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A priest's perspective: Change is never easy

06-12-2017

My first year as Catholic campus minister at Duke University was difficult. I had been a campus minister a while back at UNC-Chapel Hill, but the Duke culture was different. Sometime early in the second semester a student came to my office; he was a sophomore or junior. He asked to close my office door so we could speak more privately. "You don't belong here," he informed me. "We have decided it's time for you to leave. You are probably a good priest, but you don't know how to minister to students at Duke."

I admired his courage but did not agree with his conclusion. "You are correct in observing that I don't know what I'm doing," I told him. "But what I know that you don't is that I can learn. You are comparing me in my first year with my predecessor in his ninth year. I am confident that I will learn how to be a good campus minister at Duke." 

He left disagreeing with me, but I was determined to prove him wrong.

I think of this as we in the Diocese of Raleigh are awaiting a new bishop. People are wondering who he will be. People are hoping he will be "a good bishop.” That means different things to different people. Whoever he is, he won't meet everyone's expectations. Similar conversations are happening in my parish. I'm going to retire as pastor of St. Therese Parish in Wrightsville Beach June 26. Parishioners are hoping their new pastor will be holy, give excellent but short homilies, have a great personality and be available.

It is difficult to move to a new assignment, leaving what has become home and moving into a new circumstance. While usually positive, the new place is different—different house, different church and office, different people, different culture. We leave our support system of friends, have to decide where to shop and have a car serviced, as well as which doctor, dentist and barber to see. We will work with a new staff, new parish leadership and new parish culture.

The faith community in parish or diocese is grieving the loss of their pastor or bishop, respectively. If they liked him, they feel somewhat abandoned. Even if they didn't like him, they had grown accustomed to his style. Change is never easy—for the priest or bishop and the community he serves.

This Easter season we reflected on the Acts of the Apostles and the development of the early Church. As we anticipated Pentecost, we remembered that we rely on the Holy Spirit to guide the Church. We are God's people; God is in charge. And God will not let us down. Our community is imperfect; our leaders are imperfect. It has been that way from the beginning.

I am praying for our new bishop and for the pastor who will succeed me. I pray that the people of our Church will welcome them, support them, give them some slack and accept their particular gifts. 

I was privileged to serve with Bishops Waters, Gossman and Burbidge. They were very different from one another. Each had his strengths and weaknesses. I know that each did his very best to serve the Diocese of Raleigh. I personally knew 13 of the pastors who preceded me at St. Therese Church. All were very different. All gave their best. 

The priests and bishops who serve us are generous men. None are perfect. We will like some better than others, and members of our community will differ in their opinions. Some people really like me and others do not.

Father Joseph Vetter was director of communications in the Diocese of Raleigh from 1977 – 1988. He served as editor of N.C. Catholic newspaper from 1976 – 1982. He retires June 26 after 44 years of priestly service.