It could be formula for parish disaster, but

By | January 5, 2011

Maybe in most places, but not at St. Thomas More Parish.


Fr. Gerald Falk, left, and Fr. Jim Lucas, both of St. Thomas More Parish in Appleton, at an all-schools Mass in Green Bay this fall. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Fr. Gerald Falk, 81, served as pastor for 40 years. On Sept. 15, he retired and Fr. James Lucas, 44, became pastor.

However, Fr. Falk still lives in the house that was the parish rectory. He still celebrates one Mass each weekend, a couple of weekday Masses, and visits the sick. Once a week, he and Fr. Lucas have a morning meeting “for as long as it takes,” according to Fr. Lucas, to discuss the week ahead.

But it’s not what you might think: It was all Fr. Lucas’ idea.

OK, it was the Holy Spirit’s idea as Fr. Lucas tells it.

The change of leadership was announced last April, with a transition date of Sept. 15. Fr. Lucas spent the summer wrapping matters up at St. Paul Parish in Combined Locks where he had been pastor since March 2006. However, by August, there hadn’t been “much meaningful contact with Fr. Falk to discuss transitional specifics” and Fr. Lucas was growing concerned.

“I had my annual retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House (Oshkosh),” he said. “At one moment on the retreat, as I was grappling with the transition, the Holy Spirit put it on my heart, ‘Why don’t you ask Fr. Falk to stay?'”

Fr. Lucas was taken aback. “That wasn’t the plan,” he said.

Not a plan that anyone had had.

But the idea stayed firmly in his mind. So, after more prayer and consultation with his spiritual director, he approached diocesan officials.

“All along the way,” Fr. Lucas admitted, “there were concerns brought up, as well as affirmations. It was kind of a mixed bag. I just trusted the Holy Spirit.”

Meanwhile Fr. Falk had made no real plans himself; he was hoping to continue ministry to the sick, to which he had devoted much of his time over the last few years.

“I felt — well, I don’t get depressed, but I get concerned — certainly sad to go,” he admitted, “especially since I’m still strong and still able.”

He had been asked to consider helping at parishes in another part of the diocese, which he said “would have been a real adjustment.”

Then, on Aug. 18, the two priests had dinner to go over the transition. There Fr. Lucas presented his idea about Fr. Falk staying. He had an entire list of what would happen, including the most special part — that Fr. Falk would focus on ministry to the sick and dying. Fr. Falk was delighted.

So, as pastor emeritus, he visits the sick and homebound, local nursing homes and hospitals. And his ministry is more than just his parish. At Appleton Medical Center, he checks in at the ICU, where staff alert him to people who need anointing — or non-Catholics who want prayer and a blessing.

“One of the good things is that you can be present,” he said. “You have the time to be present to the sick.”

There is no confusion about who is in charge of the parish — both priests are clear on that. Fr. Falk does not have an office in the parish complex — he works out of his home. The parish bought another house nearby for Fr. Lucas’ rectory, with half the cost paid by parish members, as soon as they heard Fr. Falk would stay. Fr. Lucas handles all parish business, heads sacramental ministry and works directly with the staff.

“I’ve gone through this before,” Fr. Lucas said. “I replaced a 34-year pastor at Combined Locks. … What helped assure me here is Fr. Falk’s insistence that I would be ‘the pastor.’ … He was ready to go very far away to assure that I would be the pastor.”

Months into the transition, things seem to be running smoothly. There have been minor bumps, but what works those out, Fr. Lucas said, is “direct and honest conversation. And we have those — in private.”

Their example is good for any relationship and plays out in the parish staff dynamic and for parish meetings.

“I want to say it’s a win, win, win,” Fr. Lucas said, adding that he’s sensing a new spirit unleashed. “Our finance guy said, ‘It’s a win for Fr. Falk, it’s a win for Fr. Jim, it’s a win for the parish.’ Three wins. Usually you shoot for two wins. If you get a triple win, you go with it.”

Not that he doesn’t see potential pitfalls in this situation — and in any situation that would parallel this. St. Thomas More may be unique in making this work, he said, but “it’s really about transition, dynamics and letting go and embracing a new reality.”

For Fr. Falk, he quotes John the Baptist’s reference to Jesus: “He must increase; I must decrease'” (Jn 3:30).

He then reflects on his retirement and added, “I’m just happy to be able to serve, to be able to help people. I might be selfish, but I’m just so happy to help. … It’s a joy to serve. I can’t fathom not doing anything, not using the gift.”

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