The priest must journey on

Fr John Deighan explains what it’s really like for a priest to move parishes.

When my bishop told me I would be moving this year, it didn’t come as a shock.

I’d spent two years in Milton of Campsie and six in Lennoxtown. Eight happy years in the Campsie area spent among beautiful scenery and kind-hearted people.

But eight years is quite a long time for a first appointment: once the ship had been steadied after Covid, I suspected my days at St Machan’s, St Paul’s and St Dominic’s might be numbered.

Packing was relatively painless. Saying goodbye to people and places I’d come to know and love was a bit harder, but that (I reminded myself) is what we priests sign up to.

My new assignment – Broxburn and Winchburgh, two growing settlements near Edinburgh – would bring me closer to my parents, my sister, my brother, his wife and their month-old son. It might (I had been told and very much hoped) mean fewer rainy days. And there would be new friends to make, new places to call home.

Scripture wisely tells us, ‘There is a time for everything’ (Ecc 3:1). Well, this was simply the time for moving on. Or as the same text puts it, ‘a time for uprooting’ (Ecc 3:2).

Speaking of roots: I think priests can and should get to know the places where they minister. Not just the parish, but the wider community. Not just local history, but the locals.

However, we can’t afford to put down deep roots. The deeper we root our- selves in a locality, the more difficult it gets to pull those roots up when the gardener (God or the bishop, it’s the same thing) gives the order. To some extent, we have to exist on the surface.

That’s my experience of it, anyway. A bit like the good Lord himself, we go round all the towns and villages. We preach the Word and minister to the people. But we can’t fully embed ourselves.

‘Today and tomorrow and the next day, I must journey on’ (Luke 13:33). Is the life of a diocesan priest therefore one of continual rootlessness? Other priests can speak for themselves, but I wouldn’t say so.

This passage from the Letter to the Hebrews may help me explain myself: By faith, Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.

By faith he made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob (Heb 11:8-9). ‘By faith he made his home’ is the bit that really resonates. It’s not that we priests lack a sense of home and of rootedness. It’s just that we find those things exclusively in God, not in any specific place.

I see that I’ve lapsed into speaking on behalf of other priests. Maybe that’s because I hope other priests do share the experience I’m talking about: the experience of being an itinerant, yet, through Faith, feeling at home wherever you go.

Paul Young sang that home was wherever he lay his hat. Well, for me, home is wherever I say the Mass. Coming into a new house, get- ting lost on the way back to the presbytery, not knowing where to walk the dog, having to ask my way to the local Co-Op…There’s no denying it was quite disorientating.

I’m still finding my feet. But celebrating Mass was a powerful and immediate experience of home. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t quite on the same page as my servers or that I couldn’t find the light switches or turn the mic on. Well, it maybe did to the folk… but the point I’m making is, it didn’t to me. It was the Mass. It was the Lord. It was home.

It helps that the new parish has made me very welcome – both parishes, I should say, as I now have two independent parishes, another big psychological adjustment to make. Before long, I hope, the faces, the names and the streets will become familiar. But for now, I’ve hung up my hat and said my first Mass. That’s enough.

Fr John Deighan is a priest of the Archdiocese of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh.

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