The scales of Saint Michael the Archangel symbolize the balance of God’s justice with God’s mercy. Can the Church reflect justice with mercy for fallen priests?
A few older posts on These Stone Walls keep showing up in our monthly stats revealing new reader interest. Nine months after I wrote “Father Benedict Groeschel at EWTN: Time for a Moment of Truth,” it still draws lots of readers and new comments. Another post, “Goodbye, Good Priest! Father John Corapi’s Kafkaesque Catch-22,” is two years old this week, but still draws scores of readers searching for news of Fr. Corapi. A reader sent me a well written take on that controversy titled “Father Corapi and Praying for Priests” posted June 6 by Matthew Brower on his blog, Catholic Stand. Part of it caught my attention:
“I am aware of some of the events that transpired when things seemed to fall apart for Fr. Corapi and there is much more that I do not know. During those days it seemed like the Catholic media and blogs were spilling over daily with reports and wild speculation. Some of what was reported was no doubt true but it certainly seemed to me we were witnessing a sort of Catholic tabloid frenzy where the line between fact and irresponsible speculation was blurred. I believe very few do have all the relevant facts.”
Matthew Brower, an attorney in private practice in Montana, is a Notre Dame alumnus who earned his Juris Doctor with honors at Ave Maria School of Law. His post two years after Fr. John Corapi’s fall from grace is not at all a defense of the priest, nor do I defend him here. That wasn’t Mr. Brower’s point and it isn’t mine. He wrote further:
“Most of those I know who looked up to Fr. Corapi as an inspiration and confirming voice have remained close to the Church and seemingly grown in faith, understanding well that it is God alone we worship and not those he has sent to draw us closer to Himself.”
I say “AMEN!” to that, and “Bravo” to Matthew Brower for having the courage to point it out. I have written elsewhere that I became very uncomfortable with the pedestal upon which Father Corapi stood – whether he wanted to stand there or not, I do not know – and from which he fell from grace two years ago with a loud crash. I was troubled by the self-description of so many of his admirers that they were “followers” of Father Corapi. It was a lesson learned. I don’t want followers. I can’t have followers. I don’t recall the specific post, but I remember writing a plea to TSW readers in reaction to this: “Please don’t follow me. Follow Christ!” If ever the day comes that I point only to me and not to Christ, it is that day that I must stop writing.
There is another of my posts that endures in reader interest, and it shows up in current stats more than any other. It was written nearly three years ago, but it drew over 300 new readers in May. That post is “Angelic Justice: Saint Michael the Archangel and the Scales of Hesed” in which I wrote about the symbolism of St. Michael’s iconic scales.
After that post was published, readers sent me dozens of holy cards with icons of Saint Michael (laminated cards are not allowed), all of which are now on my cell wall. One is on my coffee cup. Some of the nicer icons have since migrated over to my friend, Pornchai’s side of the cell. When I inquired, he said, “Well … umm … He does have wings, you know!”
After posting “Angelic Justice,” a friend sent me a Saint Michael medal. On the back is engraved, “Justice for Fr. Gordon MacRae.” It’s very nice and a privilege to wear, but there is a lot more to the story of Saint Michael. He isn’t just the Patron Saint of Justice. He is the Patron Saint of Mercy as well, and the two cannot be separated for as that post reveals, they are among the highest attributes of God in Judeo-Christian tradition.
Saint Michael’s scales do not signify the meting out of God’s justice, but rather the balancing of God’s justice with mercy. The two aspects of the justice equation symbolized by Saint Michael’s scales cannot be separated, for justice without mercy is little more than vengeance, and vengeance is not ours to have (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19).
TO WANDER EAST OF EDEN
The story of the human soul in relationship with God began well, but in the blink of a cosmic eye it descended into alienation. The sin of Adam was compounded in one generation by the sin of Cain banished to wander “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden,” the title of an early post on These Stone Walls. It was one of my first posts in which readers were exposed to facts that challenged preconceived notions about prisoners and prisons. Another was a post entitled, “In Sin and Error Pining: Christmas in an Unholy Land.” That post has a photo of our friend, Pornchai Moontri, surrounded by a few fellow prisoners who earned their high school diplomas last year.
These young men faced the camera in triumph, having won a battle to improve their lives against great odds, including the public sentiment of a vocal minority that merely condemns them for their crimes without ever walking a single step in their shoes. Having seen this photo, which of them would you be morally justified in discarding forever into the bowels of some American prison without hope for redemption? These men are paying their debt to society, and some are paying it with interest. If you’ve been paying attention to These Stone Walls, then you know that some in prison are paying someone else’s debt. For which of these smiling prisoner graduates would you justify the denial of any hope for mercy, for a second chance at life?
I have received a flood of mail and messages by devout TSW readers – and even some far less devout living out on the spiritual margins – about last week’s post, “Knock and the Door Will Open: Divine Mercy in Bangkok, Thailand.” Many people of faith, and some with only vague hope, were simply awestruck by the threads of grace that circumnavigated the globe to pry open a door to Divine Mercy for Pornchai Moontri. Mere words written from the heart inside a New Hampshire prison cell wove threads of connection inspired by justice and mercy to ensure a future for Pornchai on the far side of the world. That this could be done from a prison cell is a miracle.
For the first time since I have known Pornchai, the millstone of the past and the dread of an unknown future have begun to fall away. In the 21 years Pornchai has endured prison since his crime was committed as a teenager, Pornchai sees on the horizon at last an end to his days of wandering East of Eden. The power of Christ bas redeemed him.
Of the hundreds of wonderful comments on the many Catholic blogs that posted a link to “Mercy – Inside Those Stone Walls,” Felix Carroll’s inspiring article about Pornchai, one reader posted a self-righteous comment condemning me – I’m used to it – then added this gem: “As for Pornchai, he remains a convicted murderer in prison where he belongs.”
Is justice met only with a life for a life? Those who have come to know Pornchai through These Stone Walls were shocked and angry that any professed Catholic could maintain, much less place into view on a Catholic blog, such a merciless comment stripped of truth about the facts of the case. At that same post Ryan MacDonald responded to a few attacks on me as well, and provided some moderation of the comment about Pornchai that the Catholic blogger didn’t. It is easy for some to want justice without mercy for another, but it is the most spiritually self-destructive path the human soul can take.
HOLY ORDERS AND UNHOLY DEMANDS
I want to convey to you a very great irony of justice devoid of mercy. It is a story that only the scales of Saint Michael could justly weigh. Years ago, I served in ministry at a residential care facility for spiritually and emotionally troubled priests. It was the most important ministry ever entrusted to me, and one to which I hope to return one day if justice and mercy ever gain my freedom.
Twenty-two years ago, a very young priest was sent to us accused of misconduct with an older adolescent. It was a crime under both civil and Church law. In the midst of his treatment, the young priest was sent to prison. I kept in touch with him until I, too, was accused and sent to prison in claims that are now over thirty years old and for which, as you know, I maintain my innocence. You also know that I could have left prison many years ago if I did not maintain my innocence.
That young priest, whom I will identify only as “Jim,” never denied the fact that he committed the offense. He served fifteen years in prison for it then was released with a declaration that his debt to society has been paid in full. After the enactment of the U.S. Bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” a decade after Jim went to prison, he was summarily dismissed from the priesthood.
In “Anti-Catholicism and Sex Abuse” in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Ryan MacDonald referred to forced laicization as “a sort of ecclesiastical equivalent of lethal injection.” I never understood how throwing Jim to SNAP’s wolves, and then to the streets, has served or protected anyone, least of all young people, or the Church, or the priesthood. It smacked of vengeance, which is what justice becomes when all mercy is stripped away.
While we argue that point, I should point out that Jim did something very priestly during his fifteen years in prison. He served other prisoners admirably, and brought many of them to Christ and to the Church. And he studied to become a paralegal in order to render service to a system of justice that too often has forgotten mercy. In this new capacity of service, Jim has gone on in freedom to serve the poor in heroic ways. He has become an effective national leader in the causes of prison reform, prisoner rehabilitation, and restorative justice, causes our bishops also once embraced before applying to their priests the same draconian measures they rebuked in the criminal justice system. Cardinal Avery Dulles made this same point in his article, “The Rights of Accused Priests.”
Jim is an avid reader of These Stone Walls, and because of the awareness it has brought him, he has undertaken the cause of bringing justice with mercy to Pornchai. Jim is currently engaged in a legal research project that will require moving a mountain to revisit whether justice was fully served in Pornchai’s case. Do you recall my description in last week’s post of relentlessly writing without response to all those official Catholic agencies with a plea to help Pornchai? Well, Jim did respond, and is now engaged in helping to move that mountain with no hope or expectation of compensation – for there is none to be had – at least, not in material terms.
Upon his release from prison, having paid in full his debt to society and having been dismissed from the priesthood, Jim received a letter from a representative of the archdiocese where he once served. The letter was written at the request of an auxiliary bishop who ironically later became pastorally responsible to oversee prison ministry in that archdiocese. The letter instructed Jim that he is free to attend Mass once a week at the parish of his choice, but if he is seen on Catholic church property beyond that, he will be reported to the police for trespassing.
I cannot publish that bishop’s name because Jim, who knows the necessity of tempering justice with mercy, has asked me not to. I have been in prison for a long time, and was in prison at the time the 2002 scandal swept the country resulting in the U.S. Bishops’ new regard for terms like “zero tolerance” and one-size-fits-all justice. Does that letter to Jim really reflect the spiritual leadership that Catholics want?
Let’s be clear and just. Our bishops have given American Catholics what they think we want. Groups like SNAP have had free reign to interpret and mete out Catholic justice with unchallenged clamor for a dozen years while too many Catholics with just and merciful hearts remained silent on the sidelines.
At his blog, Catholic Stand, Matthew Brower wrote of Father John Corapi something that I wish to now extend to Father Jim:
“I can’t help but think that the Church is poorer absent [this priest's] prophetic voice . . . Even as he was engaged in his struggles he insisted that the fullness of faith was to be found in the Catholic Church . . . I pray he is well and hope he perseveres in faith. I pray not so much in the hope that he returns to his former ministry but because I desire for him what I desire for myself and for all persons – that when he dies the Lord grants him eternal life.”
Then the Catholic tabloid frenzy will finally be silenced, and will no longer manipulate and find voice in our spiritual leaders. That would indeed be justice – and mercy.