Posted November 13, 2015:
A Pastor’s Story

by Fr. Tom Rowland.

In 1964, I was the contented pastor of a small country parish in West Texas. One day during the early months of that year I read in an article in our diocesan newspaper that a new parish was being created by a religious order in the heart of the biggest city in the diocese.

As I glanced at the architect’s drawings of the large complex they were planning to build, I casually thought, "That’s nice," and promptly forgot about it.

Then on Holy Thursday, our bishop told me that he had decided to make that parish a diocesan one, and that he was appointing me the pastor! I was to go there in ten days!

My immediate reaction was, "Whoa! This is not for me." It was going to be a big parish—about 35,000 parishioners for a start. It certainly looked like more than I could handle—especially since I wasn’t fluent in Spanish. But I was assigned, and I went.

My opinion of the situation was vividly confirmed at the end of my first month, when a poor elderly lady stopped me in the parking lot of the old chapel. She told me in Spanish, and in no uncertain terms, what she thought of the bishop.

He had taken away "the good, holy order priests who had served them so well for so long" and sent instead a diocesan, a secular priest. "And everybody knows that they are no equal to the wonderful order priests!"

And he hadn’t even sent a Mexican! "He sent you! You are not one of us. You’re a gringo, a blondie! And you can’t even speak Spanish correctly! We don’t know you, and we don’t want you here!"

Then she stopped, took a deep breath and asked, "Could you lend me five dollars?" So I pulled out my wallet and gave her five dollars. She then took out her pledge envelope for the building fund, put the five dollars in it, and handed it to me!

This little old lady continued to "pay her pledge" the same way every month for the rest of the year. By the end of the time, she did admit that maybe there was some faint possibility that I might be worth something.

I must admit that in that parish my pride and ambition were taking over. By God, I was going to make a success of this assignment, no matter what some of the people said!

But though I said, "By God," the reality was that I was relying much more on Tom Rowland than I was on God.

But in spite of this, God did allow some measure of success. By the Lent of 1966, the new church building, which seated over 1000, was completed, and things were going fairly well. I was starting to feel that maybe I was getting somewhere. Notice: I was getting somewhere.

Well, the Saturday after Easter, as I finished the third wedding Mass that morning, I made it to the sacristy and collapsed. I was brought to the hospital.

They brought me a psychiatrist, who prescribed heavy doses of Valium and gave me strict orders to find someone else to take care of the parish. The only thing I was allowed to do was to say Mass. And I was to stay, not in the rectory but in the home of a wonderful family who were to make sure that I follow his orders.

After a while of this treatment, I attended a Diocesan Catholic Women’s convention, and people there were remarking "Oh Father, you look so peaceful," and "It looks like the treatment is helping you." Those words made me cringe.

After I got home I went to my family doctor, a general practitioner, who was a good friend of mine. I told him what happened at the convention.

"Everyone said that I am so peaceful, but I am not peaceful at all. I am nothing but a robot. I hate this walking around in a haze. I don’t feel anything. I want to be alive! I want my life to be meaningful."

He asked me what I was doing for recreation. I answered that the psychiatrist had decided that the best exercise for me was bowling because knocking down the pins would help get the aggression out of me. But everybody works during the day, and there was nobody to bowl with me.

"Fortunately I’m ambidextrous," I told him. "So I bowl against myself—left hand against right. Sometimes ‘leftie’ wins and sometimes ‘rightie’. I’m bored sick."

"Well, what do you want to do for recreation?" he asked. "I want to start flying again, but I can’t do that while taking these drugs." Flying a small plane was what I really enjoyed.

So my doctor, who just happened to be a Federal Aviation Administration medical examiner, told me to stop taking the Valium and come back in a month. By then the drug would be out of my system, and he would reinstate my medical certificate.

He told me that I should fly, preferably with another pilot, whenever I needed to relax. He also said that I should begin to do some work and let the family I was living with be the judge as to when I was trying to do too much.

Then he said, "Father, you have told me any number of times that after your annual retreat the retreat master always says to you, ‘Tom, why don’t you stop trying to do everything yourself? Why don’t you let God do something?’

"You need to slow down, and you need to become like young Samuel. Turn to the Lord and say, Speak Lord, your servant is listening (1 Sam 3:9).

"I want you to make the decision that before you do anything—make any decision whatsoever—you stop and ask God what he wants you to do."

In theory, I had known that this is the way to live my Christian life, as well as my priestly one, but to have my doctor tell me…. Well it changed my life.

Gradually I learned that it didn’t matter whether I pleased all the people in the parish or not. It didn’t matter whether I proved to them or to myself that I was capable of doing the job. What mattered was doing God’s will.

The strange thing is that when I finally began to see this and try it, a new spirit came over the parish. The people stopped doing what I told them to just because I was telling them to do it. Instead we began working together trying to do what God wanted us to do.

The parish came alive. We set up neighborhood groups and through the groups many new parish activities were started. We were all working together for the honor and glory of God.

I still had as much work to do as before—in fact, even more! I was still working long hours. I was still tired and still became disappointed when things didn’t work out the way I had hoped. I still felt inadequate because I didn’t speak Spanish well. But now I knew that none of that really mattered.

I wish I could say that I have never fallen back into that trap of self-importance. That would make a nice ending to this story, but it wouldn’t be true.

Like everyone else, I need to keep coming back to that great lesson that Catherine gave us: what we do matters, but not very much. Knowing who we are, creatures dependent on God for everything, and living in loving relationship with him, is everything.

—Reprinted from Restoration, May-June 2004


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