The last two issues of For Priests Only have prompted me to spend some time thinking about the inactive priests in my life. There are five of them with whom I have had significant relationships. I miss them. I loved them. I still do. We shared a lot of life and ministry together.
I hope my musings here would prompt you also to think about your relationship with inactive priests, and perhaps spark a desire for you to be in touch with them. Maybe we will be prompted to think about why WE stayed. After all, the sacred priesthood that is gift must be received again and again.
What I realize, first of all, is that these men were very talented and dedicated priests.
Jim, the first close priest friend to leave was someone I very much admired. I was modeling myself on his work and style of ministry; he was a mentor, albeit a young one. He was a beloved associate pastor who was supervising the work of the two of us seminarians. It was a fun project.
Jim came to mind as I wrote last month's issue on discernment. He was the one with whom my classmate and I spent Tuesday nights for nearly a year talking about priesthood. He shared with us that he was thinking of leaving; we were trying to (and did) ratify our decision for priesthood.
The occasion for Jim's leaving was the birth control encyclical of Pope Paul VI in the summer of 1968. He was one of the many priests who were disciplined by the Cardinal over his stance in regard to the encylical.
As it turned out, he left just a week after my ordination. I lost contact with him at that point, but did run into him on the streets of D.C. some years later. He had married a terrific Afro-American woman. I don't know if he has children or what work he is doing now, though I have a hunch that it is in the area of justice and peace.
Jim still has a place in my heart because, as I knew thoroughly his work in the parish, he was for us just a tremendous priest. What helped me to adjust to his leaving was the fact that he shared his intention and his feelings many months earlier. At this moment I have a strong desire to track him down. The four others that had an impact on my life I still have contact with two or three times a year.
Gene, befriended me in 1964. We were students together, he a year behind me, at St. Mary's Paca Street in Baltimore. He and I have had hundreds, probably thousands, of conversations about the work of the Church and our own role in that work. He followed me to Theological College and was deacon at my first Mass. He married in 1984 and has three children. He works in publishing in the service of the church. He sought and received a formal laicization because he wanted the church to smile on his present relationship with the church.
Gene and I worked for some years in liturgical renewal. I valued his ideas and often came to him for insights into areas of theology I was having difficulty understanding. His love for theology and liturgy hasn't changed; in fact, my way of relating to him hasn't changed in the 34 years we have known each other; we still talk about the same things, and of course, I ask about his family and how all are doing. While I was struggling in the early stages of my serious illness (from 1978-1985), Gordon was a great comfort, though I always hated for him to see me in the sorry state I was in. I was terribly embarrassed by my plight.
I met Brendan (from the olde sod) when he was an associate in a parish in which the pastor had invited me to be an unofficial intern. That would have been '67. That was a good experience for me. Brendan was, again, one of my mentors, even though we are the same age. He was (is) a wonderful human being; he would keep me laughing for hours. (We still insult each other on the phone twice a year, at least.)
Brendan and I shared many projects. He was Director of Religious Education and I was Liturgy Coordinator for our diocese. I had a great time working with him and the other people whom we attracted to the service of the church's catechetical and liturgical work. Those were the early Seventies. I had enormous fun working with Brendan and others, as we somewhat impatiently sought to alter and enliven parish life. But this was from the nefarious position of chancery persons. That had a negative fallout on both of us.
I watched him fall in love with his wife, Margaret, though distance has not allowed me to know his (I am sure) very talented and interesting children. After being a public defender for awhile, Brendan is now a senior partner in a small law firm. Margaret, works in service of the poor. Some of his children are now of college age.
I have been silent with Brendan for too long. I called him today and I just found out that one of his children is serious ill. To this day, Brendan has been support to me in helping me find my way out of the conundrum of thought that besieges someone mentally ill, as I have been. Brendan understood. And was there.
The final two inactive priests on my list were forced out. They had been accused of having sex with adolescent boys. I will change there names here. I first met Dave at a summer gathering of seminarians. He was, then, a very dedicated priest. His style of ministry was very much low key and laid back, a quality I admired in him since my style was so much a "Type A" personality in those days.
Dave was in later years, a fine pastor and held a responsible position in the chancery.
As soon as the accusation of pedophilia was made his priesthood was over, though I know the diocese is caring for him. He also has serious heart ailments. He now lives alone and struggles perhaps to do what he can from day to day to keep life interesting.
Dave is a student of history and archeology of his home state. In fact, his rootedness in our history was a quality that attracted me to him. I have learned very much about this great part of the country from him.
Paul came to my sphere of influence when he was a seminarian. I supervised part of his summer intern work in the diocesan liturgy office. Several years later, we found ourselves together in a huge parish in which most of the staff were workaholics and were running around bumping into each other and forgetting to ask what God wanted us to do in the parish.
Paul went on to two other weighty positions in the church. When the news of his alleged pedophilia broke, the media pounced on it, and in an instant, his life was changed forever. At the present, he is managing a well organized effort to assist the poor in another state.
My heart goes out to Dave and Paul. My esteem for them has not decreased one iota. I remember them for the way they were for me when I needed them.
I heavily disagree with the present position in many dioceses that sets in motion the instant collapse of the priesthood of a person accused. It is my firm estimation that the church itself has a responsibility for creating situations in which pedophilia arises. Both of these men entered the seminary as teens. But now society treats them as pariahs. We in the church are often in denial of the sway of sexuality upon us, celibate or not; hence this powerful life force within us goes unchecked, unharnessed, and therefore, not integrated into the whole of our personality. Many of you, my readers, will perhaps disagree in this matter. I just state honestly what I feel.
As for myself, I remind you that I was on leave of absence for five years and experienced a great deal of what these six men have experienced. Sexuality has been strong in me, too. But I am thankful God gave me the sense to hold the disintegrating pieces of my life together and I was able to work through most of my issues before and after I was given the grace to return to the priesthood.
Life could turn on us also in a flash, as someone who has a tornado run through their house. Three of these men were able to choose their response to the fact that active priestly ministry for them came to an end. I am honored that I was able to choose to become a writer and continue to pour out the powerful stream of priestly energy that courses through me. Today, I am challenged by my priestly life on the margin. I want to remain a priest for the reasons that some of these friends left. That is my vocation, while, at the same time, it is not theirs. Priesthood is a mystery to be lived, I think, by priests, active or inactive. Priesthood has remained a part of who these men are; but maybe not for all.
So let us consider why we remain a priest. Is it just because we haven't got the courage to leave? Does a possible lack of courage cause us to become withdrawn, and cynical or trapped? Or do we face up to the harm, the hurt, we have experienced at the hands of the "institution?" I see that Dave and Paul still find a great deal of hurt from their brothers as they were abandoned at the time they were most in need. It is truly a miracle that, so far, this writer has been able to recover. (If I could be an instrument for the healing of the heart of one priest, I would be so honored.)
Let us strengthen our faith and hope in the sacred priesthood, my brothers. May we be present to each other's needs and have courage to not abandon each other when we served in the trenches together.