will and they accept a life of service to the Church as a large part of that will, they are accepting a certain reality that in embracing God's call to ordained life, a man's life is truly not his own any longer. For a priest, that means that he should live his life in radical imitation of Christ. He has no bride except for the Church, and he goes where he is needed-where he is sent. That sometimes means leaving communities of faith and ministries that he has grown to truly love to take up new ones where he is needed.
Deacons also have a similar sense that their lives are no longer led at their whim. Those of us who are aspirants for the deaconate know that if we are ordained, our assignment or assignments are at the bishop's discretion. We have faith that he will place us in positions that are both good for the people of God and for ourselves. Unlike priests, most deacons have what we sometimes call "one foot" in the secular world, with secular jobs, businesses, interests, or engagements in addition to our ministry...but those secular things are what we do, being a deacon will be who we are. I have noticed in myself that since I began formation in the fall of 2011, I have changed a great deal. The things that are most important to me on a daily basis have changed, the things that most matter have changed, and the things that I most desire to spend my time engaged in...those things have all changed, in some cases dramatically. Needless to say, I have no regrets about these changes, because I think God is adjusting my life to where it needs to be in order to serve him more fully. My wife was among the first people to encourage me in my own call, and that remains the case. There is a realism on my part that if ordained, I will go where I am sent. I will accept the ministry I am given, no matter how tiny and insignificant it might be.
Both Nicole and I know that if I am ordained, I will truly be "the husband of one wife" (1 Timothy 3:12)-that if anything should happen to her and I am still alive, I will never marry again. Not only is it the strict requirement of canon law, but it is a part of the charism of an ordained man that he has pledged the rest of his life to God's service. Most permanent deacons are in a unique position in that we are already married when we come before the bishop for that laying on of hands, and our wives, well, they have to agree to all of this, because if they don't, we won't be ordained.
Deacons, priests, and bishops have pledged a life of service to God, but the people of God have to cooperate in that service. That can be hard when the time comes for God to call that ordained person to their next assignment in ministry, it isn't easy to let go of a beloved pastor, minister, spiritual guide, and friend. However, a priest, a deacon, a bishop does not belong only to us, but to the whole Church, which belongs to Christ, her Divine Spouse. We all must share the gifts that we have in order that the whole Church may benefit, more souls may be added to God's Kingdom, and we might reach heaven having done all that we could to help the Church in this divine mandate.
It means that sometimes ministries will change as needs arise, but the goal of the Church remains the same. We are here to bring the Kingdom of God more fully to fruition, even if it means sacrificing for the sake of that Kingdom