By Fr. Thom Hennen
For the fourth year in a row I spent my Triduum and Easter at Immaculate Conception Parish in Colfax. For those of you who don’t know, Colfax is the northwestern-most parish in the Diocese of Davenport, just a half-hour drive from Des Moines.
I go there each year because Colfax does not have a resident priest. Father Jeff Belger (pastor of St. Mary parishes in Pella and Oskaloosa), currently serves as priest moderator at Colfax and Father Bill Reynolds (pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Newton) takes care of weekly Sunday Masses, funerals, etc.
Deacon Joe Dvorak holds down the fort as parish life coordinator, seeing to the day-to-day needs of the parish and serving very much as their spiritual head in the absence of a pastor. Because Christmas and Easter are particularly busy times, it has been the longstanding arrangement that the vocation director, not having a parish of his own, helps out on these high solemnities. In fact, the Colfax parishioners refer to me as their “CEO,” which stands for Christmas, Easter and occasional. I absolutely love it. As a vocation director and now part-time high school teacher it is the closest I get to feel like a regular parish priest again. Because I have been coming for a few years now, the people know me and I truly feel like a part of their community.
While I would be happy to serve indefinitely as the “CEO” of Colfax and while this setup seems to work well for this particular community, it is admittedly less than ideal.
Deacon Joe always reminds me and the parishioners that the parish is not fully what it is called to be until parishioners have a resident pastor. In the meantime, they make do — and quite well at that — proving that viability is not solely determined by the full-time presence of a priest.
Every time I visit Colfax I notice that they pray for vocations in some way in the Prayer of the Faithful at almost every Mass. I don’t think this is just because the vocation director is visiting.
Rather, I think they are perhaps more acutely aware of the need for more men and women to respond to God’s call to serve the Catholic Church in some way. Interestingly, little Colfax can boast a seminarian for the diocese when much larger parishes with one or two priests struggle to bear fruit in this way.
This is, no doubt, in part because of the Colfax parish’s deep recognition of a need for vocations, their prayer and willingness to begin to create a “culture of vocations” within their parish in myriad ways.
While I recognize that demographic changes may mean that some parishes have to be consolidated or even closed regardless of the total number of priests available, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like for some of these smaller parishes, like Colfax, to once again have resident pastors. Also, working with the seminarians and the newly ordained as I do, I know we often run into the dilemma of where to assign the newly ordained because just a handful of parishes now have parochial vicars and some larger parishes have grown accustomed to operating with just one priest. I certainly know the need to be realistic, but we should not be defeatist either. If we are only ever asking the question, “How will we manage with fewer priests?” and never dreaming about what things might look like if we had more, then we are missing something. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Somehow we need to find that place of confident hope, which eschews both impractical idealism and defeatist resignation.
While there are significant priest retirements on the horizon, on a positive note we have been in a pattern the last few years of ordaining an average of two priests per year and this looks to hold for the next few years. Also, the number of our seminarians has been slowly trending upward in the past few years from 9 to 12 to 14 and I am projecting 16 for the start of the next academic year. So, there is reason for hope.
All of this makes me think of those first disciples who in that time between the Resurrection and Pentecost had knowledge that the Lord was indeed risen, but they were too afraid to venture outside of their own little community to proclaim this good news. They were caught between fear and hope. Ultimately, hope prevailed. There is good news; let’s tell it.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or hennen @davenportdiocese.org.)