Generations Growing in Faith

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Beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul. He guides me in right paths for his name's sake.

-Psalm 23:2-3


FR. JIM'S RECOLLECTIONS FROM TWENY YEARS AGO

Twenty years ago, this summer, I was fuming and preparing to begin my assignment as pastor of St. Dominic in October.  In March that year, my cousin, Dan Burke, who was very active in the athletic program here, called me in Washington D.C. to tell me that Jack Kaising, the pastor of St. Dominic was just named a bishop, and would I please consider coming to Delhi as pastor! He begged me. I told him that were it next spring, I would consider it.  My plans were to finish up my ministry at the National Catholic Educational Association Seminary Department, find someone to do my job with the help of a search committee, do a seminary retreat for the Florida seminary in January, check out the open listings for parishes in the spring, nominate myself for a parish, and take leave appropriately of my seminary friends, before returning to Cincinnati in the Spring (2001). 

On May 17, 2000, I got a call from Bishop Carl Moeddel, the priest personnel director, that would change my life.  Archbishop Dan Pilarzcyk wanted me to be pastor of St. Dominic!  He expected me to say “yes!”  I was expecting to have some say in where I pastored with the open listing.  I called the Archbishop to make sure this was his wish even though I did not want it. He said to me, “Not everyone can do St. Dominic!”  St. Dominic had the reputation of being “an athletic program with a parish attached!”.  Moreover, the west side was not noted for it’s enthusiastic welcome of the reforms of Vatican II!  Would I say yes?  I told him I would only if he held me to my promise of obedience at ordination.  I wanted the record to show that I was not choosing this assignment!  That is how I came to St. Dominic twenty years ago.  I felt manipulated, disrespected, coerced, and on the wrong end of abusive power.  That summer of 2000 I was not at peace.  I could not sleep. 

My assignment as pastor was to begin October 1.  In July, I came home to see my mom.  During that time, I met with Greg Konerman, the associate pastor.  He told me about the strategic plan that the parish was engaged in. He also gave me a tour of the rectory, the church, and the school.  I was impressed with his goodness, competence, and maturity.  I talked with Sr. Patrick Ann, the principal.  I was impressed with her holiness and competence, and her practice of having the school kids spend some time in silent reflection at the end of the school day!  It was like a Jesuit “examination of consciousness,” i.e. where was God in this school day?  I met Marilyn Brunemann and Pat Anderson on the parish staff.  They gave me a warm welcome.  I also met Bill Rasmussen for lunch.  Bill was the president of the parish council.  He was a faith-filled man!  I really liked him.  We had a good meeting about the state of the parish and the strategic plan.  He later told Sr. Patrick Ann that he thought I was “the spiritual leader we need.”  That was encouraging to hear.  I was not impressed by the rectory.  That Sunday I went to the 11:00 a.m. Mass and sat incognito in the back!  My heart sank!  Fr. Ted Ross, a Sunday-help priest, was raging and ranting in the homily.  The music was uninspiring, and the people seemed bored.  I had the sense that here was a people without a shepherd.  I did not sleep at all that night!  I had a lot of anger and bitterness and desire for revenge.  I would show Dan and Carl!  I was 58!  I resolved to retire the day I turned 65!

Back in D.C., Sr. Joan Fronc, O.P., my good friend from New York, helped me work through the shock, the anger, and the grief.  With many phone calls I was able to voice my frustration and feelings of being pressured and manipulated.  She listened down the anger and was a true blessing to me during this difficult time.  My NCEA friends also helped me work through this.  During the summer I came to realize that the anger and revenge were all coming from the “unredeemed” part of me, the ego centered me!  This was not coming from my authentic self!  This was not “Jimmy Joe, the beloved son!”  Yes, this was a cross not of my choosing.  But crosses are seldom chosen.  That is what makes them a cross!

I also realized that this was a time of deprivation and loss, a time for grieving.  I had put my stamp on things in my NCEA ministry.  Now I would be starting from ground zero.  There was nothing of me at St. Dominic yet!  I realized that the enthusiasm would come! I remembered the words of Bill Rasmussen, “I think he is the spiritual leader we need!”  That’s it!  Spiritual means “of the Spirit!”  the enthusiasm will come from the Spirit!  I cannot let Dan or Carl determine my life or who I am.  I am no longer “executive director,” or “president/rector!”  I am “Jimmy Joe!”  How does God’s beloved son react to this?   

By the end of the summer, 2000, I was able to write a letter to my representative on the personnel board, with a copy to Dan Pilarczyk and Carl Moeddel.  I expressed  my disappointment with the process of my assignment and feeling disrespected.  I had no input into the assignment, and little if any choice in the matter.  Moreover, I was the only priest not able to make use of the open listing policy!  I concluded the letter this way!  “I believe the archbishop has the final word in assignments, but not the only word!  I also believe the exchange of words should take place in the context of dialogue and mutuality.  But on a deeper level, I believe that God is in this!  I believe that God is calling me to be pastor of St. Dominic Parish!  With God’s grace I will do it well!  I look forward to loving and serving the people of the parish!  Sincerely in Christ, Jim Walsh.”

I have been reliving the summer of 2000, as I have been reading my journals from that time.  With the help of friends, I was working through the transition from the National Catholic Educational Association to St. Dominic.  I knew I still needed the gift of forgiveness toward Archbishop Pilarczyk and Bishop Carl Moeddel.  Back in Washington, the NCEA staff had a nice farewell celebration for me.  They had a catered lunch in our Georgetown office courtyard with some speeches and presentations.  They sang to me the Irish blessing!  I was moved to tears as I realized that I loved these people and would miss them.  I also realized that I would miss this very significant and rewarding ministry in my life!  It took NCEA a while to find a new director.  I did not know at the time that I would be directing the Seminary Department from a distance for the next eighteen months, at the same time being pastor of St. Dominic!  

What is the proper response to the coercive, abusive, use of power?  That is a question I struggled with intellectually in the summer of 2000!  It was clear to me that if I knew the authority was abusing power and commanding me to  go against the ten commandments or to do something seriously immoral, I would have to publicly denounce the one in authority and refuse to obey.  But what about the authority assigning me to a parish and my promise of obedience?  I judged that the archbishop was abusing his power by not acting in a participatory manner, and “lording it over” me.  Was my obedience being codependent to the archbishop’s need to control and exert power over me?

I came to the conclusion that it is appropriate to obey when there are values at stake that supersede the perceived dysfunction, or values that supersede the value of refusing to obey!  There was such a value for me in the summer of 2000!  It was my belief that God was present and active amongst the people of St. Dominic!  It was my growing realization that, despite the dysfunction of the process, God was calling me to serve that movement of God as priest and pastor of St. Dominic!  With God’s help I was able to be at peace with obeying and accepting the assignment!

Fr. Gene Carmichael, a Jesuit from Xavier, was my spiritual director.  He had directed me on a memorable retreat at Milford in 1978.  On that retreat I realized that God called me “Jimmy Joe,” and that I was a beloved son of the Father! 

In 2000, I went to him to help me sort out where God was and what God was doing in my assignment to St. Dominic!  I told him of my frustration with the process and my anger at Archbishop Dan Pilarczyk.  After I spent the first fifteen minutes of our session venting, he just smiled and said, “How brilliant of Dan!” He then went on to tell me why he thought my assignment to St. Dominic was a blessing for the church on the Westside.  His words got me to thinking that maybe Dan wasn’t abusing his power in assigning me to St. Dominic.  Maybe he was just doing his job!  Gene predicted that the assignment would be a blessing for the parish.  You all know that it has certainly turned out to be a blessing for me!

I arrived at the parish, on Sunday, October 1 at 8:00 p.m.  Steve Patton was locking up church and gave me a warm welcome.  He helped me carry things to my room in the rectory.  He turned out to be the welcoming committee. 

That week the school kids had a welcome celebration for me on the playground.  They planted a young tree on the bank near Vitt, Stermer and Anderson.  Look at how it has grown!  Birds of the air come and nest there!  The tree was a symbol of the school motto: “A Place to Grow!”  The celebration ended with an ice cream social.  The kids loved it.  I was touched!  One kid remarked: “This sure beats school!” 

I experienced God’s invitation and challenge in the event!  I told the children: “This tree will grow bigger, so will you!  I hope we will all grow better!  By learning more!  By loving God and one another better!  God will be present and active in our life together!  We need to be in touch, and respond, and be grateful!”        

The weekend of October 7/8, twenty years ago, I celebrated my first Mass at St. Dominic and preached at all the Masses.  I introduced myself and thanked those I had already met for their warm welcome.  Bill Rasmussen, the president of the parish council, and I worked out a commissioning service for me that involved Bill and the congregation doing the commissioning.  I thought that was more appropriate than having the Dean of the St. Lawrence Deanery coming to do it.

In my preaching on that day I made these points:  “ My energy at first will go toward joining the parish, before trying to lead it.  Listening and getting the feel of the life here at St. Dominic!  Getting to know what goes on around here in the name of Jesus!  Where people are finding life!”

“As pastor, I will count on the dynamic and active presence of God!  God, alive and active in the events and circumstances of our lives, is the best thing we have going for us as a parish!  God is in our midst, loving us, challenging us, and inspiring us.  I have already experienced it!  In your welcoming me, I have recognized God loving me.  Telling me it is going to be alright.  I said good-bye to friends in Washington.  God will give me new ones!   In your acceptance and trust of me without knowing me, I have recognized God inspiring me to be worthy of that trust.”

As I look back on this first week and today, I have recognized your welcome of me as God’s way of loving me!  My prayer is that at some time you will be able to look upon my coming to St. Dominic as God’s way of loving you! 

Fr. Jim