A work in progress

On March 11, 2013, my priesthood and life took a surprising turn. That was the day the Vicar General and Director of Clergy Personnel of the archdiocese delivered the news that Cardinal Seán had chosen me to become the pastor of the Lynnfield Catholic Collaborative, one of the first 12 collaboratives slated to implement Disciples in Mission. The parishes and parochial school included in this particular collaborative were very familiar to me: my first assignment as a priest was Our Lady of the Assumption Parish and School; and during my 12 years on the St. John's Seminary faculty, I celebrated weekend Mass at St. Maria Goretti Parish. But the new model of parish life was both unfamiliar and daunting to me -- there was no blueprint to follow or guarantee of success. After hearing about my impending change of assignment, I spent a few days thinking and praying about this unexpected development in my life. I had spent 10 happy years as the pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in North Chelmsford, had watched that parish blossom in many ways, and would have been content to serve there for another decade. But over the years, I had learned that when the Holy Spirit moves in the Church and the bishop calls you to serve elsewhere; it is best to say "yes," and begin to move on. So, I did.

After a whirlwind three months of saying my tearful goodbyes to the staff and people of St. John's; having several informative and helpful meetings with Father Tom Powers, the outgoing pastor of the two parishes and school in Lynnfield; attending some initial gatherings of parish leaders with whom I would shortly be working; participating in an energizing two-week training program (jokingly nicknamed the "boot-camp") for pastors of the first 12 collaboratives; receiving word that Father Tony Luongo was appointed to be my parochial vicar; and packing my bags, I moved to Lynnfield and began my new assignment on the first Tuesday in June 2013.

To say that the first year or two of the new born collaborative was challenging is an understatement, but frankly I have learned that Disciples in Mission is not for the faint of heart. It beckons us to shift our pastoral strategy: from one that seeks to maintain the status quo as best we can, to one that reaches out to people in new ways with the resources of our Catholic faith to form committed disciples -- a tall order indeed, especially since evangelization is hard work in New England, where the secular headwinds are quite strong. But with the capable help of many representatives of the Pastoral Center and the wise counsel of lay leaders of our parishes, I made some decisions regarding the roles and personnel we would need to carry out Disciples in Mission. These decisions were difficult to make, and perhaps even harder to accept for some of our people, especially when long-serving staff members took their leave. We also engaged in a process to change our Mass times in the two parishes so that they became manageable for the residential priests and as convenient as possible for the faithful. In the first few years, there were bumps in the road (such as some financial struggles and maintenance issues, including 20 leaks in a church hall heating system!) and resistance to change in some quarters, but from day one I tried to keep in mind the advice we received during our training: "think outside the box," "don't be afraid to take some risks and try something new, even if it fails." I admit that I was on my knees a lot those first few years, not only praying for God's help in remaining patient and resolute in making Disciples in Mission a reality in our collaborative and but for the grace to care for my parents in the last few years of their lives. Now four years into collaborative life, I think it is fair to say we have definitely made progress, especially in enhancing the weekend experience for our people through family liturgies and socials, improving our print and electronic communication, promoting vocations to the priesthood, expanding the scope of our faith formation programs, integrating our excellent parochial school into parish life, growing our finances, and reaching out to those who have been missing from our pews.

In retrospect, the blessings of my four collaborative years are now too many to mention. Chief among them is the opportunity to serve together with a talented team of deacons and lay men and women to assist us priests. Our collaborative has produced a pastoral plan that is inspiring and forward-looking. More of our parishioners are responding to their baptismal call to serve the Lord and his Church. But perhaps the biggest blessing in this surprising turn in my priesthood and life is a valuable lesson Disciples in Mission has taught me: to be an effective priest today, one first has to be an intentional disciple of the Lord. Like my collaborative, I too am a work in progress.