July 2013 brought advice for an angry priest from Venerable Fulton Sheen, and brought Pope Francis to cast Lumen Fidei upon World Youth Day and Millennial Catholics.
If you follow weather reports from the Northeastern U.S., then you know that New England has spent much of July in the grip of a heat wave. The three H’s – hazy, hot, and humid – pose a big challenge in prison where “climate control” is an 8-inch fan pushing hot air around a stifling concrete prison cell. As I wrote recently, plugging in my typewriter means unplugging that little fan. On the day I begin typing this post, the heat index in Concord, NH is 106 F, and likely ten degrees hotter “inside.” On such days, these stone walls quickly close in on us, and claustrophobia adds to the obstacles I wrote of months ago in “When the Caged Bird Just Can’t Sing: The Limits of Prison Writing.”
I received a lot of snail mail from TSW readers in June and July. I’ve tried to use pen and paper to respond to some, but for the most part the letters piled up to await cooler days. I’m sorry for that. I read every letter – most more than once – and, though it’s likely no consolation, I’m using one of the sturdier ones right now as “fan mail” – literally!
Knowing that as a prisoner I have no on-line access, several TSW readers have enclosed in their snail mail some of the interesting things they come across in the Catholic on-line world. I want to write about three such items, all received on the same July day posing for me a challenge about faith, fidelity, and fatherhood.
The first was a July 8, 2013 article from the National Catholic Reporter entitled “I am an angry priest,” by Gerald Kleba, a priest serving the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri. Father Kleba began with an anecdote about arriving to anoint a dying parishioner surrounded by her adult children whom Father Kleba had known since their teens:
“I was wearing walking shorts and a sports shirt, so when the hospice nurse arrived at the house I had to introduce myself. ‘I’m Gerry Kleba, the family priest.’ I’m not much into clericalism, so I don’t use the title, ‘Father’ . . . “
Before I even got to the source and substance of Father Kleba’s anger, I found this part of his story to be terribly sad. I have often quoted a brief but brilliant article by my friend, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus entitled “Clerical Scandal and the Scandal of Clericalism.” In clear and compelling prose, Father Neuhaus laid out the harm that has been done to the Church and the faithful – both laity and priests – as a result of clericalism, especially in its priorities for preserving both a sense of entitlement and image.
The clericalist agenda for “keeping up appearances” was, for Father Neuhaus, a causative factor in the sexual abuse scandal that arose out of the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The fact that the full impact of The Scandal was not really seen and felt until 2002 was evidence of the will of clericalism to preserve image at all cost.
That cost was very great, and paying it is the source of why Gerry Kleba is an angry priest as he put forth in NCR. The sad part for me was that shedding clericalism does not mean shedding a priestly identity. It does not mean discarding clerical garb, and it certainly does not mean declining to be known and seen as “Father.” The very last thing our Church and culture need is another Father who doesn’t want to be one.
Shedding the title, “Father” does nothing to ward off clericalism, and in fact adds to it an equally destructive scandal. The diminishment of fatherhood is a catastrophe in Western Culture with far-reaching and costly effects that I wrote of in a Father’s Day post entitled, “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.” I live in a world in which the absence of fathers has had devastating consequences that have destroyed many more young lives than any sex abuse scandal. Our Church and our culture are in denial about this. The vastly growing numbers of young men in prison – many of whom have never met their fathers – would interpret an effort by me to cast off “Father” as a massive disappointment at best, and, at worst, a cruel joke.
Titles are not used in prison, but many young prisoners call me Father every chance they get. When I asked one why, he shrugged and said, “I just wanted to hear myself say it to someone.” They know the story that sent me to prison. They don’t believe it. They say there is no one else here they can trust. Read “In the Year of the Priest, the Tale of a Prisoner,” and then remind me again why we priests should cast off “Father.”
Father Kleba went on in his article to describe how his anger over the sexual abuse crisis in the priesthood has so stifled his ability to express fatherly concern for the young people in his parish today, but I believe he is missing the most obvious of those opportunities. It takes great courage to Be to Me a Father and a Priest, the title of a book about his priestly vocation by Father Peter M.J. Stravinskas (Newman House Press). It takes great fatherly love and courage to respond to a vocation to priesthood in the current milieu. The young men I hear from who are preparing for priesthood are outstanding in their courage. None of them could fathom a future in which they deal with the dangers of clericalism by shedding a priestly identity or the title, “Father.” To do so, for them, would be to shed the very courage that brought them to respond to priesthood in the first place.
This is not a criticism of Father Kleba, but I could not help but wonder what he might have expected from the readers of the National Catholic Reporter. The comments posted on the article, many of which were sent to me, were for the most part vile and hostile. Those who did not attack Father Kleba himself attacked the very substance of what Father Kleba embraced at ordination. Similar comments at NCR and other “leftist” venues seem to call for the radical feminization of Catholic Christianity in a tone that does not imply a wish to broaden a feminine presence and perspective in the Church and priesthood, but rather to eradicate all semblance and evidence of a masculine one. For them “Father” is twisted into power, abuse, and entitlement, and not community, love, and personal sacrifice.
FROM THE VENERABLE FULTON SHEEN
I paused for a half hour right here because Bishop Fulton Sheen just appeared on my little television screen, right on cue. In “Vatican II Turns Fifty: Catholic in an Age of Discontent” awhile back, I described the climate in which Bishop Sheen became a television star in the 1950s. I was just a small child then, but Father Gerry K1eba should remember him and that era quite well. As I watched and listened to Bishop Sheen just moments ago, I was struck by the power of his voice and screen presence. In a half hour, he laid bare the evil of Communism and its atheist state, the Soviet Union. As an orator, Stalin didn’t stand a chance against Fulton Sheen.
I was also struck by the difference in his TV venue – then and now. Today, you would see Bishop Sheen nowhere but EWTN, a Catholic network that must battle for space on the airwaves of secular broadcasting. In the 1950s, however, there was no “Catholic TV.” Bishop Fulton Sheen won the Emmy Award for “Most Outstanding Television Personality” on secular network television. Nothing evenly remotely similar could happen today, and I just can’t call that progress.
Just a day before the National Catholic Reporter published Gerry Kleba’s “I am an angry priest,” Msgr. Charles Pope published “Are We Down with the People or Up with the Cross?” on his Archdiocese of Washington blog. He began with some advice for priests by Venerable Fulton Sheen:
“We become real priests when we empty ourselves and no longer seek our [own] identity, and where we are lifted up to the cross, not going ‘down to people.’ Too many of us today feel we have to be loved . . . [thinking] the young will not love us unless we talk like them, eat like them, drink like them, clothe ourselves like them. No! They will not love us simply because we go down; they will love us when we lift them up. Else, the world will drag THEM down . . .”
(Bishop Fulton Sheen, “The Meaning of Being a Priest”).
I could not possibly add anything to that except perhaps a realization that I should be reading a great deal more of Bishop Fulton Sheen. In those few lines, he diagnosed clericalism and chartered a path out of it. Had priests listened to him then, the scandal that makes Father Kleba so angry could not have happened. I, for one, am listening now, and from these words of wisdom I must fill in something absent from my seminary training of the “me-first” 1970s: the power and necessity of fatherly sacrifice.
Two weeks ago, Catholic writer Ryan MacDonald published an article entitled “In Fr Gordon MacRae Case: Whack-a-Mole Justice Holds Court.” He raised a point I had not considered very well. My appeal effort – now beginning its next inevitable step, as Ryan revealed – is not just up against the case against me, but up against the entire cultural assault on both fatherhood and the priesthood.
I am an angry priest, too! I am angry that many other priests are angry about all the wrong things. I am angry about being scapegoated among too many U.S. priests; Most of all, I am angry about “Our Catholic Tabloid Frenzy About Fallen Priests,” the title of a recent TSW post that I had hoped other priests might read and disseminate with courage. A few did. Most didn’t. One TSW reader sent a link to it to all 12 board members of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests. Not one responded. Not one.
But all of this anger is just empty if we as priests do not empty ourselves, as Msgr. Charles Pope and Venerable Fulton Sheen suggest, and seek to be lifted up to the cross. I now know my true sin as a priest: that the greater loss in my painful injustice was not my freedom, but my name. I found too painful the fact that many spoke ill of me, that other priests abandoned me, that some in the Church want to silence me. If, as Bishop Fulton Sheen suggests, I can be lifted up to the Cross, then I can see what’s wrong with the preceding sentence. It just has too many occurrences of “me.”
MILLENNIAL CATHOLICS EMBRACE LUMEN FIDEI
Also on the same day Father Gerry Kleba published “I am an angry priest” in NCR, TSW reader, Kevin D. Sullivan posted the first of a two-part manifesto for Millennial Catholics and the future of faith. A student in the class of 2014 at Georgetown University, Kevin published “Francis, a Pope for all Catholics (especially Millennials)” at the Washington Post “On Faith” blog on July 8. Part two entitled, “Millennials are faithful, but not always religious,” was posted at the Washington Post on July 15.
The “Scandal of Clericalism” Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote about came into being in the Church because many Catholics – both priests and laity alike – came to see the proper role of laity in the Church as to be the recipients of faith and grace rather than participants in it. Kevin Sullivan presented us with the perfect solution to clericalism – the example of Pope Francis:
“At every turn, the new Holy Father has been courageous. Pope Francis has opted for a simpler life . . . and challenged Christians to fulfill Christ’s mission in a tone never heard before. We have been invited not to follow him, but to join him in our common spiritual journey.”
In the second part of his article on the faith of Millennials, Kevin Sullivan wrote of a sea-change among his peers at Georgetown in just the last two years. He wrote of how perhaps ten students attended a 10 PM Sunday Mass on campus two years ago, and now there is standing room only. Kevin interprets this as I do: “the missing piece to my generation’s unique struggle with faith was community.”
Throughout last week, Pope Francis brought the light of faith to over two million young people from around the world who converged upon Rio de Janiero, Brazil for World Youth Day 2013. It was a massive celebration of community led by a man the world calls “Father.” This 76-year old Pontiff, who so many in the secular media questioned at election because of his age, absolutely energized over two million young people at World Youth Day, and called upon the world to be lifted up to the Cross. That is our community, our destiny, our freedom. The thunderous cheers heard round the world echoed what Kevin Sullivan wrote in the Washington Post:
“As the Holy Father continues to show remarkable courage, there is only one more way we can fully stand in solidarity with him. By showing courage ourselves as American papists. Such an embrace is not simply about allowing Pope Francis to lead us, but also about helping him to lead. Humbling himself from the moment of his very first words as Pope, Francis has offered us an opportunity that Millennial Catholics can uniquely embrace. By praying with him and journeying with him as papists, it will be more than the Church that is renewed. It will be our entire culture as well.”