Marking 36 years as a priest, now far from paradise, Father Gordon MacRae writes an inconvenient truth about Holy Orders in Exile: Priesthood is not “Going my Way.”
“Kill the priest! Kill the priest! Kill the Priest!” It’s just a distant echo in my mind now, but it was a foot-stomping mind-numbing chant gaining momentum on the night I arrived in the New Hampshire State Prison. That was going on 24 years ago. No one chants for my death anymore – at least, no one here.
I still remember it. A few years later, a prisoner who also remembered it asked if it had frightened me. In fact, he said one of the nicest things I have heard in prison. He told me that the prisoners who spontaneously erupted in that chant of “Kill the Priest!” were just being themselves. When I asked why they no longer do it he said, “Because you were just being yourself!”
Okay, I admit it! It’s nice when people who get to know you no longer want to kill you. But truthfully, the chant induced more pity than fear back then. It is in the nature of prison to produce bullies. That’s where young men tend to go in a system that makes them feel impotent and insecure.
A bully is really just a frightened child wearing the mask of some perverse version of masculinity. On a national scale, this has gotten much worse since I unveiled its pathology in my post, “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.”
It’s in the nature of bullies to seek satisfaction by inducing fears. When the scent of fear is not detected, they just move on in search of a more gullible target. This is advice I have given to countless frightened young men over nearly 24 years in an American prison. In the presence of this pathetic version of manhood, do not lash out, but show no fear. They will move on.
But the best news of all is not that I am a poor target for bullies, but that many of the men around me here who were once bullies are no longer so. They see more clearly the folly of that perversion. Some have said that I influenced that change, but I’m not so sure that I accept that.
One guy told me years later that when he held up a fist, I held up a mirror and he did not like the man he saw. So he changed himself. That is a very important insight, and I’ll get back to it below. For now, I just implore them to remember what they saw and to hold up that mirror for others.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
My priesthood ordination took place on June 5, 1982. That was 13,150 days ago during which time I have been expected to believe that I am transformed into the persona of Someone I could never imagine being, and still can’t. On June 5 this year, I will have spent 8,656 of those days – well more than half – among the villains, victims, social pariahs and other outcasts who populate prison. And I did nothing to earn this.
This is not where I ever imagined life as a priest would bring me. It is not at all where I want to be. It is simply where I am, and no amount of raging against the injustice of it has thus far changed that fact. This is an important truth, and again, one that I will get back to.
Most of you have heard, and some of you accept, that this is not what civilized people would call any semblance of justice. It is interesting how the people of God, aka fellow Catholics, have defined my circumstances for themselves. Some, though they have grown fewer in number, insist that I am exactly where I should be, and no information to the contrary will change their minds.
They tend to apply justice in broad brush strokes, adding emotional and biased examples of profiling having no connection to due process. “Priests must be held accountable.” “Bishops should be held responsible.” “Victims should be believed.” Whatever that is, it does not reflect a system of justice.
While typing this post in my prison cell, I received a message from Catholic League President Bill Donohue informing me that he was to appear on “The World Over with Raymond Arroyo” on EWTN to address the grave injustice the people of Australia are right now inflicting upon Cardinal George Pell.
When I tuned in that night (it was May 17) Bill Donohue was preceded in the discussion by Robert Royal of The Catholic Thing. I respect Robert Royal, but what he said on The World Over was an example of the injustice I am writing about. He mentioned that Cardinal Bernard Law “covered up sexual abuse in Boston” and “was allowed to move to Rome where he was sheltered beyond the reach of the law.”
That is simply untrue. The Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts issued a clear statement that Cardinal Law broke no law of the Commonwealth for which he could or should be prosecuted. It must also be said that being in Rome would not at all have prevented “the reach of the law” from reaching Cardinal Law. I told a very different version of that story in “Cardinal Bernard Law on the Frontier of Civil Rights.”
Even Raymond Arroyo, whom I also respect, chimed in with broad brush strokes of his own about Church officials facing civil justice instead of “hiding behind the skirts of the Church.” The age of #MeToo now descends into a witch hunt. If due process of law does not inform the views of otherwise faithful Catholics, what hope could any accused priest have for fair treatment?
Our friend, Father George David Byers has written about The National Catholic Risk Retention Group and The Judas Crisis it has spawned in the Church. I recently read about a group of priests and other Catholics who call themselves the “Catholic Whistleblowers” calling for lynch-mob public condemnation of the accused. So much for “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
But today, at least for me, far greater numbers of people with some depth of conscience hold that I am unjustly imprisoned in a judicial system that stubbornly refuses to hold a mirror up to itself. The preponderance of evidence does lend itself to this view. The late Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote pointedly (I would add “courageously”) in a First Things essay “A Kafkaesque Tale,” that this story “reflects a Church and a justice system that seem indifferent to justice.”
Not many people on any side of our ideological divide ever just come right out to ask me if I am guilty of what brought me to prison. I have always wondered about that. It took some time before I fully realized it, but the foot-stomping “Kill the Priest” crowd is not confined to prison. And for most of them, the question of guilt or innocence seems not to really matter at all to their clerical blood lust. I asked in a TSW post in June, 2012, “Why Are So Many Catholics So Angry with So Many Priests?”
But I am preaching to the choir. Most of you reading this really want your priests to survive to be priests. Most of you see inherent good in them, even in the ones whom you find irksome: the rebels (if you trend right), the traditionalists (if you trend left), the eccentric, the sheltered, the tyrannical managers, the starry-eyed dreamers, the priests who never venture out into the smell of the sheep, or the ones who are never home when you want them.
Whatever complaint you may have about them, you cannot deny that they are good men. By virtue of priesthood, you find something of special value in them. You see clear definition between mere persona and persona Christi. You would do a great service for them and for the Church if you hold up a mirror to help them see this distinction in themselves.
I have come to believe that priesthood and the Church are better served when we priests have a clearer vision of our humanity. A pedestal is a very difficult place upon which to keep one’s balance. Read the Gospel. Jesus never summoned a superstar.
The most effective priests I know are not so because of their greatness, but because of their faith in Someone greater than themselves. I know priests who have cancer, and their faith is deeper than ever. I know priests who have lost their faith. Cancer has nothing on that dark night of the soul.
DEATH IN HOLY ORDERS
I write from a place that by its very nature makes it difficult to write at all. One of the challenges is that I have no access, except in my own mind, to any of what I have written in the past. Over time, some readers have urged me to collect all that I have written into a published book. Regardless of whether this would be a worthy project, it is an impossible one.
I live in a 60-square-foot cell shared with another human being. None of what I write is retained except in my own mind and “out there” beyond These Stone Walls. And, as you know, I have no access to the online world. I have been able to purchase a newly allowed tablet device that greatly expands my ability to communicate. It is not at all the online world to which you are accustomed, but in prison, it is revolutionary that I can read and respond to messages sent directly to me from “beyond.”
You may notice that sometimes there are links in my posts to other posts that I have written in the past. Some readers find the links to be a distraction while others say they like to come back later to read what a post links to. It’s a good sign that a recent review of These Stone Walls revealed that the largest percentage of readers spend over two hours here in a given week.
Because I cannot look up past posts and cannot keep a printed copy of them, I have to rely only on my memory for access to what I have written in the past, but I do have a list of my titles. Each week I simply add the current title to my list.
To date, I have written 460 posts for These Stone Walls. About 20 of them have been science posts, my “other” obsession. About 30 have been about prison, the one thing always looming before me with no end in sight, and I do not know why people find that interesting. But over 300 of my posts, I am surprised to see, have been about priesthood. I am surprised because there is not much where I live that supports any identity as a priest, but even in prison, it overshadows everything.
During Lent back in 2011, which now seems so very long ago, I wrote a post entitled, “Suffering and St. Maximilian Kolbe behind These Stone Walls.” I remember writing it, and I remember the dream I had that was revealed in that post. In the dream, I had been invited to a Passover meal called a Seder.
As the ritual unfolded in my dream, and the reading of the Haggadah began with the story of exile and the Exodus from Egypt, the plates of food for the ritual meal were placed before us. But my plate contained only one thing, a big pile of maror, the Hebrew name for the bitter herbs (from Exodus 12:8) consumed on the first night of Passover. The maror is to remind Jews of the suffering of their ancestors in captivity in Egypt.
In the Seder, it is dipped in haroset, the Hebrew term for a paste that represents the mortar holding bricks together during hard labor in captivity. That my plate in the dream contained only bitter herbs has long stayed with me. Is there to be no justice, no freedom ever?
A PRIEST’S SEARCH FOR MEANING
My imprisonment has been very much influenced by a book by Auschwitz prisoner and survivor, Viktor Frankl entitled, Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press). Viktor Frankl was a young physician, a psychiatrist by specialty when he and his beloved wife and family were separated and imprisoned in the horror of Auschwitz. He alone survived.
It was from Viktor Frankl that I first learned of St Maximilian Kolbe who was present in the same prison.
“‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add deeper meaning to his life. He may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. This decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, 67)
This is an essential truth to which I am in debt to both Viktor Frankl and St Maximilian Kolbe. When we face any circumstance over which we are powerless to change, the only thing left is to change ourselves. We have the power and the freedom to choose the person we will be in any set of conditions. A priest can remain just a persona, even sink to its lowest depths, or he can be what he is destined to be – even in prison.
There is a board on the pictorial social media site, Pinterest, called “Catholic News on These Stone Walls.” Links and images from TSW posts going back nine years can be found there. As you likely know, I rely on friends to post things for me. I am always amazed by how often photos and images there are shared by others.
One day during a telephone call, a friend was posting a photo of me on Pinterest. I believe it was that awful photo of me being led off to prison at the end of Ryan MacDonald’s recent guest post, “#MeToo & #HimToo: Jonathan Grover & Father Gordon MacRae.” When putting that image on the Catholic News board, my friend asked what caption she should give it. I told her to type “Father Gordon MacRae, Concord New Hampshire Prison.”
I’m not sure what she thought she heard, but weeks later another friend came across that image in a Google search and sent it to me. The caption Pinterest had given it had already circulated for weeks. I was shocked to see under that photo the caption, “Father Gordon MacRae Conquered New Hampshire Prison.”
I quickly asked my friend to find it and fix it, but when I showed the printed page to a few friends here, they wanted me to leave it intact. “In a way, it’s true’” Pornchai Moontri said. It’s only true in the sense that no one here is chanting “Kill the priest’” anymore. And as for me, the ascension of Persona Christi is not because of me, rather in spite of me.
Marking 36 years of priesthood, I thank you for being here with me at this turning of the tide.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Do you have email or Facebook contact with a priest or deacon? If so, please share a link to this post with him. Please also share this on your own social media. You may like these related posts on These Stone Walls:
- Five Years of Pope Francis in a Time of Heresy
- Priesthood in the Real Presence, and the Present Absence
- Opus Bono Sacerdotii: Heroic Witness to a Heroic Vocation
- A Weapon of Mass Destruction: Catholic Priests Falsely Accused