In Praise of Priests

As commentary on the Catholic sex abuse crisis has exploded of late, and as much of that commentary has focused on homosexuality in the priesthood and hierarchy, I have been trying to write something about homosexuality, if only to clear my own head and heart. Yet too much of what I was writing focused on my anger (at episcopal bozos here and abroad) and not enough on my sadness about good priests being tarnished and my gratitude for the many good priests I’ve known. So I’ve decided take a different tack. At the end, for those interested, I provide links to a few of the better things I’ve read about the abuse crisis and clerical homosexuality. Here I want to write in praise of Catholic priests, and to include with them (somewhat unfairly for their specific vocations) vowed brothers and monks who are also male religious figures affected by the present controversy. I will continue to write in praise of Catholic Sisters, but that is not the present issue. Nor is my great admiration for many Protestant ministers and not a few rabbis.

I write, then, because controversy about abuse and cover-up, and so much recent focus on clerical homosexuality, has cast shadows of suspicion on so many good men dedicated to the Gospel and the good of all God’s people. I am deeply saddened by the ways the present mess has tarnished and burdened them. Some are gay, others straight; most are sinners (like the rest of us), but not a few are real saints. I want to celebrate them – whether they continue today in official ministry or remain ministers of Christ since leaving such offices or have passed on to eternal reward.

Hard to know where to start since there are, for me, so many good memories and important realities.

I entered a religious congregation of brothers and priests (the Marianists) after high school because I so admired the men who were my teachers, as well as the parish priests I knew during grade school years. In retrospect, a few of these men were pretty crazy guys, though most were wonderfully ordinary. Yet they were for me, for all their limitations, men who focused my admiration and my sense of a call to follow that pretty crazy rabbi Jesus.

Of religious order priests there are so many I admire – from big names like Tom Merton (Trappist) and Bill Lynch (Jesuit) to the Marianists who taught me philosophy and literature in college and the brilliant Dominicans (French, German, Irish, Spanish) who first taught me theology in Europe. And then the Jesuits who continued that education here in the US, with whom I then taught during my thirty years at Regis (the Jesuit University in Denver) long after I had left the seminary and married. I remain inspired to a theological vocation by all their cumulative witness.

There are bishops too, starting with the present Bishop of Rome and my personal list of good popes – like John XXIII and Leo XIII in the modern era alone. Then there was Tom Gumbleton of Detroit and Ray Hunthausen of Seattle, both great leaders in the anti-war movements of my youth. And Joseph Bernadine of Cincy and then Chicago. And James Casey and George Evans during my initial years in Denver and Richard Hanifen of Colorado Springs with whom I once or twice team-taught a course at Regis.

Which makes me remember other Denver priests.  “Father Woody,” the crusty Monsignor-journalist still remembered here for making the Denver Catholic Register a first-rate weekly in the turbulent times after Vatican II (as he sat, sleeves rolled up, cigarette dangling, at his desk) — and for his constant attention to the street folks who’d assemble at his downtown parish for soup and a sawbuck, and sleep in the pews on very cold nights. He’d get the wealthy to write checks which became a roll of bills for his daily stroll – no questions asked. And also the short man with an Irish name who was long beloved by his African-American parish and by many others since. Or the somewhat sharped elbowed Monsignor who chucked it to become a Trappist.

And so on and on.

I’m writing this on the fly, with no attempt to be systematic, but names and faces keep popping up.

Such as the young Irish priest assigned temporarily to my childhood parish while he discerned about a monastic vocation, or the Marianist priest from the local high school who helped out on Sundays and ten-years later gave me my first ever “F” for sloppy writing I had turned in as an cocky college freshman. And the newly ordained Maryknoll priest back to his/my home parish for a few weeks before taking off to Chile in the mid-50s.

Most of all the Marianists – we called ourselves “fellow brothers” or “monks” — with whom I shared my years of vocational preparation, and with whom I share a deep common bond these many years later. I’m talking of well more than a hundred men. Some still active duty priests and brothers, others (having left the order, as I did) pursuing their vocations in different professions – law, education, church ministry, counselling, social work, government, art, finance, and so on. Not a few have now passed on, most like me are experiencing the joys and sufferings of age. One was by far the best university president I’ve ever known, another a religious superior in Rome who now teaches young candidates in India, another an Irish maverick who for years worked nationally for the renewal of Catholic parishes, another a writer and fierce Puerto Rican nationalist. Far too many to name (or even call to mind) at one sitting, but all very much there in memory and affection.

And the Jesuits, many scholar-teachers, some dedicated missionaries and “ordinary” parish priests. One a wonderfully thick-skinned conservative among many liberals. Another a ranch boy become scholar and university administrator. Several Vietnamese Americans, others from Latin America and Africa. Big names like Dan Berrigan and so many lesser knowns of equal or greater excellence.

My hope, dear reader, is that my superficial effort at evocation may enable you to remember many such folks – not Bing Crosby or Spencer Tracy fantasies, but real people, good men. Some I didn’t always get along with while others remain very good friends. Sinners all, to be sure, crusty and quirky, pock-marked and smooth, wrinkled with age or beautifully young.

Which brings me back to the present. When I read seemingly credible claims about the extent of gays in the priesthood, I am led to think about the past. I know now of some who clearly were gay, if only because a few later died tragically of AIDS while others have “come out” and moved on. And of others who “seemed gay,” though I know how wrong such suspicions can be. I bet some thought me gay because I once was something of a “pretty boy.”

But the obvious point, at least for me, is one of admiration. I care not a whit about whether some or many of these guys, these men, are gay or straight. I write to praise their goodness, their vocations, their many ministries, their “priesthood.”

Amen. And a big “alleluia” (praise God).

___

Now some worthwhile writings about the present crisis.

First several general commentaries. (There are others, as well much superficial reporting and too much stupid vitriol.)  Reporter Jason Berry has recently provided a searching and scorching three-part commentary for the National Catholic Reporter.  Papal biographer Austen Iverleigh provides a good analysis of Francis’ responses.  Finally church historian Massimo Faggioli gives a sense of the historic immensity of the present crisis.

Then a few writings about homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood and its complex connection to the present crisis.*  Andrew Sullivan, a public intellectual who is Catholic and gay has recently provided what is probably the best overall discussion both of the history and numbers, and of the connection between homosexuality and cover-up. Then New York Times columnist Frank Bruni (gay and brought up Catholic) provides a good and quite critical review of the recent sensationalized “blockbuster” book by a French journalist about the supposed reign of homosexuals in the Vatican. Finally National Catholic Reporter journalist Michael Sean Winters’ far more devastating critique of the same book.

___

*Recent writings about homosexuality in the priesthood and hierarchy serve antithetical purposes. Some, especially by gay Catholics, are part of the far broader program for gay liberation – this time to open the doors of the clerical closet so that homosexual priests and brothers (and nuns) will be accepted and the overall Catholic teaching about homosexuality will be changed. Personally, I applaud this agenda. On the other hand, there has for some time been a monied “conservative” Catholic campaign to blame the entire abuse crisis on homosexual clerics as a way of discrediting Pope Francis. Read and go figure if you are interested.

5 thoughts on “In Praise of Priests

  1. Thanks, John. All that has come out about abuse by priests has been very distressing. There is obviously concern for those abused. But like you, I also remember numerous wonderful caring priests I have been privileged to know over the years.

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  2. John, I hope your blog “in praise of priests” receives a wide readership and touches hearts. As one who has shared much of your history, I can say only, “Amen” about the men we knew (and still see) from our Marianist origins. Reading your account is like a mini-history of SM days and people, so my own mind has been quite active in recalling those you named and those whose descriptions I recognize. I appreciate your reflections and also welcome the references to recent writings about the homosexual issues affecting the Church. I have read many of them already out of the same interests we share and a desire to discern where this is headed. I hope you will at least receive more acknowledgments from readers who have checked in with your piece, whether their names are familiar to you or not. I will check with a few friends to see if they read this piece and to encourage them to reply to you with their comments. From what I’ve seen above, there has not been a big response, but that could be due to a lot of reasons. Don’t let the number of responses decide for you about continuing to write your views and reflections, because I gain much by reading how you put things together. I believe that one reply represents many other people with similar views. Hope we can have a visit in coming months.

    Bill Miller

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  3. John,
    Thank you for your thoughts. Like you I have encountered many wonderful dedicated men over the years and there is one in particular that has left a deep impression recently here in my own parish. He is the pastor of a combined/merged parishes. He is in his second term and due to retire in June. Personally, I found him difficult to get to know because he was always racing around, seemed distracted by so much to do. I tried to stay out of his way.
    During his time with us I’ve come to deeply admire this man because he has shared his life with us—-his frustrations, his joys, the loss of his best friend and now his battle with stage 4 lung cancer. He gives us weekly updates on what’s happening with the chemo and how he is struggling with it all. The man before us is a source of consolation and healing for us all.

    Liked by 1 person

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