Pastoral associate reflects on 87 days in life of parish after pastor’s death

Community grieved loss of Fr. Reasoner; focused on mission  

By Michelle Tressel

Special to The Witness

CEDAR RAPIDS — Eighty-seven days. March 18 to June 12. The number of days St. Jude Parish in Cedar Rapids was without a pastor due to the unexpected death of Father Mark Reasoner. The length of time, without warning, I was the parish administrator. The number of days we awaited the naming and arrival of Father Mark Murphy, the new pastor at St. Jude Parish.

Although 87 days seemed like an extended time to wait for our new pastor, I came to recognize that each of those days was a gift from God. This gift was not to be taken for granted but rather as granted. Our parishioners needed those 87 days to grieve and to prepare our hearts and minds (and the rectory, of course) for our new pastor. God’s life and love were manifested in many ways during those 87 days. The gifts we experienced were not very conventional and not to be expected after the death of a beloved priest. 

Celebrating in Turmoil  

At our Palm Sunday liturgies, three days after Father Mark’s funeral and burial, ­Father David Schatz told the assembly that our parish community was “celebrating in turmoil.” Those were very wise words for our parish. Not only did it describe what we were experiencing and feeling but it also reminded us that the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ belong together as one reality, one mystery. Our sorrow couldn’t be separated from our celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  

The words “celebrating in turmoil” were a gift to us as we entered into triduum and celebrated the Easter season.

Father Mark Reasoner

Grieving 

Although I come from a large extended family, I couldn’t imagine how comforting it might be to be surrounded by my even larger parish family during the 87 days.  On the night Father Mark died, people showed up at the church even as late as 10:30 p.m. because they didn’t know where else to go. Although our parish seldom gathers to pray evening prayer together, we just didn’t recite words when we assembled on Tuesday evening as a parish; we prayed.  

Even weeks after Father Mark’s visitation, funeral and burial, parishioners continued to share stories, some that made us laugh and others that made us cry. As the snowbirds returned, they were welcomed back and told about the visitation, vigil, funeral and burial. There was solace in the usual rhythm of our parish activities, which began with a fish fry the day after Father Mark’s funeral. Grief too was a gift as it deepened the bonds within our parish community because we grieved together, with the support and love of each other.

Leaning on God

My calling to lead the parish was the re­sult of circumstances, certainly not because of my yearning to do so.  Therefore, I did the only thing I could do: lean on God – heavily. As a result, the hand of God guided me throughout my day, often when I least expected it. One day I was speaking with Kathleen, a parishioner, who was trying to help an African family rent a house. She was having difficulty finding an affordable rental house near Holy Family Schools. I suggested she talk with Dave, another parishioner who has a rental property. She didn’t know Dave but said she would give him a call. At that moment, I glanced up at one of the parish center windows and saw Dave walk by. She and I hurried outside to catch him. Coincidence? I believe it was the hand of God.

Many times, throughout the 87 days, a parishioner would appear at my office door or call me, after I had identified a task for which I needed a volunteer but before I could initiate any action. I became aware of talents that others had. There was an unfolding of the gifts of the baptized.

Waiting

Although I was as eager as other parishioners for a new pastor to arrive, God’s wisdom was at work when a new pastor wasn’t named right away. We needed time and space, also God’s gifts to us, to grieve and mourn our beloved Father Mark. We were given the opportunity to reflect on the paschal mystery more deeply as well as how Father Mark lived his life. We needed time to be ready in our hearts and minds for our new pastor.  

During this time of waiting, I also called on Father Mark to intercede with God on behalf of the parish he so loved. 

Continuing to Live the Gospel  

There were a few days after Father Mark’s funeral where the parish seemed to stand quietly. It was as if a collective cry and sigh needed to be released for our spiritual father. But this period of time was shortly lived. We understood that, despite our deep sorrow, we needed to continue to answer the call to live the Gospel. There was no question that weekend Masses, funerals and weddings would be celebrated. The priests in the archdiocese made sure that the sacramental life of the parish was given top priority. Although we didn’t initiate any major projects during the 87 days, parishioners continued to catechize children, to obtain furniture and household items for our immigrants and refugees, to prepare for the annual Sweet Corn Festival, to make cloth diapers for babies in our sister parish in Haiti, to take Communion weekly to  care centers and to feed the hungry via Metro Catholic Outreach. 

Looking back at those 87 days, each one was filled with God’s love and life in many ways. The days were fruitful as I saw the hand of God in ways that I hadn’t seen before. My eyes were opened to the gifts of those 87 days, including our new pastor who we have welcomed with open arms. 

Tressel is pastoral associate at St. Jude Parish in Cedar Rapids. 

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