In Kansas we say: “If you don’t like the weather, just be patient. It will change soon enough.” Of course, weather changes everywhere, though perhaps not as quickly or as radically as the cold and warm fronts that sweep across the prairies. Truth is, most everything changes, even in the most unchanging parts of life.
I was charged to preach the Gospel when I ordained a deacon 36 years ago in St. Peter’s Basilica. Some of my critics would, no doubt, insist that nothing has changed in those decades of homilies. But here is something undeniably new.
This weekend I am preaching in two parishes that are both currently without a pastor—two of four such parishes in the Diocese of Dodge City. They have been without pastors since July. The priests who are scheduled to come to the United States have been delayed by a radically slowed process of granting visas.
In Kansas we say: “If you don’t like the weather, just be patient. It will change soon enough.”
The first church, Saint Joseph, is in Clark County, on the Oklahoma border. Because of the terrain, ranching is more common here than farming. That balance is reversed in Comanche County, just to the east, which is where you will find the town of Coldwater and Holy Spirit—what our diocese calls a “quasi-parish.” According to the diocesan census, there are 70 households in St. Joseph and 17 in Holy Spirit. Each is the only Catholic Church in its county.
Our bishop feels that he has asked as much as he can from our retired priests. He has himself traveled to these parishes many times while they have been without a pastor to celebrate Eucharist with them. Now he is asking all of the parishes of our diocese to send their own priests on a rotating basis to those places without a pastor.
This weekend, at a distance of 127 miles, my parishes of St. Joseph in Ellinwood and Immaculate Conception in Claflin are experiencing “Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest.” This, in a county that once claimed half of the diocese’s Catholic population and could count 11 parishes. But this weekend lay leaders are—really rather bravely—reading this homily to them and presiding over the service.
Our bishop wants us to understand that we belong to each other. Church is the people in the pew with you and the folks just down the road.
Some of those who read my words online might want to suggest that ordaining married men and women to the priesthood would solve this problem. I would only point out that scores of Protestant churches, which do ordain married and women clergy, are closing all across rural areas of America. Broadening access to ordination has not sent Protestant clergy rushing to serve poor and rural congregations. And if you are a minister raising a family, this is understandable.
Our bishop wants everyone in our diocese to see, in a rather pronounced way, our need for vocations to the priesthood. Our seminarian numbers are blessedly up, but we are enduring several seasons without an ordination. He also wants us to understand that we belong to each other. Church is the people in the pew with you and the folks just down the road.
A historical, albeit converse, precedent comes to mind. Just before the priest holds up the host and chalice, proclaiming, “Behold the Lamb of God,” have you ever noticed that he breaks off a small piece from his host and places it in the chalice? This is an inheritance from the church of Rome. Its original purpose is largely forgotten.
Think of sharing our priests as a very visible way of “staying together” while some of our rural churches contract.
After the Peace of Constantine, the number of Christians grew rapidly in the Roman metropolitan area. New churches needed to be established in suburban Rome. It was no longer possible for the entire church of Rome to gather with their pastor for one Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.
This development presented a considerable challenge. Christians receive the Body of Christ because we are the Body of Christ. Wasn’t something lost when Christians gathered in separate Eucharists, not all that far from each other?
To keep alive this powerful sense of unity, acolytes attending the bishop of Rome at his celebration of the Eucharist would receive a piece of the host from his altar and run it out to the suburban congregations where it would be commingled with their own Eucharists. The church thus found a visible, albeit symbolic, way to “stay together” even as it was growing rapidly.
In his massive classic, The Mass of the Roman Rite, the liturgical scholar Joseph Jungmann wrote:
This particle was called the fermentum. The priests dropped it into the chalice at this part of the Mass. The practice is ancient indeed. It answered to that awareness, so keen in the ancient Church, that the Eucharist was the sacramentum unitatis, that this Sacrament held the Church together, and that all the people of God subject to a bishop should, if it were possible, be gathered around that bishop’s altar and receive the Sacrament from his table of sacrifice.
Think of sharing our priests as a very visible way of “staying together” while some of our rural churches contract. The Diocese of Dodge City itself is growing because of immigration. Yet now it cannot adequately respond to the needs of this growing flock because of immigration restrictions.
There is nothing to fear. Moses found a way to keep his arms aloft. The Lord hears the prayers of the persistent. The future is bright. We Kansans know that the seasons change and that the weather never waits upon the season. Tomorrow is a new day, a new opportunity to grow. And for today, we have each other. We can share.