Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Priest Penitent

There is a lot of commentary currently on the blogosphere about priestly fidelity. This is different and has absolutely nothing to do with the priest in question. It is merely a story about fidelity to one's priestly commitment for your own reflection.

Many years ago I began working in a new parish. There were three priests in this parish: The mature pastor, a young parochial vicar, and a elderly retired priest. When I arrived for my first day of work I was warned, by the pastor, to stay away from the elderly retired priest. He clearly did not trust the old man and did not want him living in the rectory. One of the first things the new pastor did when he arrived at his parish was to call the chancery to check up on Fr. F's canonical status and faculties. Of course, Fr. F was deeply hurt when he discovered his new pastor was investigating him. Being young and rebellious, I ignored the advice of my pastor and would sit for hours talking with Fr. F about many topics. He was well spoken and very wise and I genuinely enjoyed talking with him.

When the pastor discovered us chatting in the living room, he ordered Fr. F to his quarters on the 3rd floor and with great concern asked me if I was ok and if Fr. F had "tried anything with me". I had never been so confused in my life so I asked about exactly what was going on. I found out that 20 years previous Fr. F had broken his promise of celibacy and entered into a long-term relationship with his secretary. His sin became public and very obvious when his young, unmarried, secretary became pregnant. Fr. F was forced to make a difficult choice. He could remain a priest and be forced to leave the country, never to return, or he could leave the priesthood. When he chose to remain in the priesthood he thought that his secret would never follow him, but he was wrong. For the rest of his life, he was faced with people who questioned his fidelity and his faculties.

He supported his son and his son's mother on the small salary he received from his parish work and longed for the child he only saw in photographs and one week a year during the summer. On occasion, we would speak about his sacrifice and once I asked him why he stayed. He said, "Breaking my commitment to celibacy was a sin, but to leave would be two sins. I am a priest and this is my penance". He also understood that had he left the priesthood it would have marked his son, it would make them unwelcome in their town, and it would have prohibited him from any possibility of earning a livelihood as no one in the town would hired an unfaithful former priest. He accepted his unwelcomness in the diocese, the suspicion from priests and parishioners, his relegation to celebrating the sparsely attended 6 am Mass each morning, and the looks of disdain from so many parishioners, and the many people who would refuse to receive Holy Communion from his hands. I, on the other hand, viewed him as a model of fortitude and faithfulness. He knew his sin, it was public, and it followed him everywhere, but he never gave up. He accepted his penance and clung to his priesthood. As he drew close to the end of his life, he moved to a nursing home where I would secretly visit him several times a week. There would be trouble if my pastor discovered. Many times Fr. F would be sitting in his chair holding a photo of his son and weeping silently when I arrived. His choice was not at easy one. When Fr. F died, his son attended the the funeral and I was glad to be able to tell him about how much his father missed him.

This is just one of the stories of faithfulness and unfaithfulness that I could write here. In this case, the priest was guilty and admitted it, but I know of several other cases where the priest was innocent and suffered through many years of agonizing limbo, which once brought a priest I know to the point of suicide, until being reinstated. Just as in the case of Fr. F, reinstatement to full active ministry even after being cleared does not restore a priest to his former level of respect. He will always be under suspicion, the things he said in anger and in response to pain and injustice will always be held against him, and he will carry the deep emotional scars with him for a lifetime. There is one particular priest, who I will not write about in any detail, who was unjustly suspended for several years, remained steadfast in his priestly commitment, was restored to full active ministry but now is treated as the black sheep of his diocese even though he is probably one of the best and most dedicated priests they have. He sees this as part of the priest lying down his life for the flock. After all, the life of a priest is a life of sacrifice and penance for the people of God. Just as the priest offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in atonement for the sins of the people of God, so the priest also offers his own life in atonement for the sins of the people of God. Every priest is called to be a penitent of sorts, but some have received a 1,000 fold portion.

Whether guilty or innocent, not every priest has the strength to take on a life of suffering, humiliation, and shame. Pray for those who are hanging on to their priesthood and pray for those who cannot hang on any longer. At the same time, pray for their family and friends, for those responsible for investigating, for the bishops, for those making the accusations, and for all those who are shaken by the accusations. Remember, there are no winners in this.

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