Fr George David Byers, Fr Joe Coffey, Fr Stuart MacDonald, Fr Tim Moyle, Fr James Valladares, Fr John Zuhlsdorf: witnesses to Divine Mercy along the Road to Jericho.
My title for this post mixes two very different Biblical references: Azazel, a demon of the desert from the Book of Leviticus (16: 8-26), and the Priest who passed by a beaten man on the Road to Jericho in the Gospel of Saint Luke (10:25-37). The two accounts have little connection except that they in some way both involve exiles living beyond the periphery.
Back in 2011, independent journalist Ryan MacDonald published an article about me entitled “To Azazel: Father Gordon MacRae and the Gospel of Mercy.” His title was most intriguing. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Leviticus (16:8-26) makes four references to “Azazel” the mysterious demonic figure who dwells in the desert and to whom the Biblical scapegoat is banished on the Day of Atonement.
It’s a ritual that stems from the very roots of Israel. It is the Biblical story recalled on Yom Kippur (in Hebrew, yom hakippurim) meaning, “Day of Atonement.” It falls on the tenth day of Tishri, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar and the first of the Jewish New Year. In the modern calendar, it occurs in September or early October.
The most sacred of Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur recalls the ritual sacrifice of atonement by the high priest, Aaron (Leviticus 16). During the ritual, the high priest placed his hands upon a goat to impose upon it the sins of the repentant people of Israel. The goat was then exiled into the desert wilderness “for Azazel.”
The word, “scapegoat,” someone assigned to bear blame for the sins of others, originated with this ancient Biblical text called the Shaharit. On Yom Kippur, the account is read from Leviticus 16 to remind all Israel that the scapegoat has paid for their sins.
The name, Azazel, is never explained in Scripture. It likely has some background lost to antiquity, but Hebrew scholars from ancient times have believed that Azazel is a demon, a fallen angel who inhabits the desert as a place of exile. Some scholars believe that Azazel is the unnamed devil of the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11) who led Jesus into the desert to test and tempt him. This makes sense when you understand that Jesus became the scapegoat for all of humanity.
Ryan MacDonald’s post, “To Azazel,” created an image that other scapegoats have borne into exile the sins of the priesthood. If there is some underlying archetypal meaning in my own ordeal, then Ryan may be onto something here that I find both haunting and discouraging. Far greater than my burden of false witness is being presumed guilty and shunned by other priests. Ryan’s link provides examples, but I asked him when he wrote it not to name names, and he obliged.
SNATCHED FROM AZAZEL AND EXILE
I have since, however, become aware of some stellar examples that counter the above paragraph. These are some paradigms of priestly witness and courage, men who have reached into my exile to negate the power of Azazel and my scapegoat status. This past Christmas – moved only by the truth of the Gospel – some priests have stepped into my desert exile in profound and courageous ways. I am moved and humbled by the strength of their witness.
You may recall from recent posts that at Christmas this year, my ability to offer Mass in my prison cell late on Sunday nights was restored. This happened when I was released from the prison chaos in which I had spent the last 14 months.
Also at Christmas, however, I learned that during that entire time of deprivation, Father Tim Moyle in Pembroke, Ontario had been offering Mass in my stead. After fourteen months of being unable to offer Mass because I was consigned to live eight to a cell, Father Moyle quietly began to offer Mass for my intentions each week. I cannot put into words the power of this sacrifice. It was a profound Spiritual Work of Mercy.
After Christmas, Father John Zuhlsdorf posted a message to his many readers at the very popular Father Z’s Blog asking them to be aware of my situation, to remember it in prayer, to visit These Stone Walls, and to assist us when they can. The response overwhelmed not only me, but TSW.
In the last week of 2017, thousands of readers came to visit from Father Z’s site to read our “About Page” and to extend their prayers and support. Father Z’s outreach to me was astonishing, and it reflects the heart of a priest undaunted by the fears that prevent others from reaching beyond the periphery. Father Zuhlsdorf called upon his readers to visit the imprisoned in the spirit of Hebrews 13:3.
Father Stuart MacDonald, also a priest in Ontario, has been a regular visitor to These Stone Walls. He was the author of an excellent guest post some months ago, “Ever Ancient, Ever New: Jesus’ Priesthood in a Time of Chaos.” Father Stuart has been a frequent reader, commenter, and correspondent. He has been reaching behind These Stone Walls in priestly witness and fraternal support as both a brother priest and as a canon lawyer. In a time of high anxiety when trying to comprehend the affairs of the Holy See in regard to the ultimate exile for a priest, Father Stuart has been a solid source of support and knowledge.
Father James Valladares, a priest of the Diocese of Adelaide, Australia, is a constant presence on These Stone Walls. He is the author of Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast, a book we have featured in recent weeks. Here is an excerpt:
“At a time when many Catholics reeled over the scandal in the Catholic Church, Dorothy Rabinowitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist on The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, took a hard look at the facts of the case of Fr. Gordon MacRae – facts that the rest of the news media distorted or conveniently omitted…
Even so, Father MacRae’s eye-catching, thought-provoking, and conscience-grabbing blog, These Stone Walls, has been deemed by many to be the finest example of priestly witness amid the plethora of scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church.” (Hope Springs Eternal, pp 273-274).
Father Valladares also wrote the TSW guest post, “A Priest Twenty Years Wrongly in Prison in America.” He may be wrong on just one point. I am finding far more powerful examples of priestly witness during the more recent years under the yoke of scandal. The courageous priests described here have been the source of that witness.
And one of them, as you know, is Father George David Byers. From his parish in Andrews, North Carolina, Father George uses some of his “day off” each week to scan and help edit my posts which are snail-mailed to him. He adds links, repairs scanning errors, and prepares the post for final publishing by Suzanne Sadler, TSW’s publisher in Australia.
Father George first volunteered to do this at a time when he was silenced by forces in the Church that wanted to prevent such outreach beyond the periphery. Since then, his silencing was reversed by Pope Francis, and his voice was restored in a new Catholic blog, “Arise, Let Us Be Going.” Father George was also a Missionary of Mercy appointed by Pope Francis. He was again confirmed in that status into the future.
ANOTHER SCAPEGOAT FOR AZAZEL
Father George David Byers sometimes says that I am too subtle when I write. He says it takes some “reading between the lines” to get at the underlying messages in some of my posts. Father Byers often chides me to be a little less subtle, especially when it comes to irony.
I know I use irony a lot when I write, but so did Jesus, and so does the Gospel. Even Father George has been known to venture into the ironic. His blog title, after all, is taken from the words of Jesus at Gethsemane, just before the betrayal of Judas: “Arise, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” (Matthew 26:46)
We don’t get much more ironic than that. One of the meanings of irony is a story with an outcome that is contrary to what a listener might expect. The parables of Jesus are filled with it. I wrote of one such parable in “On the Road to Jericho: A Parable for the Year of Mercy.”
It’s the story of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10: 25-37) who in the mind of the Pharisee in the story was thought to be anything but good. For the cast of characters in the Gospel, Samaritans were “half-breeds,” outsiders who centuries earlier were cast to live in exile beyond the periphery.
The parable came in answer to a lawyer’s question about exclusivity: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus went straight for the irony. He told a story about a man beaten by robbers and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Along came a priest on his way to the Jerusalem Temple to offer sacrifice. Seeing the beaten man, the priest would not stop. As you will understand if you read that post, the laws of ritual purity prevented him from proceeding to the Temple if he touched the dying man. A Levite also passed by for the same reason.
Then along came a Samaritan, already an outsider excluded from the faith life of the Jews. The Pharisee knew that this Samaritan was subject to no ritual law to stop him from binding the wounds of the dying man. Alas, the irony, and for the lawyer-Pharisee, it stung deeply.
The original question of the Pharisee – “Who is my neighbor?” – was thus transformed from a passive to an active sense. It was rephrased by Jesus into “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” Bludgeoned by the irony, the downcast Pharisee was forced to respond, “The one who showed him mercy.”
So why am I telling you about this parable now? You might know that former Boston Archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law died in Rome at age 86 on December 20. For many in the news media, it was just another chance to smear him as a scapegoat for the 2002 sexual abuse crisis in the Church.
There is no figure in the Catholic Church in America more reviled in the news media and among Catholics who were alarmed and embarrassed by the sex abuse scandal of 2002.
Almost overnight, Cardinal Law went from being a revered Prince of the Church to being universally condemned as a scapegoat for the crisis. He resigned as Archbishop of Boston and relocated to Rome in quiet retirement.
Cardinal Law was forced out of Boston in 2002 because The Boston Globe and its “Spotlight” team created a perfect storm of moral panic. But I took a more ironic route. At the time of his death, I reposted an article that I first wrote in 2015, “Cardinal Bernard Law on the Frontier of Civil Rights.”
It’s important to understand why I wrote that article. It contains an ironic account in its first several paragraphs. In 2002 in New Hampshire, just north of Boston, a prosecutor was merciless in persecuting the Diocese, its bishops, and a number of accused priests in claims that extended back thirty to fifty years. Much of the story was tried in the news media without ever being tested in any court of law.
When it was over, the Bishop of Manchester agreed on behalf of the diocese to a deal that meant handing over thousands of pages of priest personnel files in direct violation of canon law and due process. The result was the series of settlements described in these pages recently in “The Tyranny of #MeToo.”
A few years later, the prosecutor in that case moved on to become an attorney in private practice for a local law firm. One of his cases was the defense of a public middle school assistant principal facing multiple felony charges of the sexual abuse of a 14-year-old student in the present, not forty years earlier.
Arguing the case before the same media and courts to which he subjected the priests and Diocese, the attorney arranged a plea deal in which the offending teacher would serve months – not years or decades – in a county jail. The lawyer’s argument, which no one in the media questioned and no judge challenged, was that all the good the teacher had done was not undone by these charges.
So why could the same not apply to Cardinal Law? I did a little research and discovered some astonishing and heroic good that he had done as a priest during the Civil Rights struggle in Mississippi. In late December, I reposted my article to use my small voice “for the record” to counter the merciless treatment he received even in death. I am simply unwilling to let The Boston Globe have the last word on this.
The comments on that post tell an ironic parable by people who lent their own voices to restore justice moved by Divine Mercy. One of the newest comments, when I reposted the article, is by Father Joseph Coffey, and it’s a special story on its own merit. Father Joe Coffey is a United States Navy Chaplain. A few years ago, while serving in a war zone in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, Father Joe discovered These Stone Walls.
Ministering to Marines in one of the most dangerous war zones in the world, Father Joe began to read my posts and share them with some of his Marines. Over time, he corresponded with me, and it was a great privilege to reach out to a priest in conditions far more trying than my own. During a brief leave from the war zone, this brave priest came to visit me in prison.
When I reposted “Cardinal Bernard Law on the Frontier of Civil Rights,” Father Joe Coffey did what he always does. He cut through the irony with a comment that is bold, courageous, and merciful to help take a good priest from the grip of Azazel and help bind the wounds on his good name. I am giving the last word on this to Father Joe Coffey:
“Amazing article! I was stationed in Okinawa when the storm began in Boston. I remember thinking that I should try to address this in a homily. My Marines in attendance at that Mass told me they were quite aware that the vast majority of priests were good men trying to do God’s work and that the media was overdoing the coverage.
I now admit after reading your excellent article about Cardinal Law that I did not take the time or make the effort to find out who the real Cardinal Law was. Shame on me. Thank you, Father Gordon, for your courage, and for telling the truth that I believe many people, including Catholics, need to hear about an exceptional priest, Bernard Law. Semper Fl! Father Joe Coffey, Navy Chaplain.”
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: For more on the story of scapegoats and parables, see and share these other posts: