Dear Father Joe: My parish has merged with another one and everything is changing. I feel leftout and I am considering leaving the Church altogether. Why should I stay?
God bless you - what a difficult time. As a priest, I’ve been a part of a merger and am currently assigned to two parishes, so I have some understanding of the pain you are going through.
A reality of our life right now as American Catholics is that we are low on priests. In some places, the news is better for our long-term future, as we have a goodly amount of young men studying for the priesthood, but the current situation is difficult. Also, some parishes become financially unable to continue, resulting in closure. A reality of this situation is that we are going to have to close parishes.
So, what do we do when our beloved parish merges with another and the inevitable time of change comes? I’d invite you at this time to think of two important questions and see if walking through the answers to these doesn’t bring you some comfort.
The first question is this - what have you lost?
You’ve lost your beloved parish. It’s right that this feels like a tragedy to you - it is a tragedy. It is sad that parishes have to close, merge or cluster. You should mourn - you’ve lost something beautiful. It may seem strange, but the fact is a parish closing or merging is like a death of a friend or parent. The absence is so vast at times as to constitute a presence. We feel the loss of our parish in our bones and that is a testament to how important and life-giving the parish was and is. To not mourn would be a disservice.
So, how do we deal with losses such as these? Through prayer - of gratitude and petition.
Thank God for the life-giving, life-changing things that happened in your parish. Thank God for the faithful priests and community members who called you to holiness. Most of all, thank God for the sacraments that were shared in your parish. And express gratitude to God for the gift he gave you in your parish. The more we mourn, the more we cry out in gratitude for what we had.
Offer God prayers of petition: “Lord, help me to deal with this. Give me patience. Help me to heal up from my wounds.
Carry me today. Soothe my anger, calm my fears. Help me to trust you. Help me to believe that you are in charge and will always take me to a good place. Guide me to believe that you are present.” When we pray, we aren’t seeking to change God’s mind, we’re inviting him into the various situations and circumstances that come up, and we’re asking him to change us.
Now, I’ll invite you to look at the second question - what haven’t you lost?
You haven’t lost Jesus. You haven’t lost your Catholic faith. Think of it this way - your parish is closed and the pain from that is very real, but I invite you in this moment to remember that what made your parish so life-giving has a name, and that name is Jesus. In the Book of Romans, it says “All good gifts come from God.” Your parish was a good gift from God and he never abandons us.
As you sit and work through all this in a spirit of thanksgiving and petition to God, don’t forget that behind it all is Jesus who loves you and will never abandon you. It appears as if, now, your mission is not only to love your former parish, but help God build a new one.
You can, by God’s grace, take all the faith, emotion and memory of your former parish and use it as a fuel to cooperate with God and be a part of creating something that the next generation will experience as life-giving, life-changing and holy. One of the blessings and challenges of our Catholic faith is that we are one body by God’s grace. We are all connected, and this is apparently a time in your life when God needs you to help build a place of blessings and memories for others.
Thus far in your life, it seems that God’s call to and for you was and is to receive - to enjoy the gift of God’s grace, love and mercy by receiving him in your former parish community. Now, it appears is if this is your time to take what you have received and give. It is your time to give and help God build this new reality, which will be a place for others to receive. Jump into this with both feet and don’t look back. Don’t give in to a defeatist spirit or let that which was beautiful about the old parish die. Show, through your love and support of this new reality, that the best things about your former parish are not temporal, but eternal. They are not affected by location, name or physical boundaries - they are limitless and wrought through God working in each person.
Join a council or a parish ministry. Bring with you to those places the love and light that sustained you. Watch as people draw strength from your example and something extraordinary is born.
Jesus was laid in the tomb - all the sin and guilt of the human race put him there. But it was not enough to keep him there. He rose. Love won. The light shined on in darkness. That same reality is present to you now. Sit in the tomb and weep: acknowledge your loss. Then, let God lead you out into the light and the promise of resurrection. I’ll be praying for you.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!
If you’d like to submit a question for Father Joe to consider in a future column, please send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Father Joe is unable to personally answer questions.