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How to say goodbye

When my wife and I first moved to Northern Virginia, I introduced myself to a neighbor and learned that he was one of those rare native Virginians. Smiling at my surprise, he informed me that I was a “come here” and he was a “from here.”


“How long before you’ll call me a ‘from here’?” I asked. He shook his head, grinned, and told me in a rich drawl, “You always gonna be a come here.”


The Northern Virginia ‘burbs are home to so much turnover that “come heres” are common, and we come to expect the risk that friendships may be uprooted when someone gets transferred or pursues a new career opportunity. And yet, two goodbyes in the past month have made me pine for the nostalgia of a small town where moving is a rarity.  


First, news came earlier this year that a good friend and fellow parishioner would be transferred to a military base on the West Coast in June. With poise and resolve, he and his wife and children packed up their belongings and said their goodbyes. Whenever I asked him how he was doing, he’d smile and say, “I’m packing it down.” We had them over for dinner before they left, and as our kids played a raucous game of kickball, we “packed it down” over one last beer.   


Days later came news of a different order — our pastor of 13 years and our parochial vicar of several years both received appointments to new parishes. My wife and I called a family meeting to break the news to our kids. No joke: our two girls immediately teared up; our boys grimaced and then quickly drilled us with a series of matter-of-fact questions.


With a face “set like flint” (words he said he aspired to) but a heart undoubtedly moved, our pastor began to pack, tie up loose ends, and deliver a bracing final salvo of homilies. I watched as my son, trained by our pastor at the altar, served one last Mass with his mentor. Our kids waited in line after Mass for one more noogie from Father, and he affectionately tousled their hair.         


Any move stirs up a spectrum of emotion. And yet as I observed how each man (and in my friend’s case, his family) received his call, I glimpsed something more than a fog of shifting feelings: piercing through the fog were blazing spotlights — of service to Christ’s church, and our country.  


“Jesus unfortunately did not say ‘pick up your pillow and follow me,’ ” our pastor said in his last homily, meditating on the eerily relevant Gospel passage that Sunday: “And another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.’ To him Jesus said, ‘No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God’ (Lk 9:61-62).”


The Gospel that parting Sunday suggested that following Jesus requires us to “pack it down,” “set our face like flint,” “lay down our pillows,” and pick up our cross. The Son of Man was always a “come here” with “nowhere to rest His head.” Accepting my neighbor’s words is key to understanding our place in this world: “You always gonna be a ‘come here.’ ” Our citizenship is in heaven — only there can we say we are “from heres.”   


The departure of our pastor, parochial vicar, and friends — two men in service to their bride, the church; and a family of deep Catholic faith and loyal service to our country — directed our gaze to an exquisite reality. The quiet and unassuming manner in which they packed up and followed their Master and journeyed to another village gave us a glimpse of Him. We saw icons of Christian readiness to serve.  


Their obedience gives the rest of us a chance to hear His invitation anew: “Follow me.”   


Johnson, a husband and father of five, is the bishop’s Delegate for Evangelization and Media.














© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016