Marking 33 years of priesthood on June 5, 2015, Father Gordon MacRae maps a path through the labyrinthine ways of grace, shipwrecked upon the shores of Divine Mercy.
“I fled Him, down the night and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the midst of tears, I hid from Him…” (Francis Thompson, 1859 – 1907, The Hound of Heaven)
A reader sent me a story a few months ago that made me laugh. The pastors of one New England town’s churches met to discuss a problem with the local squirrel population. Each of their respective churches had become overrun with squirrels. The local Catholic priest took copious notes as he joined the Episcopalian, Baptist, and Methodist pastors to view Power Point presentations detailing expensive but humane solutions to rid their churches of squirrels without harming any of them.
A year later the pastors gathered again, and again the squirrel problem topped the agenda. None of the humane solutions worked, and the squirrels were out of control. The clergy feared a media backlash if they used more lethal measures. Then the priest spoke up. “I found the perfect solution,” he said. “I baptized our squirrels as Catholics. Now most show up only at Christmas and Easter.”
I laughed, but I also grimaced. Until I was fifteen years old, Christmas and Easter were my sole exposure to the Catholicism-sans-faith into which I was born and raised. My father, decades before faith was reawakened in him later in life, had actually worked out a legalistic analysis of the latest we could arrive and the earliest we could leave while still fulfilling the letter of the law for our annual “Easter obligation.”
I grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts about ten miles north of Boston. I turned seventeen on April 9, 1970 and graduated just a month later, the youngest in my class, from Lynn English High School. Two years earlier, at age fifteen, I began attending weekly Mass on my own, and in secret, at Holy Family Church in Lynn, a parish founded to serve the North Shore’s growing Italian Catholic community. It was the closest Catholic church to our home.
It wasn’t long before my parents – by this time divorced after a long cold war – learned that I had defied our long family tradition of avoiding any real expression of Catholicism. On the few occasions when my father and I could talk in private, he expressed concern. “I hope you’re not thinking what I think your thinking!” he said. That’s when the idea of priesthood first entered my mind. It first emerged as my own private counter-reformation.
“MY SORROW MAY SERVE HIM”
I gave no real serious thought to the idea of priesthood then. When I graduated from public high school, I took courses part time at North Shore Community College, but with no sense of direction whatsoever. I had befriended a priest in my parish, Father Louis Antonelli, who went on to minister well into his mid-eighties on the island of Rota in the Marianna islands. All these years later, I still hold him in the highest regard and respect.
I also befriended Father Anthony Nuccio, CSS, now long deceased. In 1971, Father Tony brought the Cursillo movement to our parish. I was not quite eighteen years old when I insisted that I sign up for it, but Father Tony was reluctant. He said I was older than my years, but still not even eighteen. I pointed out defensively that I was number six in the 1970 draft lottery and would likely be going to Vietnam in a year. That convinced him.
A year later, when I was almost nineteen, America was withdrawing from Vietnam and the draft lottery was set aside just at the brink of my being inducted. Over that past year, Cursillo “took” in our parish. Father Tony put together a team, and I made it known that I expected to be on it. “No way,” he said. “You’re not even 19!” But he was thwarted again.
Joe Dellorfano, who owned a well known Italian bakery in Medford, Massachusetts, had been on the team for the Cursillo I attended a year earlier, and Father Tony asked him to be Rector. He told Father Tony he would accept, “but on the condition that I can pick my team.” I was the first one he called.
I was “the kid” at our first team meeting, and I remember well the depth of faith and mature Catholic commitment and witness I perceived in the men around me. It was a first such experience for me, and it profoundly moved me. Joe Dellorfano announced the team assignments. I was to give the talk – called a “Rollo” (pronounced “Royo”) in Cursillo – “Obstacles to Grace.” It was a good fit. At nineteen I knew nothing BUT obstacles to grace.
MY OBSTACLE TO GRACE
That was 43 years ago. I wish I had a copy of that Rollo today. There is only one part of it that I remember. Joe Dellorfano told me that he assigned me “Obstacles to Grace” because it was the talk he gave on his first Cursillo team. He gave me a copy to use as a model, and I liked it, but I decided not to use any of it except for one thing: a verse written by (now “Blessed”) John Henry Cardinal Newman that both frightened and enthralled me:
“God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
I have a part in a great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good. I shall do His work, shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; he may prolong my life; He may shorten it; He knows what He is about.
He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me –still, He knows what he is about.” (Blessed John Henry Newman)
I was barely nineteen, and Cardinal Newman enthralled me and scared the hell out of me at the same time. I grew up in an alcoholic home, and never wanted to attribute to God the sickness, perplexity, or sorrow I witnessed nearly every day. I came to the Lord to alleviate sorrow and untangle perplexity, not to offer them to Him.
PRIESTHOOD IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL
As I wrote, that was forty-three years ago. Since then, Christ called me to priesthood. Following four years of studies at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH, then four more years of studies and formation at Saint Mary Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland, then a year of diaconate, I was ordained to Holy Orders on June 5, 1982. It was the sole ordination in the Diocese of Manchester that year.
It struck me on that day how much things had changed. My parents had rediscovered their respective faith, and found their way back to their Church. They were in the front row, at the Mass of Ordination, though I have always wondered what they were thinking as I lay prostrate on the floor facing the altar while the Church invoked the Litany of the Saints. I described that moment in an early TSW post, “Going My Way.”
Then, to summarize a long story you have already read about on These Stone Walls, He took away my friends, threw me among strangers, made me feel desolate, made my Spirits sink, hid my future from me. I am amazed at how closely Heaven has been reading Cardinal Newman!
Like all of us, I have had to take it on faith that this painful Way of the Cross serves Him. It did not serve me. But that very point defines the absolute necessity of faith, for without it, desolation is just desolation, perplexity just perplexity, and sorrow can crush our spirit. Faith transforms them into an exchange of grace that links us to the Passion of the Christ.
I have recently written two posts about the current Divine Mercy retreat now in its sixth week behind these stone walls. I described the text for the retreat in “You Did It to Me: Wisdom and Works of Mercy.” The text by Father Michael Gaitley is entitled The ‘One Thing’ is Three: How the Most Holy Trinity Explains Everything.
Like each of Father Gaitley’s parish-based retreat texts, this one is excellent, and I find his endnotes to be as valuable as the text itself. It’s really slow reading for me because every time I come to a reference note in the text, I feel compelled to flip to the endnotes to read about it. In 345 pages of text, Father Gaitley has 378 endnotes, and they are wonderful. In his description of Blessed John Henry Newman’s writings and preaching, Father Gaitley wrote,
“When you read Newman’s sermons, you actually experience the faith. It comes across in the beauty of the language… You can tell the truths he shares are deeply real to him.” (The ‘One Thing’ Is Three, p 12)
So I turned to end note number 105 cited just before the above quote. There, Father Gaitley wrote, “Regarding the notional idea that God has a plan for each human person…” He then went on to cite the very text above that I used in a 1972 Cursillo talk on “Obstacles to Grace.” As I read it in Father Gaitley’s text all these years later, Newman’s words came alive for me.
Then, that evening just after I finished the reading, (because I procrastinated), we met in the prison chapel for session five of the retreat. At a table discussing that session’s DVD presentation by Father Gaitley, Pornchai Moontri said that he remembers something I told him just before he was received into the Church on Divine Mercy Sunday five years ago.
He said that he and I were talking about faith back then, but Pornchai was unable to visualize what I said. His life growing up had been so thrown into the depths of sorrow and perplexity that hope for a future was beyond his grasp. But he remembered one line that I told him: “One day, someone out there will read something I write and will be a link in a chain that unfolds your future.”
He said I told him then that he has to trust, and I said that someone reading These Stone Walls – which had only just begun back then – would emerge to be “a bond of connection between persons for you.” Did I myself believe what I was telling him then? I’m not sure, but it seemed the priestly thing to say. I guess the bottom line is that, whether I believed it would happen or not, I hoped it would. Hope is a necessary partner of faith.
I remember that conversation. I remember saying that, but I don’t know that I consciously connected it to those words of Blessed John Henry Newman that so moved and frightened me all those years ago. Now, as Pornchai spoke 43 years later, the notional became very real.
This requires revisiting a story I have told before, so I’ll summarize just the necessary points. It’s an important story for it lifts a tiny corner of the veil between Heaven and Earth in two ordinary lives. It’s a story that, when viewed in its entirety, can sweep you up into an amazing experience of Divine Mercy. It’s a story about the meaning of the one aspect of the human condition that plagues us the most: suffering.
It’s a story I told in “Knock and the Door Will Open Divine mercy in Bangkok Thailand.” I today see that the sorrow and perplexity that so troubled me at one time in my life had somehow, through grace, become transformed into a gift. Had I never experienced it, I would not so readily perceive it in others. I would not have had that conversation with Pornchai about trust and hope. I would not have had anything in my own experience to offer him.
What I predicted and hoped for came to pass for Pornchai. Like dominoes in a long, long series stretched across time and continents, one key person after another read of us, then became “links in a chain, bonds of connection between persons” to give Pornchai the future that he once thought to be impossible. I have witnessed it, and I have come to a conclusion. None of my sorrow and perplexity was endured for me.
Priesthood itself is not for me. Any man preparing for priesthood who believes it is a statement about his inherent worth should flee. Such thoughts make the cost of priestly discipleship so much more expensive.
It took thirty-three years of priesthood, the same time Jesus the Christ walked this Earth, for the mystery of suffering to be unlocked for me. Sitting at the table at our retreat that night, Pornchai said something astonishing. “I don’t think anyone could hear my story now, and not believe in Divine Mercy.”
The next day, Pornchai and I were trying to put our cell back together after the annual inspections I described here a week ago. As we hauled all our paper out from under the bunk, Pornchai started to sort through some of his. He was looking at a single sheet and said, “I have been meaning to ask you about this. I wonder who wrote it. Was it you?”
He handed the sheet to me and I was shocked to see the familiar old words jump from the page at me: “God has created me to do Him some definite service; he has committed some work to me, which he has not committed to another.” The “coincidence” is just too stunning.
And so, for whatever time God gives me, I offer my sorrow and perplexity – and my priesthood – for a good far greater than myself. “Jesus, I trust in you.”