Some years ago, as someone I knew was going through some deep misunderstanding, I googled the words “when you are falsely accused”, to try and find something of help. That is when I discovered, “These Stone Walls” and Father Gordon’s story. As a canonist, (note to readers: a canonist is a man versed in Church law) I read everything on site, I also googled other sources, to see if I was not being “lured” into some kind of false story. I read through pages and pages, and like Cardinal Avery Dulles and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, as well as so many readers of Father Gordon’s story, I became convinced that he was wrongly imprisoned. History and Church History is replete with stories of falsely accused persons, some even ending up loosing their lives…only to be rehabilitated after their deaths and even sometimes canonised.
I am just an ordinary priest, I work in the missions (have been in “the missions” for nearly 20 years) and I am contemplating a change of course in my life…toward, perhaps, a monastic vocation. Please make a little prayer for this poor priest from the plains of Canada, who, after working in the mountains of Italy (whilst studying Canon Law), left Rome for a missionary life in the Islands. I am humbled that Fr. Gordon asked me to write a guest post.
I have no special authority in the Church except that of a priest who loves the Church with all his heart and wishes that the scars which have marked the Church with the inexcusable and horrendous crimes of some of its men be healed, that children be protected in the Church and Society at large and that, of course, priests be given due process as in some countries, I have seen a worrying trend. As repeated more than once in this blog, there are some terrible stories out there. I know the story of my own past parish priest, now deceased, who was falsely accused. The pain he went through just cannot be described. After all was over and he has exonerated of blame, he moved to another part of Canada as he could not minister in our diocese with the “stigma” attached to him. So, from my young adult life, I have been worried about due process for priests. I am digressing… let us now turn rather to the Church and its rich patrimony of holiness.
One of the saints that most fascinated me as a teenager was St. Thomas Becket whose feast day the Church celebrates on the 29th of December. I remember reading his biography published by Doubleday Image Books. I must have been in grade 9 when I read the story of this saint who died a martyr’s death. The story is well known: Becket was a very worldly cleric and a good friend of the King of England, Henry II Plantagenet. He became the King’s Chancellor, the highest position in the realm. He did the King’s bidding. However, when the Archbishopric of Canterbury became vacant, the King insisted that Thomas become the Archbishop. Thomas warned the King that their friendship might be lost in the process if that were to happen. The King, extremely self-willed, got what he wanted and Thomas became the Archbishop.
Then something weird happened. Thomas was changed and became a champion of the Church insisting on faithfulness to the See of Rome, to the Papacy and how the Church ought to be faithful to the Pope and independent from royal power. The quarrel between the King and Thomas lasted for years leading to persecution and the exile of the saint until one day the King in a rage said, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest!” And so it was that on the 29th of December 1140, some knights, taking the King’s comment as a literal command, entered the Cathedral of Canterbury where the Archbishop was preparing for Vespers and murdered him breaking his consecrated skull open and spreading his brains on the pavement of the Cathedral Church.
The Archbishop could have run away, but he faced he murderers bravely. Ultimately the King bitterly regretted his friend’s death and made public penance. The fact remains that Thomas, with his frank talk, lost his life because of his love of the Church, his faithfulness to the Successor of Peter and the rights of the Papacy.
How many of us would be willing to do that today ?
It seems that every newspaper you pick, there is always someone who somehow has to “attack Rome”. So it was with the Pope at the time of Becket, so it was with Paul VI, with John Paul II and now with our beloved Benedict XVI. It even seems, as one can see from the flurry of “vati-leaks” that even from ”within” the Church, faithfulness to the Holy Father is jeopardised to the point that in April our Holy Father appointed a commission of Cardinals to investigate this horrible lack of fidelity to the Church.
I ask you, the reader of these lines: up to where would you go in your defence of the Holy Father?
The love that Thomas had for the papacy is reflected in a passage which the Church proposes to our meditation taken from one of his letters. It is found in the Breviary on the 29th of December. I doubt that the woman who assaulted our Holy Father on Christmas eve a few years ago had these words in mind !!! :
“There are great many bishops in the Church, but would to God we were zealous teachers and pastors that we promised to be at our consecration, and still make profession of being. The harvest is good and one reaper or even several would not suffice to gather all of it into the granary of the Lord. Yet the Roman Church remains the head of all the churches and the source of Catholic teaching. Of this there can be no doubt. Everyone knows that the keys of the Kingdom if heaven were given to Peter/…/ No matter who plants or waters, God gives no harvest unless what he plants is the faith of Peter and unless he himself assents to Peter’s teaching. All important questions that arise among God’s people are referred to the judgement of Peter in the person of the Roman Pontiff. Under him the ministers of Mother Church exercise the powers committed to them, each in his own sphere of responsibility. Remember then how our fathers worked out their salvation; remember the sufferings through which the Church has grown, and the storms the ship of Peter has weathered because it has Christ on board.”
These words of Thomas Becket resonate in today’s Church, in today’s world. We must rediscover this attachment to the Vicar of Christ. Too many churchmen today are too busy with their careers. They forget this vital link with Peter. They care little or less about the Gospel or its proclamation. Sometimes the Pope is lauded in public but beguiled behind closed doors…Pope Benedict has warned the Church more than once about these dangers of ecclesial ambition which can be found “in the ranks”.
Indeed, years ago, I had a classmate of mine in canon law with whom I got along real well. We studied together and actually sat side by side in the licentiate sessions in Rome and later would defend our thesis’ the same day (quite by chance actually…). I had noticed something strange in my friend and in some other classmates from various parts of the world. They seemed to choose their friends in view of ecclesial ‘social climbing’. I was determined not to let my friend fall into this trap in which he seemed to willingly throw himself. So, I went to him and said, ‘Robert, (not his real name) I am leaving for the missions and have something to tell you, If you continue down this road, you will end up in hell’. He was of course, not amused.
But the truth is the truth, and in the Church the truth has to be said…I have seen too many priests just eaten up with ambition, thinking of climbing the ranks. I have seen much too much for my years. Yet somehow I always feel comforted by words that I heard Cardinal Ratzinger say about the power of truth at a homily delivered at the Saint Thomas of Aquinas Pontifical University when I was a student. From that time, I have never been afraid to say what I think in Church circles.
It has not always gained me friends. In fact, truth be told, I have been qualified as a dreamer by a person of influence whom I thought was my friend; by others I have been told I was inappropriate in what I express and someone else warned me that my frankness gets me into trouble. Well…if being frank in Church is a danger, we are on a slippery slope. The Church has had enough of the non-evangelical kind of diplomacy. With this type of mindset we’ve kept inept Bishops in place, we’ve kept abusers in place, we’ve let Christianity fall apart…All a far cry from the ideal proposed by the red blood of Thomas Becket whose fidelity to Christ and the Church, manifested in his frankness, cost his life.
Archbishops and Bishops, priests and religious and laypeople [notice I am including everyone] are sometimes afraid to speak to another Bishop or hierarch, a confrere or fellow-Christian, whether in a leadership position or not for fear of what it will do to the public image. I say let us rediscover the style of the Gospel it its simple truthful talk… full torpedoes ahead. We need to rediscover the freshness of the words of the Gospel. Jesus did not put this kind of worldly diplomacy as his first priority. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the Life !” In fact, the whole Pascal Mystery we have been celebrating since Easter has us follow Jesus through the mystery of His Passion, Suffering and redemptive Death to the glory of His Resurrection.
Certainly Our Blessed Lord did not mince his words and even in the worst hours of His ever-so-sorrowful Passion He spoke the Truth. Just think of the Words He said to Pilate or to the High Priests; stunning in clarity and directness. No pussyfooting around. Yes, there is a place for diplomacy, the true diplomacy of the Gospel which Benedict XVI preaches incessantly with words and by his example although never mincing words ! I have known many Bishops, priests and laypersons who witness to the Lord like Benedict does, not afraid of the splendour of the Truth and yet knowing how to do it “with the right words.” Cardinal Dolan is certainly such an example, and we have, of course, Fr. Gordon.
Father Gordon MacRae is one of the few voices of the Church in the United States who from the depth of his prison dares to speak the truth, dares to come forward and make us reflect on our faith, our cowardice, our lack of charity our misunderstanding of the Gospel and our lack of courage (because not relying on the gift of Fortitude) to stand for what is right and denounce what it wrong. He is like a modern Thomas Becket. Agents of evil would want him shut up for ever. Some persons even in Church circles perhaps feel he is an embarrassing member of the Body of Christ. But he is nothing like that.
Lay persons, priests, religious and Bishops reading these poor lines of mine. do not be afraid of proclaiming the Truth. Do not let worldly power dictate your actions in the Church. Follow the Divine Master or His Servants like Thomas Becket, Mother Teresa, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict who have lead the Church with special emphasis on the Truth as Fr. Gordon does from his prison. Ultimately it is about following Christ. As Father Gordon said so eloquently in his post for Holy Week, “I follow Him with the same burdens and trepidation and thorns in my side as you do, So don’t follow me, follow Him.”
May this Easter time be our time to re-examine our Commitment to the Truth and… next time we tell someone that this or that is not appropriate, or such and such is a dreamer, or remain closed-mouthed in guilty silence when it is time to speak up, let us first examine our motives…and oft well find that it is because we are afraid of the Truth.
‘The truth will set you free‘ (Jesus’s own words)
Msgr. Michael J.C.D., P.H.