... Father Flammia realized quickly what he needed to do, 'The first few weeks were really telling -- I saw how important it was to be here for the people who were grieving the death of their pastor.'
The events of Holy Week are a mix of unspeakable sadness and incredible hope. The story does not end on the cross, nor does it begin at the empty tomb. It is all one piece. We know how the story ends which is a blessing as we walk the Stations of the Cross or experience the barren church while we await the Easter fire on Saturday night.
The mystery of death and resurrection is seen at every Christian funeral. The familiar Preface prayer at funeral liturgies offers hope and consolation: "For your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended..." Two parishes are living this mystery this Lent and Easter. On Jan. 31, Father John Gentleman, beloved pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Manchester by the Sea, and St. John the Baptist Parish, Essex, died unexpectedly. Together with Father Paul Flammia, the temporary administrator, these parishes are mourning the death of their pastor and friend.
Father Flammia was hospital chaplain at North Shore Medical Center. He loved his work. He is now temporary administrator of both parishes. His responsibilities have changed, but he says without any hesitation, that he loves his "work." After Father Jack's death, Father Flammia realized quickly what he needed to do, "The first few weeks were really telling -- I saw how important it was to be here for the people who were grieving the death of their pastor." He resigned his position at the hospital to be full-time at the parishes. He was grieving as well. Not only had he been in residence in the parishes during his time as hospital chaplain, but he and Father Jack had been in the same Emmaus Group (priests gathered in small groups for fellowship, support, and prayer) for 20 years. A degree of trust between Father Flammia and parishioners was already established.
Father Flammia has drawn on his experience as a hospital chaplain and the Lenten readings have provided Scripture-based opportunities to explore the Christian meaning of death and grief. His Sunday homilies have incorporated elements of grief ministry. The cycle A Gospel reading of the raising of Lazarus was a rich source of comfort.
When raising Lazarus Jesus said, "Untie him and let him go." Father Flammia points out that Father Jack, too, has been set free from the burden of the health issues he carried. The parallel continues; the Gospel relates that many friends came to comfort Martha and Mary on the death of their brother. Father Flammia noted that, "Many people came to Essex and Manchester by the Sea to weep with us." Parishioners and staff felt "support and the deep experience of friendship and family."
St. John the Baptist and Sacred Heart parishes are not in a formal collaborative, but they have been working together for many years. There has been good integration. The two parishes move from space to space for Holy Week liturgies, and celebrate confirmation and first Communion together. Manchester by the Sea and Essex public schools have merged and now all middle and high school students go to school together, strengthening the bond between the parishes, especially among families with school age youngsters.
We know that death is not the end, we have our "sure and certain hope" of resurrection even as we stand at the cross on Good Friday. So, too, for the parishes of St. John the Baptist and Sacred Heart. These parishes can look ahead. Father Flammia says, "When we've moved through sadness, then we can talk about a future that's full of hope. Father Jack laid a great foundation for us to build on, and that will help us move forward toward new life, vision and hope." He also knows that Easter will be beautiful. They will celebrate Jesus' resurrection and triumph over death, confident that Father Jack's new life in the Lord began on Jan. 31.
Father Flammia modestly claims no credit for helping the parishes find their way through their sadness, saying, "There are many people who could do this," but he feels blessed that he is able to be in this place at this time. "As much as it is a privilege to do hospital ministry, it is equally a privilege to walk with the people in these parishes now."
But for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended.
SUSAN ABBOTT IS COORDINATOR OF PARISH OUTREACH FOR THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON'S OFFICE OF PASTORAL PLANNING.
Susan Abbott is the former Coordinator of Parish Outreach for the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Pastoral Planning.