Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Long Black Line

On this Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, Benedict XVI has ordained 21 new priests for the diocese of Rome. In American dioceses, the same ritual will be unfolding cathedral by cathedral over the next few weeks. To all the newly ordained, "Congratulations and God love you." Hopefully all join in the sentiment.

But even more, the nature of the times impels us to add, "Be strong, and of good courage -- you will need it."

I don't envy being a priest in these days. I once saw a bulletin insert that started: "If the priest starts Mass on time, he's a perfectionist. If he starts late, he's lazy.... If the priest never asks for money, he wants the parish to fall apart. If he always asks for it, he's a thief." You get the idea -- the people always want something more, something different.

Those were the days when we could joke about it, but it's not a joke any longer.

At his ordination, every new priest is presented with the paten and chalice as his bishop tells him: "Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate -- model your life on the mystery of the Lord's Cross." The past three years have offered American priests more than ample opportunity to do just that.

A priest's life was never his own, yet now his friendships are scrutinized, his words weighed, his service marginalized as never before -- and it's coming from both sides of the tightrope he walks.

The faithful love screaming at or about bishops, forgetting as they do that such polemics often make even heavier the load of the man they see at their parish altar on Sunday morning. Not to be outdone, as usual, bishops have turned the abuse crises into an excuse to settle old rivalries and "cleanse" the ranks, not to purify the church, but to avoid legal liabilities and silence whistleblowers; the traditional priest-bishop relationship, exalted in theology, has been shredded with the memos. In its place, a double standard no orthodoxy can justify has risen.

It's a blessing of my work to know, hear and see many good, hardworking, decent priests in my travels -- I am what I am because of their loyalty, diligence and friendship through the years. But living in an "if it bleeds, it leads" culture as we do, the focus never hits them because they're actually doing something good in the world -- they're doing the gruntwork which gets the collar the respect given it.

And for all they do -- among my personal favorites: taking phone calls from depressed parishioners at 4am, just popping in the people's houses to say "hi" (literally), driving the stranded to work when their car's in the shop, helping others find work or a roof to sleep under, submitting themselves to the charity "dunk tank"/the New Year's Polar Bear frolic to raise money, the list goes on -- are they getting any respect?

As one exasperated priest told me when he called the other day, "It's so bad, Rock. All [the bishops] want to do is shut us down and shut us up, there's nothing we can do or say -- if we did, if we even dared, God knows where we'd be headed." And this from a relatively conservative guy who's had a stellar record of really inspiring people and being completely non-controversial, so far as his diocese is concerned. "We can't speak the truth anymore, and someone has to, but we can't."

I asked another guy, who was (literally) spat on because he had the temerity to wear clerics in public during the height of the abuse scandal, how he got through the days. "I have to," he told me, "these people need me -- and I need them. This is a 'for better or worse' deal, no?"

If you haven't already noticed, I do a lot of what I do because I hear stories like this every day. When a good number of people hear the term "justice for priests," they see it as being the polar opposite of zero-tolerance and go nuclear. (Thank David Clohessy for that.) That's so misleading it's crazy -- if anything, making sure priests get their due means that you bust your ass to keep abusers out forever and a day, thus allowing the silent 98% to remind the world what integrity in priesthood is.

And if anything, the ones who need to be cleared out the most are still around and showing no signs of going anywhere. They say there's no justice in the world. I'm starting to believe it -- but what of those who have to suffer because of it?



Blogger Laura Gonzalez said...

(Hand waving in the air) O, o, can we share priest stories?

For all the priests that make the news because they have damaged the lives of those entrusted to their care, I know there are many more unsung heroes who live among us quietly, or not so quietly.

My friend, Rev. Tom Gowing, died April 5, 2004. Fr. Tom was a good old-fashioned Irish priest (from Laois, thank you). He had a heart of gold, even after giving you a good tongue lashing about what you aught to be doing with your life.

He was a voice for those with no voice, the poor and marginalized Mexican community. But mind you, he wasn't just a "social justice type," he led prayers at abortion clinics, participated in pro-life marches. He was living the seemless garment idea before it became a buzz word.

He spoke English, Irish, Spanish and Maya, could cook like nobody's business, drove like a maniac, had dimples and gave bad homilies.

He minstered to the Spanish-speaking here in this diocese, encouraged men to come up from Yucatan state in Mexico (where he was on a Maryknoll mission for awhile in the 70s), loaned money to them, was a thorn in the side to the Anglos,and the bishop, which eventually led to his downfall. Our disgraced former bishop, G. Patrick Ziemann, exiled him to a little outpost far away from the Mexican community he so loved.

His funeral in the southern end of the diocese (he had one up north too), was the most attended priest funeral this diocese has ever seen. They were haning from the rafters, and speaker after speaker took to the mike, praising him in English, Spanish and Maya. Much to the consternation of the bishop who obviously wanted the whole thing to be over with. Now.

Fr. Tom's last dimpled laugh: making an agitated bishop wait for the unwashed massses to have their say.

God in heaven I miss that man.

Thanks for letting me share.

Laura Gonzalez

16/5/05 02:01  

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