Father George William Rutler
I was shocked when I read that Cardinal Dolan was transferring Father George W. Rutler from his assignment as Pastor of the Church of Our Savior on Fifth Avenue in New York City to be Pastor of Saint Michael Church close to Pennsylvania Station in the area known as “Hell’s Kitchen.” It was the area of New York so graphically portrayed in the movie, Gangs of New York.” I have been to both churches and I have actually stayed at the rectory of Saint Michael. The two parishes are as different as night and day. The transfer seemed to me to be a huge mistake, given the unique personality and pastoral ministry style of Father Rutler.
However, in both the Diocese of Pennsacola-Tallahassee and the Diocese of Corpus Christi I had introduced a tenure policy for pastors that gave them the opportunity to move at the end of six years (their choice) and required them to move at the end of twelve years. Since Father Rutler has been at the Church of Our Savior for twelve years I can hardly fault Cardinal Dolan, however I have always believed that there have to be exceptions to a tenure policy either for the good of the people of the parish or the good of the priest himself. Perhaps the transfer of Father Rutler qualified to be one of the rare exceptions to a tenure policy.
Of one thing I am certain, Father Rutler’s farewell to the parishoners at the Church of Our Savior can serve as a wonderful model for every priest to address to his people when he is about to leave for a new assignment. Here is Father Rutler’s farewell.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
At Noon on September 17, 2001, I became your Pastor, and at Noon on August 1 in this year of 2013 I relinquish that duty and move on to new work assigned to me by our Cardinal. At the farewell gathering so splendidly hosted by you, I was shown photographs from many events in those years. Of them all, I was especially drawn to the one of me in a safety helmet and covered with dust on the day our city was attacked, and thousands were killed at the World Trade Center. Although I had not yet officially become Pastor, I was in the process of moving in, and I was one of the many who were given water from canteens in front of our church. That beginning of my pastorate was in no metaphorical way a baptism by fire. God who brings good out of ill has since blessed us in countless ways, but Canon law does require some accounting. In those twelve years in our parish, 623 have been baptized into Christ, 433 have been united in Holy Matrimony, 79 have been blessed in death as they enter the larger life, and many others have been anointed in the hospitals.
Our Lord knows that 99 sheep are not enough if one more is lost. Since 2001 our flock has doubled, and there have been among them nearly a dozen who have been called to the priesthood. While I am the only priest in this parish, the visiting priests who assist in various ways have been a great support. I have heard in these twelve years possibly around 45 or 50 thousand confessions, and my fellow priests may have doubled that. No one save the angels in Heaven will know the wonderful graces that have been given in our confessionals, and that has been a chief joy to me, along with the priestly vocations of those fine young men who have been like sons to me. Our small parish staff have always been loyal, and those who help in other ways have graciously preferred to go unnamed. The volunteer faculty of our CCD classes, which have grown ten-fold, could more than match the finest of any school, and young people come from long distances for the Pre-Cana program which is unsurpassed for its sound teaching of the joy of true marriage. The holy Liturgy has been accompanied year after year by our music director and choir. The men and boys who are our altar servers have instinctively and happily followed the directives of the Holy See, shunning theatrics and the clericalization of the laity by the misuse of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist as though they were ordinary. During the week I have been grateful for the service of Deacon Frank Orlando, who has recently been made director of formation for permanent deacons in the Archdiocese. Our lectors read the sacred lessons of God’s lively oracles with dignity, and even cut short their ballgames and surfing in the summer to do so.
The good people of our parish, along with our extended family far and wide, have sacrificed to change the financial situation of this parish. Twelve years ago we were burdened under millions of dollars of mortgage and other debts and costs for the repair of a building in which everything seemed to be collapsing at the same time. All that has been reversed, every penny of debt is paid, and the church has virtually been reconstructed, along with the installation of a new organ and many other improvements, renovations and fine art. Our Lord was not fortunate in the one he chose to hold the moneybag, but the same Lord mercifully sent me trustees whose selfless devotion in these challenging years will bring them a reward more than I can give. There may have been times when my concern about the dire financial situation of our church made me seem, in the vernacular expression, cheap. Part of me is Scottish, a people known to practice thrift to an heroic degree, and in recent years I have even been made chaplain to our city’s two leading Scottish societies. What once was owed is now matched by what is held in fixed funds for the maintenance of the church. The daily costs remain the responsibility of the people, in addition to our charitable and evangelical obligations, and I leave in the good hope that the results of the hard work of many will be preserved and stewardship will increase.
Perhaps someday if I am permitted repose, I shall read into the record the lessons I have learned from people. That would not be an exercise in flattery or criticism, both of which are unworthy of a Christian, but it would be advice for our children when they are grown. When I became Pastor of this parish, there were saints among us who guided me, and there were others who may become saints in a lengthier period beyond this world, but who did not make things easy for me. They were much tamer than Alexander the coppersmith (2 Timothy 4:14). I trust that in the future there will be no retreat to the old mistakes and abuses which have been addressed by our recent Popes.
I have grown to love St. Paul more and more, and part of that is because, just as he tried to explain the Gospel on Mars Hill in Athens, I have tried in a shamefully poorer way to do that here on Murray Hill in New York City. Since he is the saint that I am not, my only affinities with him are in his love of the Master, and his love for his people. That love was evident at Miletus when he said farewell to the elders he had summoned from Ephesus as he was embarking for Jerusalem. “And when he had spoke thus, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And they all wept and embraced Paul and kissed him, sorrowing most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they should see his face no more. And they brought him to the ship” (Acts 20:36-38). I am only going to the far west side of Manhattan and not to Jerusalem, and you may see me from time to time, and instead of boarding a ship I may be on the 34th Street bus. But I do kneel like him as I leave, with happy tears of thanks for having been among you.
Faithfully yours in Our Saviour,
Fr. George W. Rutler