I can't say that I expected this whole thing to actually happen.
I was coming to the end of my first pastoral assignment in St. James and Vacherie, two clustered parishes along a bend in the Mississippi River with a rich memory of being one of the landing sites of the first Acadian settlers in Louisiana. The work was good and richly fulfilling, but for the past six years I found myself a bit fatigued after trying to minister to two very different communities.
It’s always interesting to me that smaller parishes (thus far my primary experience as a priest) seem to think their physical location is in fact the locus of The Roman Catholic Church rather than Rome or even Jerusalem. This is, I suspect, because there is a strong and venerable attachment to one’s home and one’s land. This is especially true when the soil on which one’s ancestry is planted was claimed only after grueling oppression, as it has been with the Acadians (c.f. Le Grande Dérangement) and those families who can trace their lineage to the descendants of the slaves of plantations (Whitney Plantation has an excellent exhibit), many of which still stand along the mighty river often yards away from one’s present address. It’s what breeds a strong family unit — the true seedbed of religious vocations — and it usually develops a pride for one’s community and parish church. But, what happens when you’re paired with another parish (or more!) down the river (or bayou) who also holds the belief that they are the central church of our Profession of Faith?
Well, it usually manifests in a manner not unlike the episode of The Odd Couple where a line is painted straight down the middle of the apartment between Oscar and Felix. What’s on this side is mine and what’s on that side is yours. In the case of a cluster, there is a reluctance to share anything: resources, religious education curriculum, a schedule for The Holy Mass, choirs, and least of all the priest. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that parish pride is a bad thing, but in the present situation where a priest is stretched beyond what is “normal,” namely to have only one territory with its souls for which to care, it can make for a tough time for the guy who is the de facto tiebreaker: the one called, for very authentic reasons, “Father”.
I put all this into the written word, not to rant (well, maybe a bit), but because I’m not certain that a priest in this situation has ever done so before. I love the work that I do and I wouldn’t change a jot or tittle of my priestly assignments. Part of that work, though, is speaking with the voice of Christ the Prophet, which always calls for reading things as they are and seeking to call attention to God’s desired action in the midst of it. This is something that I certainly must do, but I must also allow it to be done to me.
With that in mind, I applied for a sabbatical following my term along the River.
I suspected that I would be taking on a fairly complicated new assignment (The Parishes of St. Joseph, Immaculate Heart of Mary, and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini) and remembered that we could apply in one of several categories for a sabbatical after every seven years of ministry in our diocese.
With that in mind, I began to ruminate on what this might look like. An academically centered sabbatical is the most common, with a priest submitting to a course of study to keep the mind sharp. I had heard of the Camino de Santiago or The Way of Saint James which fascinated me. It’s not strictly academic— there’s no classwork or required note-taking, but it did fall within the “spiritual” category, in much the same way one might take an extended retreat.
The first question that many ask when I say I’m going on sabbatical is “Oh, my. What’s wrong?” The term, apparently when applied to clergy alone, seems to have been a cypher for a “strongly suggested” method of treatment for some malady. I’m grateful that this isn’t the case. It’s only my own discernment in prayer that has brought about in my heart a desire to renew my priesthood and reflect upon all that God has done in the last decade. It’s not terribly easy to do in the rough and tumble daily schedule of a parish. In this way, perhaps it is a form of “preventative medicine”.
As it turns out, my schoolmate, Fr. Ryan Humphries, was also pondering a similar journey after 12 years of priesthood, and so our planning began to coincide as we mused on the possibility. His own diocese granted some time away as well and before we knew it, we were planning to make the trek together.
And so, from August 1 through the end of November of this year, I’ll be lugging my 50 liter pack (graciously loaned to me by a pilgrim who innaugurated it on his Camino a few years ago) and making for Europe.
It’s my hope (especially since the refugios along the Camino provide generally acceptable WiFi) to let you in on this priest’s journey along this ancient route. I’ll try to let you in on the thrills and the agonies, the exhilaration and the exhaustion, and perhaps even a few of the whispers from Jesus to my heart. Contrary to our world that simply lives to post details and drama, the Camino beckons the pilgrim to come to the inner room of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving so that the Lord who sees in secret may unfold a deeper path, which is not to an earthly city, but to His Heavenly Home.
I’m glad to have you along for the journey, even though this iPad weighs a LOT!