The Mysteries of Conflicted Priesthood
The sudden appearance of class photos from my sixth grade alma mater, St. Hubert’s School, brought on a tumble of memories I’ve been busily processing.
My experience of parochial school and the guidance of teachers was positive. Finding a priest I knew at St. Hubert’s on the “bad priest list” - but who was never a mentor or teacher to me - was a bit of a jolt.
Like many non-practicing Catholics, I want the church to be more than what it currently is, and maybe ever was. As a child I took comfort in the boundaries it set for my behavior. For years I went to daily mass; the church was a very safe place for me. While I am decades in self-exile, I still think of the Catholic Church and listen to its recorded liturgies.
Before I get into this, one caveat: I do understand that the problem of ministerial abuse of position and power is not limited to Roman Catholicism.
That said, the list of priests in Illinois and other states who committed sexual crimes is long and disturbing. I appended a database below; see if anyone you know is on it. I’ll make my points upfront and be as direct and as simple as I can: the priesthood should not be limited to the male gender, the LGBT community should be represented in Church leadership, and no leader in ministry should have to be celibate. (I will resist the temptation to explore why initially Paul recommended celibacy for those called to serve, which boils down to keeping one’s focus where it needs to be – on the “people” writ large. It was the political church that set rules centuries later for its own reasons).
The Catholic culture must decide if they need priests to be all-but-irrelevant authority figures few listen to on all points (like contraception); strong spiritual guides who set the best behavioral examples possible; casual ministerial buddies; or some combination thereof.
Anne Lamott’s excellent non-fiction how-to book for writers, Bird by Bird, contains details of a relationship Lamott (who I enjoy as a writer) has with a friend, “Tom” who she describes as a “slightly overweight gay Catholic priest.” No real problem there, except for a phrase that she ascribes to Father Tom that bugged me when the book first came out in the mid-nineties and came back to my mind after I’d perused the long list of priests gone wild.
I considered the following an inappropriate recounting of something someone said privately as one friend to another when I first read it. The words are directly attributed to a priest who’d be in a sensitive spot to begin with and….well it must have disturbed others, because when I went to Amazon to search inside the book, it seems you can search on any page but 127, which is “not available” for preview. See if you can guess why. Father Tom is saying to his friend, Anne Lamott:
"'When I see a man my own age in great shape, and I feel all conflicted, wishing I were that thin and yet at the same time wanting to lick him, is that jealousy or is that appreciation?”
Bird by Bird (pg.127)
As a (now) public question by anyone other than a priest, that's a decent reflection on conflicting feelings.
But considering the great problems of the priesthood today, I can’t understand what the author figured she’d gain by putting those comments in her book about writing. I struggle with a priest sharing that information with a friend only to have it made public. Did he know pre-publication? Bad judgment if so. His words raise questions in the minds of the faithful that hadn’t ought to be there without direct and due cause. Father Tom can be the finest of priests, but his and or any priest’s sexual proclivities should not, I don’t think, be the topic of anyone’s discussion.
Pedophiles, as the entirely separate issue they are, are another matter.
The great appeal of Catholicism for me has always been its scope and its myriad expressions of incomprehensible but enveloping Mystery. I found a site where a master plan for seduction of young boys exists that had been written by a priest making clear that “mystery” is what priest predators trade on. Think how easy it would be to trade on the sense of certainty about a Great Authority, of which “I” am representative, Whose intent must be discerned, and “I” can say what it is with a confidence and resoluteness that you, young boy, do not have, but all that and more can be yours if you are my acolyte. The great spiritual heirarchies can be dangerous indeed to vulnerable people.
But back to the Mystery that rings true and feels real if beyond our all-too-human reach. For me, that's where all the hope resides, at least such as can be found in this world.
I recall as a little girl attending my uncle’s wedding and staying at the bride’s family’s farmhouse. Her brother was a priest; if memory serves, he officiated at the wedding. In one of the rooms I found a clerical collar lying on a table. I picked it up in my hand and considered it carefully, then brazenly put it around my neck to see how it felt. I remember my feelings of sneakiness mixed with fear. The prospect of getting caught was worth it, I was certain. I looked at my little kid face in the bathroom mirror. Was there power in the white collar? Would I be transformed like Mary was when she was visited by the angel? Was I good enough to have been chosen like she was…for anything?
It’s a beautiful mystery whether one is seven or fifty-seven.
Paul, the apparent arbiter of the celibacy requirement adopted in the historic Roman Catholic Church – and the apostolic fall guy we blame today – also said something that if Catholic leaders took even half-seriously and adopted with good intention, could make them powerful and revolutionary in the sense Jesus was: “…be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
I wish the Catholic Church was not so afraid of change so I could comfortably come home again, if only just to visit.
I hope you do not find anyone you know: