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Transfer a Ritual that Calls for Celebration, Even during Pandemic

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Father David BonnarRituals have been among the many casualties of this ongoing pandemic. Rituals define, express, feed and celebrate some of the realities of our lives. On the surface, these repeated actions may seem ordinary, but many of them point us to what is extraordinary.

Perhaps the greatest loss of ritual in this time centers on the public Mass. For three months, we as Catholics had to resort to electronic media to enter into this greatest of rituals.

The pandemic has made it nearly impossible to ritualize so many poignant sacramental moments in our lives such as baptisms, first holy Communions, weddings, funerals and ordinations.

When a priest is reassigned, it is a custom to ritualize the departure. Usually, the ritual involves a Mass or prayer service followed by a reception. The ritual is good, not only for the faithful, but also for the priest himself. Such a ritual is designed to mark an ending always with a new beginning for everyone involved. In addition, these transfers remind everyone that a priest’s vocation is not to a particular assignment or parish but to the diocese based on the needs of the Church at the discretion of the bishop. I will never forget the immortal words of my seminary rector who said, “Gentlemen, the needs of the Church are always greater than our own.”

On July 1, 2020, I will begin a new assignment. I have been appointed pastor of a newly merged parish, St. Aidan, in Wexford, Pennsylvania. While I wholeheartedly accept this new charge 26 miles away, I must, in my humanness, confess that it is hard emotionally to leave a community that has been my family and home for the last 11 years.

Several weeks ago, my pastoral associate approached me and said that the staff wanted to plan a farewell. At first, I was reluctant to have one because of the pandemic. I did not want to put anyone in danger of catching the virus. In the end, I consented to a modified farewell in the form of a parade for the faithful followed by a socially-distant dinner with the staff.

For nearly one hour, a parade of cars, including a fire truck with flashing lights and a siren, no less, came through the church parking lot. Cars were decorated with all kinds of greetings and best wishes. One by one, the cars approached the tent under which I stood. Of course, there were people whom I expected to see. But there were also some real surprises that included people I never knew I had touched. There were families whose children I had baptized and family members I had buried. There were couples whose marriages I had officiated. I also saw some of the daily Mass attendees, and then there were people who I got to know in some other way. I recall seeing some walking miracles — people who I anointed when they were very seriously ill but now enjoy the fullness of health. The whole experience was humbling and validating. I could now see so clearly God’s grace and the fact that this was where I was supposed to be for the last 11 years. At the same time, I began to feel energized about meeting and serving a whole new community.

The transfer of a priest is a ritual that, even in a pandemic, needs to be celebrated. I am so grateful not just for the parade of loving parishioners but also for the outpouring of God’s grace that I witnessed firsthand in this emotional ritual.

FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 16 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. Follow and like The Priest magazine on Facebook.

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