Should the State’s flawed justice be mirrored in the Church? This must be asked and the truth written. But ask as well, “Can a leper priest also serve God?”
Something happened over the last few weeks that cast yet another, but brighter light on the recent events that have so overshadowed These Stone Walls. In “You Did It to Me: Wisdom and Works of Mercy” posted just before Divine Mercy Sunday last month, I described the commencement of our third retreat hosted by the Marians of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy now underway behind prison walls. The text for the retreat is “The ‘One Thing’ Is Three” by Father Michael Gaitley, MIC. The timing of it is by design, of course, but not by my design. The retreat has lifted a corner of the shroud that overshadowed my life behind these prison walls beginning on Wednesday of Holy Week.
Ryan MacDonald wrote of this in “For One Priest, A Fate Worse than Dying in Prison,” the second of his excellent two-part analysis of a recent court ruling that was a setback in my hope for justice and freedom. I have much gratitude for Ryan’s effort, and especially so because he left you with hope by telling you that I learned of this decision just as I was writing, “You Did it to Me.”
While writing that post, my eyes were opened a little, just enough to see what discouragement kept me from seeing. It reminded me so vividly of a story that took place on the road to Emmaus at another time of discouragement:
“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from knowing him… Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:13-23)
Someone might ask that same question of me if I lapse into writing about a Divine Mercy retreat without addressing “all these things that had happened” in the arena of justice and injustice. So I am also most grateful to New Jersey Attorney Vincent James Sanzone for his enlightened analysis of the legal precipice awaiting me and other falsely accused priests in both Church and State: “A Criminal Defense Expert Unfurls Father MacRae Case.” Prior to writing that guest post, Attorney Sanzone wrote a brilliant letter to Pope Francis about this matter, and to EWTN. I believe the EWTN letter may have been what prompted Brian Fraga and the National Catholic Register to publish “New Hampshire Priest Continues the Long Road to Clear His Name” (NCRegister.com, March 18, 2015).
Was I discouraged by the outcome revealed to me on Wednesday of Holy Week? Yes, I was. Was I devastated as some have suggested I was, for a time. Have I given up? Not hardly. That’s about all I have to offer about this. More important things have happened, and I haven’t time to descend into a litany of woe-is-me. Another day, perhaps. It’s time now to step out of this arena of justice and all its flaws, and to step back onto that road to Emmaus.
THE VOICE OF THE ENEMY
As I wrote at the beginning of this post, something happened that cast a brighter light – brighter than my discouragement, at least – on the events of recent days. Let me first tell you what happened.
On the evening of Divine Mercy Sunday as this retreat began, Pornchai Maximilian sat in a chair to my right and Michael Ciresi to my left. Along with seventeen other prisoners who joined us, we watched and listened to a DVD presentation by Father Michael Gaitley to introduce the retreat. It was excellent, of course, and Pornchai was riveted to the projection of Father Gaitley on the prison chapel wall.
Every now and then the camera recording Father Gaitley swept over his audience, and there, seated near the back, I spotted a familiar face: Marian missionary Eric Mahl. You may recall that Pornchai and Eric Mahl both had chapters featuring them in Felix Carroll’s great Divine Mercy book, Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions. Later they met and became friends and brothers. I nudged Pornchai and pointed as Eric appeared on the wall. Just at that moment, Eric looked toward the camera and smiled. Pornchai smiled back.
The next day a letter arrived for Pornchai. As though right on cue, it was from Eric Mahl. It was a copy of a letter from Eric to some people who are helping Pornchai by organizing an effort to secure his future in Thailand when he is free from these stone walls. During his missionary outreach to prisons, Eric Mahl has had three meetings with Pornchai. On the last one, he was accompanied by Father Seraphim Michelenko who served as vice-postulator for the Cause of Canonization of Saint Maria Faustina. I wrote of that meeting in “Father Seraphim Michalenko on a Mission of Divine Mercy.” Eric also wrote of that meeting in his letter:
“This very holy priest had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with Pornchai in the Chapel, to talk to him and get to know him. When [Father Seraphim] and I were on our way home back to the Shrine in Massachusetts, he told me that the peace in that Chapel must be what Heaven is like and that Pornchai Moontri is a very holy and beautiful child of God. I write all of this to let you know how I desire to see this restored child of God out of prison and living free in Thailand where he could help the rest of society.” (Letter of Eric Mahl)
On April 19, the second Sunday evening of our retreat, we watched the second of Father Gaitley’s DVD presentations, and this time Pornchai listened intently while also looking for his friend Eric Mahl in the background. Later that evening, during a small group discussion led by Marian volunteer Jim Preisendorfer, I heard something astonishing. During Father Gaitley’s presentation, he spoke of the eight reasons why we don’t appreciate the Trinity. One of them, Reason Number Seven, is “Because we listen to the voice of the enemy.” By way of example, I wrote in my notes:
“Part of Satan’s strategy is to keep us unfocused from our destiny. He lures us into being satisfied with this world so that so many of us just settle for what this life gives us, or despair over what this life denies us.”
When I read my own notes, I couldn’t even remember writing that. It was as though my pen were on autopilot. Then table moderator Jim Preisendorfer asked for a comment on “Reason Number Seven.” No one spoke so I read my note above. Jim asked if I could give a concrete example. “I can,” Pornchai chimed in. He then spoke about a conversation he and I had seven years ago. Hope seemed futile for him then. I had asked him back then if he had any hope at all for the future. I will never forget his answer “I don’t have a future I only have a ‘Plan B.’”
Over time I came to understand what “Plan B” was, though, I had not heard Pornchai speak of it for a long time. At the table during our retreat that night, Pornchai explained that “Plan B” was his only plan, and it arose spontaneously within him. “Plan B” was to never leave prison. Having been cast into prison with a 45-year sentence at age 18, followed by years of solitary confinement in a dreaded “Supermax” prison, Pornchai had laid out in his mind the only future this life could promise him: to live out his life in prison. To die in prison. He had nothing else to look forward to.
On that night, however, Pornchai reflected what Eric Mahl described. He radiated the life of a restored child of God for whom that dismal “Plan B” was but a long forgotten memory. He spoke of it as a perfect example of how listening to the voice of the enemy can deny us our destiny. I sat there asking myself, “When did this happen. How did it happen?”
Then Pornchai jabbed a thumb in my direction at the table. “When this guy stepped into my life,” he said, “he released me from the grip of ‘Plan B.’” Pornchai described how he took a great risk to trust in some vague hope that was covered in a cloud and could not be seen, so he just took my word for it. “Now, seven years later,” he said that night, “‘Plan B’ is just an old memory with no power over me, and people all over the world have come together to replace it.”
While he spoke at that table, I looked down at my own thumbs as Pornchai jabbed his thumb in my direction I could not look up. I knew that if I made eye contact with him at that moment, I would have fallen apart. My own plan for my life and my priesthood certainly never included life in prison for a crime that never took place. It never included being demonized and scapegoated to satisfy the demands of contingency lawyers and insurance companies as Ryan pointed out. It never included pleading for my Church to see the failures of American civil justice instead of just blindly declaring them final and fulfilled justice.
Ryan MacDonald charged in a comment a few weeks ago that the American hierarchy’s response to the priesthood crisis has been more like a housecleaning than a healing. My plan for my life never included a dread that my own bishop might echo in Rome the Twelfth Century plea of Henry II about Thomas Beckett “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
My plan for priesthood also never included Pornchai Moontri, nor could I have ever foreseen the notion that the tragedy that befell me could ever be anything other than a tragedy for someone else.
THE LEPER PRIEST
I vividly remember, as a young seminarian in the latter 1970s, watching a two-part PBS dramatization of the life of Father Damien de Veuster, the Belgian priest who in 2009 became Saint Damien of Molokai. I was fascinated by the PBS version. It remains in my psyche as one of the alluring things that drew me toward and kept me focused on a side of priesthood in danger of being lost today, the notion that priesthood isn’t a job, but an ontological state of being. To see priests “fired” and cast off seems like “Reason Number Seven,” like succumbing to the voice of the enemy as he lures priesthood from its destiny.
When Damien of Molokai was driven across that line between ministering to lepers and becoming a leper, it was seen as a tragedy to his friends, but hindsight sees it as a gift to the Church and the world. When he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, Emily Stimpson wrote of him in “Untamed Saint” in Our Sunday Visitor:
“Saints are made through trials and persecution. And Father Damien had more than his share of those. For most of the 16 years he served on Molokai, he served alone… He begged his superiors to send him help. Usually they ignored his requests. Twice, however, they did send someone. The first was a Dutch priest who complained incessantly. The second was a French priest who accused Father Damien of improper relations with the native women. His superiors and bishop grew tired of his constant demand for help. They considered him an obstinate, headstrong troublemaker. The government shared that opinion, and more than a few officials gave credence to false rumors circulated about him. His detractors heaped every sort of abuse and calumny upon Father Damien… Enduring his own dark night, he felt abandoned by God and unworthy of heaven.” (Emily Stimpson, “Untamed Saint,” OSV, October 11, 2009)
I am told we have another legal appeal, and I haven’t given up, but I wouldn’t even want you to donate funds for this. Not any more. I know my lawyers might cringe at this, but you have done enough and I can ask no more of any of you. Perhaps someone will come along for whom such help is less of a personal sacrifice, and I will thank God for that person. I thank God for you already.
AN EPILOGUE OF IRONY
Last Sunday, April 26 at Sunday morning Mass in the prison chapel, our friends Alexander Page and Adam Guyette were Baptized and Confirmed by Bishop John McCormack, retired Bishop of Manchester. You may recall Alex from his TSW guest post, “Turning a Page: A Long Lent Toward Easter Sunrise.” You have also met Adam Guyette, though not by name. He is the person standing on the right of Pornchai and me in that now well-known photograph of our Marian Consecration in Felix Carroll’s Marian Helper article “Mary is at Work Here.”
Two weeks ago, Alexander Page came to me with a question. He did not have a middle name and wanted a Saint’s name for his Confirmation name. I suggested “Epipodius.” “HUH? WHO?” Alex asked. I explained that Saints Alexander and Epipodius were inseparable friends who were in prison at the time of their conversion in the Second Century. They were canonized together, having been martyred for refusing to denounce their Christian faith in the month of April, 178 A.D.
Epipodius was martyred first while Alexander was forced to watch. Witnessing the courage of Epipodius, Alexander drew strength and courage of his own. He was so bold in his profession of faith after the beheading of Epipodius that he was crucified, an outcome that Salvation History now looks upon as an honor.
Their story made we wonder; in what now do I hope? Dare I hope for freedom? Dare I hope to restore my name in a climate of fear and loathing that gave birth to a new class of lepers in our accused priests? Dare I hope to rescue priesthood from bureaucratic scorn? I can do none of these, so I trudge on with the sure knowledge that none are impossible for God. Matthew Bunson, in his book, St. Damien of Molokai: Apostle of the Exiled (OSV) wrote of this leper-saint:
“He showed the lepers that they had not been forgotten by God, just as he was supported by the prayers and love of people he never met, in distant countries he would never visit.”
So on Sunday, April 26, 2015, Pornchai Maximilian Moontri, Michael Ciresi, Donald Spinner and I watched from the back of the Chapel as Alexander Epipodius Page and Adam Mark Guyette were Baptized and Confirmed in their faith and entered into full Communion as Roman Catholics. I am compelled to tell you of this. To tell you, the people I have never met in distant lands I may never see, of the folly of ever giving up on another human soul.
We all returned to our prison cells last Sunday, still prisoners in the physical sense, but free of all the hard roads that converged upon this day of redemption and restoration. I am glad to know these good men, and had I never passed this way, these threads in the Tapestry of God might have been left dangling, never connecting in this gift of communion.
So as difficult and painful as this process has been through which I ended up among them, I now take a lesson from Damien, Leper priest.
Note from Father Gordon: The new mail policy for prisoners here went into effect on May 1st. All greeting cards to this prison are hereby banned. However there has been one small modification. Photocopies of articles, newspaper accounts, and anything printed or typed, including images, is still permitted as long as it is done on plain copy paper and not layered card stock. Photographs are also permitted on either copy paper or photo-quality paper but not card stock. I’ll keep you posted as to further changes. Remember that all mail to me must be addressed without title to:
Gordon J. MacRae
P.O. Box 14 – N. 67546
Concord, NH 03302-0014
Please, see our “Contact Page” if you have other questions.