He was not the priest we would have chosen had anyone asked, but now that he's leaving ...
I don’t like change, and a new man stood in front of us that Sunday. My first response as he introduced himself was that canon law used to forbid priests having mustaches. My wife and I had liked our pastor a great deal. We liked his more formal celebration of the Mass and his logical, clearly doctrinal preaching, and his feeling that he had something we had to hear whether we wanted to hear it or not.
This new fellow, who was he? What was he? What would he change that we liked? This new guy wouldn’t be Fr. Mike, that we knew for sure.
We were right. Fr. Rich Jones wasn’t Fr. Mike. He preached from the aisle and his homilies tended to wander. He wasn’t nearly so interested in teaching as Fr. Mike had been. We sang fewer and fewer of the great old hymns from the St. Michael Hymnal and it eventually disappeared from the pews. We sang more songs that made me think dark thoughts about the ’70s. Though he wasn’t by any means irreverent, Fr. Rich wasn’t quite as formal as Fr. Mike when he celebrated the Mass.
Not the priest we would have chosen had anyone asked. I suspect now we responded that way because he didn’t fit our vestigial Episcopalianism the way Fr. Mike had done. However we felt, we knew that St. Joseph’s was our church and he was our pastor, so that was that. We’d deal.
Ten years later, the announcement that he’d be leaving us in just a month caused me pain right in the center of my chest. My wife had been sick and when I told her later, she said the saddest “Oh” I have ever heard.
To lose a priest you love
It’s very hard to lose a priest you’ve grown to love. Mass at St. Joseph’s always made me happy, not just because the Mass is the Mass, but because it was Fr. Rich’s Mass. Jesus was there, not just in the Sacrament but in the way he spoke and the way he celebrated and the way he talked to people afterwards.
I’ve pondered what changed in the 10 years we had him as our pastor. He’d changed, as anyone who takes seriously what he’s doing will, especially if he also loves it, as Fr. Rich clearly does. He started preaching from the pulpit with a manuscript, which I heartily approved. The homilies grew better organized, and I’m pretty sure they got deeper, though I can’t remember the early ones enough to be certain.
We had the benefit of his counsel in confession. I appreciated the way he comforted but also pushed, and sometimes pushed but also comforted. With him on the other side of the screen, I felt that, as my Evangelical friends put it, I was doing business with God.
We had his example of prayer, too. I remember sitting in church between the end of Wednesday evening confession and the beginning of Mass, seeing him kneel a few pews in front of me and pray before the Sacrament. He looked rapt. Once I arrived just at the end of confession as he was leaving the confessional. My fault entirely, but he went back in, with a look of pain. Not annoyance, which I would have understood. I realized later he really wanted to go pray.
The Wednesday evening Mass was Marian. We found his devotion to the Blessed Mother moving, but I found even more compelling how natural it was. He spoke of her and to her as to a real person right here with us. This may not seem a big thing, but we came to the Church from a Christian tradition whose piety was partly performative, as academics say. If you spoke to Mary, not that many did, you spoke to her as if you were taking part in a ritual, not as if you were speaking to your mother. Fr. Rich spoke to his Mother.
I didn’t expect any of this when we met Fr. Rich that first Sunday and for many months after that. I didn’t expect we’d feel the way we do now when he’s being moved to another assignment. Here’s what I think happened: We had for 10 years a priest who loved Jesus and his ministry and his people. You will grow to love a man like that. Thank you for being our pastor, Fr. Rich.