Father Tom Cembor’s Retirement Message

Father Tom’s Thoughts—Turning the Page

 January 31, 2021, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Father Tom Cembor

Some stories are fun to write about like picnics in the park or summer ball games.  Others are a little more challenging.  This falls into the second category though not necessarily a not-fun story. You see, if you’re reading this on Sunday, January 31st, a long chapter of my life—and by long I mean some fifty-four years since I first bagged groceries in Shop-Rite at sixteen years of age, the ink on my work permit still wet—is coming to an official end.  The years since diaconate ordination in 1978 entailed marvelous years of ministry in the service of the Lord—accompanied by a paycheck. The paycheck turns into a pension check as easily as Cardinal Tobin’s signature appears at the bottom of the letter granting me retirement effective February 1st.  The last fifteen years as Catholic Chaplain at Mountainside Medical Center, including thirteen as Director of Pastoral Care, coupled with accepting my sister and brother’s invitation to enter their decade of life on February 21st, seemed a no-brainer.  The wooden cane you see me with, which has become my new friend since August to help me negotiate an arthritic knee and back, is not what I think Bill Withers had in mind when he wrote, “Lean On Me.”  However, my reliance upon it only confirmed my decision to request retirement.

This new page that I turn brings me to a part of life I know little about but will, no doubt, be discovering a whole lot more.  The path I followed to get me here was more than just the accumulation of years lived and worked.  You could have called me Samuel, listening to a voice calling me forward and not knowing with any certainty who I was hearing, until it all began to resonate and echo against the walls of Bayonne churches and confirmed, not only by my parents and family, parish priests and religious sisters and brothers, but also by the example of knee-bending, dare I say, knee-bleeding, babushka covered parishioners, daily petitioning and praising God.  My prayers in Polish and English and song and silence, my decisions and sacrifices, my stops into open neighborhood churches to cool off from the heat of a summer’s day, and hours before the Blessed Sacrament were no worse for ware in forming me into the person and priest I have become.  Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” (French to English Translation of the song) now trivialized for a commercial, puts the exclamation point on the last sentence of the last chapter of my life before I turned the page.

Msgr. Jarvis, God rest him, the spiritual director at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Darlington, where I spent the 1970s, always reminded us that we were being prepared for the Church of tomorrow, not the Church of today. The life of a parish priest, let alone that of a pastor, in any age, is a difficult one.  We were prepared to lead, to inspire, to console, to celebrate, to forgive, to anoint, to accommodate, to accompany, to uplift, and to reveal.  No seminarian in my time, and arguably today, or for the last forty-two years, has been taught about the business of the Church, or to say it another way, how to run the Church as a company, which it is, much to our dismay. Who could have foreseen the clergy sexual abuse scandal, though, God help us, it should have been seen and stopped in its tracks?  Who could have seen the devastation of over four hundred thousand killed by the coronavirus?  Who could have anticipated the value of media and technology in parish ministry and celebrating liturgy to the extent of live-streaming?  Who could have anticipated empty pews by choice or command?  No one said the path would be straight.  We follow where Jesus leads and minister how he did.

Twenty-seven years in parishes prepared me for the next fifteen, in many ways the most fulfilling, and for the past eleven months, the most challenging and devastating.  A routine developed.  Breakfast with the Eucharistic Ministers. Lists made and patients visited.  Staff greetings and words of support. Insights at Ethics meetings.  Invocations.  Benedictions. Making the Pastoral Care Department visible and accessible.  And let’s not forget the laughter.  Indeed, often the best medicine. I prayed with the patients anticipating surgical procedures and smiled with them days later at good results.  I shared tears with those whose news was less than good, and counseled families when tough decisions had to be made.  I was blessed to share the Body of Christ with patients who hadn’t been able to attend mass for some time.  And then, when the pandemic limited access even further, to delight with those who were grateful that communion was available.  I also walked among selfless, loving and compassionate medical staff—nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, and aides—some call them superheroes, I call them friends—tending to this day to those suffering the tortures of the virus, risking their lives and careful not to jeopardize their family arrangements.  I’ve donned the appropriate PPE and anointed many who believe.  And to patients who pulled through and family members who feared for them, I would remind, “Never underestimate the power of the sacrament.”

So, what changes now that I’m retiring, you may ask?  Well, I may not have to set an alarm clock, but my body clock may take some convincing that it’s alright to sleep past 5:30am.  I’ll be wearing more casual clothing around the house, and some things not black or clerical.  I plan to enjoy a stack of books I’ve been glaring at or that have been glaring at me.  Although Netflix has almost paid for itself during this pandemic, it will get more use.  When pandemic restrictions ease, some travel.  Family and friends have taken a back seat during my working years, especially with the round the clock responsibilities, and so, getting together would be nice.  What stays the same?  While Fr. Benny confuses retirement with farewell, I’ll still have my rooms at Immaculate at his invitation, and plan to say masses on the weekends, as well as at other parishes.  The mountains are calling beyond Montclair.  I hope my Pocono retreat recognizes me.  First, let’s see what happens with the knee.

It is not lost on me that I write this on Inauguration Day.  New beginnings for all of us in many ways.  And so, I turn the page.   When this chapter of retirement ends, I will rely, as I always have, on the One who wrote my name in the Book of Life to be next to turn the page for one last time.  

Sto Lat Father Tom – From Saint Thomas the Apostle