I had never been through it before. And when it came down to that last moment – a moment to say goodbye, I didn’t handle it as well as I thought I would. I choked up. With a small line behind me, my two young daughters clinging to my legs, and my wife beside me, I literally began to cry as I said goodbye. Father Michael Reding, my parish priest, was leaving. And it wasn’t easy for me.
Father’s departure was not completely unexpected. In fact, he had been with our church for a longer period than is typical for most priests – thirteen years. Furthermore, his move to a new parish was not unlike what most “cradle Catholics” (other than the very young) had seen throughout their lives. It is common and regular practice in the Catholic Faith that priests move within their diocese to serve another parish after a set amount of time. Exceptions regarding length of time are made when special social or financial circumstances deem that a transfer would be disruptive (e.g. in the middle of a major capital campaign). It is a thoughtful and orderly process that is classic for Catholicism. A little change, a little pain, but ultimately a transition considered beneficial for pastor and parish alike.
And yet, this was the first time I would experience this change. I am, after all, a convert. While I had attended many Catholic churches in the run-up to my conversion, it was Father Michael Reding at St. Bartholomew’s Church who was my priest. In saying this, I intend no strange or selfish possessiveness, but rather I try to emphasize that it was under Father Michael that my wife and I
ceased our alternating Sundays between the Catholic and Lutheran churches. It was under Father Michael that my second daughter would be baptized (in the hands of the gregarious and warm Deacon Rick Witucki). And, to steal the words from G.K. Chesterton, it was under Father Michael that Catholicism caught me “with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let [me] wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring [me] back with a twitch upon the thread.” In effect, under Father Michael, I became Catholic.
Now, Father Michael would never be bold enough to accept credit for playing an instrumental part in my conversion. Instead, he would credit the mystical pull of the Holy Spirit. With this, I would agree. But, in my estimation, along with my wife, two dear friends, and a stable of thinkers like G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, and Pope Benedict XVI, the Spirit worked through Father Michael Reding.
At first blush (no pun intended), Father seems somewhat shy. A self-described introvert, he would not be the first to sign up for a corny church promotion or draw attention for rousing humorous anecdotes. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t do any and all for his church (including the occasional corny promotion), nor that he is humorless. Rather, it means he knows his strengths and is comfortable in his own skin. Father brought a thoughtfulness rooted in his deep Catholic faith, a steadiness of hand through the Church’s sex abuse crisis, a fiscal discipline reflecting his wise business background, a deep appreciation and support of sacred music and art (bringing extraordinary sculpture, architecture, and music to life in St. Bart’s Church), and a genuine kindness rarely found in those overworked and under-resourced.
But what I found most striking about Father Michael was his profound depth. There have been no small number of times that I have approached Father with a simple question or confided in him about a complex concern. In doing so, I found he possessed three exceedingly rare gifts. First, he has an uncanny capacity to listen. Next, he demonstrates no quick impulse to give a canned theological answer (in effort to save time, of which he must be surely short). Finally, he provides a thoughtful, Spirit-led (I would reason) insight that has never failed to enlighten me. While these three strengths might seem common and obvious, I would heartily argue that they are among the most rare you can find in the modern world, and especially coinciding in one individual. As a practicing physician and a voracious reader of great theological thinkers, I feel I may speak credibly on the virtues of thoughtful interpersonal skills and wise insight. Father Michael is truly blessed.
In addition to Father’s thoughtful personal touch, I found the Mass he conducted riveting. It was in these Masses I first recognized that what I was witnessing – what I was a part of – was a very Holy Event. The atmosphere of Mass was suffused with deep reverence. The lilting music, the dignified readings, the intellectually and mystically rich homily, and the holiness of the Eucharist were all guided by the ginger and steady hand of our priest – Father Michael. A deep sense of community and a thirst for the life-giving Body and Blood of Christ were fostered. In Father was found a model of someone genuinely and profoundly tapped into the richness of Catholicism which, in turn, made me want to deepen my relationship with Christ. In Mass, I found that the experience of Faith is equally, if not more, powerful than the intellectual intrigue of Faith. For that, I am deeply grateful.
As his final Mass drew to a close, a wistful, nostalgic video played showing where Father and the parish have been in his thirteen year tenure. A newly constructed worship space, sculptures of the crucified Christ and Holy Family, elementary school upgrades, and expanding staff…but all of this was peripheral to the soft, steady, holy mission to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. There was never a question that, under Father Michael, the Church is a Church, not a business. And it lives and breathes the Grace of God to all of its wounded, imperfect, and yearning parishioners (I being a foremost sinner among them). Amen to that.
When the video drew to a close, Father received a much deserved standing ovation and then spoke words of humility and gratitude. And it was then that it truly hit me about how beautifully God provided a shepherd to his flock in Wayzata, MN. I have no doubt that Father Michael was one of God’s many acts of Grace in my life. Father closed by saying (to my rough memory):
“Though we now go on separate paths, we travel together to The Lord.”
It made me think of the hopeful nostalgia G.K. Chesterton possessed when he described his anticipated heavenly reunion with a favorite author Charles Dickens, but even more with all our loved ones and friends “at the Tavern at the End of the World”:
“The hour of absinthe is over…But we have a long way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant: and the passage is along a rambling English road, a twisting road such as Mr. Pickwick travelled. But this at least is part of what he meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but that rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.”
And, so, as I stood before him at the end of his final Mass as priest at St. Bart’s, I choked up. I was awash with emotion that imperfectly said, “There are few people in my life that I really admire, that I really look up to, that I listen to earnestly because I learn something and am consequently made better just because I listened”. And even though I said something far less articulate and far less memorable, in the end I wanted him to know how valuable he has been to me and my family. I wanted him to know that my faith (and life) are richer because of him. I am proud to say that Father Michael Reding was My Priest and My Friend. God bless him as he begins anew.