The letter from the bishop made it official: it was time for a change in parish assignments. Two years is actually brief, but it would be hard to leave behind people, activities and routines that had already become meaningful and dear to me. Facing the unknown, I felt restless, anxious, a curious mixture of sadness and anticipation.
For decades, the Church in our diocese has experienced changes in parishes: a few were twinned, and then many more. Triplets, clusters, and eventually Area Catholic Communities developed. As the number of priests continues to decline — and the number of participants in parish life as well — we will be asking the Holy Spirit to help us map out the next generation of parish life. Many might feel that same chemistry of restlessness, anxiety, sadness and anticipation.
Pondering the change in prayer, words clearly from Jesus came unbidden to my mind: “You’re simply going to spend time with another part of my family.” That gift of insight, simple but profound, reframed the picture and calmed my spirit.
Pope Francis famously characterized the Church as a field hospital. Today, pastors and other leaders can feel something like the emergency room doctor who did not create the challenging situation that presents itself, but now must coordinate the response under stress and mobilize resources to nurture life and healing.
Parishes and every structure in the Church share in the pattern of the Lord’s Incarnation. They exist to make present, visible and accessible the mystery of the universal Church and the mystery of salvation in Christ at an immediate level we can encounter in a human, direct way. They are our point of entry into a reality far greater than meets the eye.
Parishes are differentiated by their unique identity, history, festivals, colorful personalities and cherished customs. But connecting them all are far deeper bonds: the same creed and faith, the same sacraments, the same Scriptures, the same bond of Communion in the one Body of Christ.
One of the natural fears, especially of smaller communities, is that they will be consumed, absorbed, “eaten up” by their larger neighbors. Yet this is by no means inevitable: instead, respecting the identity and heritage of each brings us into relationships of collaboration, not competition, and we enrich one another in the larger family of God.
Those are easy words to say. The Eucharistic Revival helps create a richer image of this concern. Jesus instituted the Eucharist precisely so he could be consumed, taken in, “eaten up” by his faithful people. This does not reduce the Lord’s presence — it multiplies it. As St. Augustine put it, consuming the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ.
In his timeless work, “The Confessions,” Augustine records that as he struggled with surrendering to his mother Monica’s Christian faith, the voice of Jesus came to his mind: “I am the food of the fully grown. Grow, and you will feed on me. But you will not change it into your own substance, as you do with the food of your body. Instead, you shall be changed into me” (“The Confessions,” VII.10).
“You will be changed into me.” This is the purpose of the Eucharist. While change is always hard — even when it is something we desire — change is in fact at the very heart of Catholic life. We are called to continual, lifelong conversion and growth in our relationship with God. And in the greatest prayer we have, the “most august Sacrament” given to us through the celebration of Mass, the key moment is transubstantiation. Bread and wine are changed into the living and glorified Body and Blood of Christ. Change toward deeper communion together in God is in fact our life, our future, and our hope.
In a quote I cannot now find, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave a talk in Germany and remarked something like this: “The Lord assures us that his Church will endure forever. But he never said there would always be a Diocese of Mainz.” While we find a home and a point of entry into the mystery of God’s life through our parishes, the Church is far broader than what any one of us can experience. Though what is familiar to us may evolve into something new, the communion we have in Jesus will not be lost. Indeed, it may even become richer.
Our memories are essential in creating a sense of self, situating us in place and time and relationships. At Mass, Jesus confirms the connection between remembering and identity: “Do this in memory of me.” When we celebrate Mass, we recall and we become who we are in him: one Body, united in one communion of grace, love and mission for his Kingdom.
Changes we cannot now foresee or predict may happen in what is familiar and even dear to us. As we learn anew every Lent, change is just plain hard sometimes. May Jesus help us remember who we truly are in him, and his own purpose for choosing us.
And perhaps he is nudging us to see what some of the other folks in his family are up to.