On the Feast of Saint Padre Pio, Father Gordon MacRae marks twenty years of wrongful imprisonment with some thoughts from the sidelines of priesthood in America.
I am most grateful to Dr. Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, for “Travesty of Justice,” his courageous and outstanding guest post on These Stone Walls. It summarized accurately the 20 years of my imprisonment and the torrents that pushed me here. I call it “courageous” because I have no doubt that Bill Donohue will face ridicule, as he has in the past, for his exposure and unwavering defense of the truth.
I urge readers who have not already done so to join the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. The broad brush tarnishing the image of Catholic priesthood in the last twenty years is a front in the culture war to silence a Catholic voice in the public square of the Western world.
This is not the first time Bill Donohue and the Catholic League have taken up this story. Back in 2010, he appeared on “The World Over with Raymond Arroyo” on EWTN and urged viewers to read These Stone Walls. Now, writing just two weeks before I mark twenty years of wrongful imprisonment, two sentences jumped out at me near the end of Dr. Donohue’s post:
“MacRae arrived in prison on September 23, 1994. He did not know it at the time, but it was the Feast Day of Saint Padre Pio, himself the subject of false allegations of sexual abuse.”
Most TSW readers are by now aware of the role Saint Padre Pio has played behind These Stone Walls. I have written of him many times though my favorite is one I hope you will read anew and share with others to honor him as his Feast Day approaches. That post is “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata.”
I described in another post last year a startling revelation about Padre Pio from a fascinating article by Australian journalist, Paul MacLeod in the August/September 2012 issue of Inside the Vatican magazine. That article, “The Holy Face of Manopello,” explored that ancient image of the Face of Christ, and the findings of a book on the topic by Paul Badde entitled, The Face of God (Ignatius Press, 2010). In “The Last Days of Padre Pio,” I described a segment of Paul MacLeod’s article:
“Capuchin priest, Father Domenico de Cese, former custodian of the Shrine [of Manopello], was killed in a car accident while visiting the Shroud of Turin in 197 8. A decade earlier however, Father Domenico wrote of a rather strange occurrence. On the morning of September 22, 1968, Father Domenico opened the doors of the shrine and was startled to find Padre Pio kneeling in prayer before the image of the Holy Face. Padre Pio was at the same time 200 kilometers away at San Giovanni Rotondo, gravely ill, and near death.”
As I wrote in that post, it was Padre Pio’s his last known occurrence of bilocation, a phenomenon that, like his visible wounds, became a source of skepticism about Padre Pio both in and outside of the Church. The next morning – September 23, 1968 – Padre Pio died.
On that same morning 26 years later, I stood in court to hear that I am pronounced “guilty,” convicted of crimes from over a decade earlier for which there was no evidence because they never took place. The only evidence introduced at trial, beyond the accusations themselves, was the fact that I am a Catholic priest.
I was taken to prison that same morning, sentenced by Judge Arthur Brennan to more than thirty times what prosecutors offered had I pled guilty instead of innocent. Ryan A. MacDonald wrote of this in “The Prison of Father MacRae,” Part II of an ongoing series. As Bill Donohue wrote, however, I was not conscious of the date of my imprisonment and its connection to Padre Pio. It was still eight years before Saint Pio’s 2002 Canonization by Pope John Paul II who has since joined Padre Pio among the Communion of Saints.
I was tempted to write just now that beyond the fact that my imprisonment based on false witness shares the date of Saint Padre Pio’s death and Feast Day, there are no further connections to be made. I share but a fraction of the cross Padre Pio bore in life, and few of the graces that sustained him. But digging just beyond the surface of our lives and crosses, I find that we have other facets of our respective stories in common as well. I wrote about some of our mysterious bonds of connection in “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata” in 2010.
THE HEROIC VIRTUE OF PADRE PIO
If it is heroic virtue to turn the other cheek, then Padre Pio and I have lived on very different planes of existence. Bill Donohue’s conclusion that the story of my alienation and imprisonment is one of “maliciousness, callousness, apathy, and cowardice” applies to the treatment of Padre Pio by others in the Church in far greater measure than any calumny I have endured.
Writing from the United Kingdom for the Catholic Herald (12 June 2014), Mary O’Regan recently penned “Fifty years ago Italy’s most famous modern saint was being treated like a criminal.” Her posting described that exactly fifty years ago in 1964, Padre Pio was personally restored to priestly ministry by Pope Paul VI.
For just the last four years of his life, his priestly ministry was fully restored after years of investigation into the false witness, gossip, envy, greed, and character assassination that so grievously wounded Padre Pio and cast him out of public ministry. Had any of this taken place today in America, could Padre Pio and the immensely powerful sensus fidelium about him survive it? I addressed that point in a comment I posted through a friend on Mary O’Regan’s article:
“Bravo to the Catholic Herald for this great story about one of the greatest saints of the 20th Century. The sad, sad truth is that had Padre Pio been so accused in America in the wake of
the US Bishops’ Dallas Charter, his priesthood would have remained in ruins, and his name could never have been redeemed. Unquestioned mediated settlements would have been handed out to his accusers, and it would have been open season on this great saint. It is not lost on me and on many that St. John Paul the Great canonized Saint Padre Pio in 2002, the very year the witch hunt against priests was launched in America and then spread through the Western world.”
Does that reflection of mine sound bitter? It shouldn’t, because it isn’t. I have no room for bitterness in any of this – not even after 20 years wrongly imprisoned. Does it sound angry? Of course it does! How could it not sound angry? It’s the same sort of anger I detected in those who fully investigated the whole truth about Padre Pio, and then wondered what to do with it.
A vivid example was cited by former Newsweek Religion Editor Kenneth Woodward in an extraordinary book, Making Saints (Touchstone, 1990). For a segment on Padre Pio for his book, Kenneth Woodward had asked Father Paolo Rossi, Postulator General of the Capuchin Order, “How do you plan to demonstrate his heroic virtue?” The response of Father Rossi had a tone of righteous indignation – not at the question, but at the answer – as he unveiled Padre Pio’s treatment from a prior generation of priests, bishops, and members of his own order:
“There are many things that people do not understand – and can’t – because they have not seen the documentation we have. But I can say this: people would better understand the virtue of the man if they knew the degree of hostility he experienced from the church, as well as from his own family of friars…. The Order itself was told to act in a certain way toward Padre Pio. So the hostility went all the way up to the Holy Office (now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith)…Faulty information was being given to the church authorities and they acted on that information.” (Making Saints, p. 188).
“Though he may have wrestled with the Devil and spoken to angels,” Kenneth Woodward observed (Making Saints, p. 189), “Padre Pio the stigmatist would be judged by his response to more mundane trials – inflicted, in his case, by his own brethren in the church.”
JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS
It is no small part of my dismay about what could have happened to Padre Pio had he been accused in 2002 America – and what is happening now to “Father Jim,” to me, and to many other priests so accused. At the highest levels, Church officials, and many of our brother priests, have come to equate being merely accused with being guilty.
Far worse, they have somehow allowed into the practice of Church discipline a new and distorted theology of priesthood that equates a priest’s ability to minister publicly with his identity as a priest. This is an entirely new practice in Church law, and in fact it is entirely contrary to Church law. Priests have been dismissed from the clerical state – forcibly laicized – because they cannot be assigned under the terms of the Dallas Charter.
This reduces the Sacrament of Holy Orders to its function, and removes all sense of its ontological transformation of the person of the priest. It seems the natural result of what “Father Jim” called “On the Fatherhood of Bishops with Disposable Priests.”
Bill Donohue concluded his guest post last week with two sentences that could easily fill my next ten posts on These Stone Walls:
“There are so many guilty parties to this travesty it is hard to know where to begin. At work is maliciousness, callousness, apathy, and cowardice.”
When I read this, I could not help but consider the response a few weeks earlier to the guest post by “Father Jim” mentioned above. One tenacious TSW reader took it upon herself to send a link to that post to the entire Board of Directors of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP), and to the Board of Directors of the National Federation of Priests Councils (NFPC).
These organizations of and for priests have shown few signs of awareness of the story of grave injustice perpetrated against “Father Jim” and other priests. The TSW reader wanted to make them aware that many of their brother priests are falsely accused, scapegoated without evidence, and cast out without anything to support such treatment. What this reader termed “McCarthy-era Blacklisting” is often based solely on claims by individuals who stand to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in unquestioned mediated settlements for making claims that – as in the case of Father Jim – are so old they could never be proven or disproven.
The reader sent this plea for their awareness to twenty-five priests serving on the AUSCP and NFPC national boards. Only one of the 25 priests responded. It was a brief statement that accused priests must wait to be “found guilty or exonerated” in Rome. It is simply erroneous that a claim of abuse that is thirty or forty years old – and brought against a priest decades after Church law has allowed in the past – can be either proven or disproven.
Appalled by what the reader interpreted to be a cowardly shunning of the plight of “Father Jim” and hundreds of other priests so accused, she did some research on the published agenda of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests while all of this has been going on. She sent me several pages printed from the AUSCP website (www.uscatholicpriests.org). Here is what she wrote:
“The heads of some of your brother priests, a fraternal bond that too many of them now renounce, are buried in the sand. While you have languished in prison unjustly for all these years, a fate that in the current climate could befall any of them, I could only shake my head in disgust at the lack of any hint of concern for priests in your position and that of Father Jim. So I am sending you this list of the pressing agenda items and goals of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests over the last three years. This is printed directly from their website:
Establish a task force to develop an archive of problematic translations in the New Roman Missal.
Affirmation of the values of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative and partnering with it.
Ask USCCB to request ordination of married men as priests to meet pastoral needs.
Support the honoring of workers’ pensions in full as a moral commitment (a moral commitment that seems not to apply to their accused and scapegoated brother priests).
Promote Collegiality in the exercise of authority at all levels of the Church.
Support the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate.
Support the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (to which the AUSCP Board issued a gift of $1,000 to offset expenses incurred in the Vatican’s investigation of the LCWR.)
SO, WHAT MIGHT PADRE PIO SAY?
Do the priests of North America truly believe these are the most pressing issues facing priesthood today? From the perspective of twenty years in prison for a nonexistent crime, the best that I could say to the above is that among my brothers, there seems to be little sense of “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Padre Pio would see this all very differently. In the same paragraph in Bill Donohue’s “Travesty of Justice” in which he wrote of my going to prison on the Feast of Saint Padre Pio, another sentence was quoted from an older post of mine:
“I lifted the cross willingly – though perhaps more like Simon of Cyrene than like Christ – but I lifted it.”
I remember writing that in a TSW post – more than once, actually. I have been unsure of where the thought came from, however, and why I wrote it. I hadn’t been able to find anyone else writing as a priest who used such an analogy. Aren’t we supposed to be “alter Christus,” after all, not “alter Cyrenian”?
Then, while writing this post, I came across something I had never seen before. It’s in a 1919 letter from Padre Pio to his friend and former Provincial, Father Benedetto. It contains an imagery for which Padre Pio was later criticized by some of his detractors among brother priests and friars:
“You, too, help with your prayers this Cyrenian who bears the cross of many.”
It was a reply to a letter from Father Benedetto to Padre Pio in which the former Provincial wrote in response to the discovery of Padre Pio’s wounds,
“Justice has nothing to vindicate you, but…you, as a victim, owe on behalf of your brothers what is still lacking in the passion of Jesus Christ.”
It was for this one letter that Vittorio Messori wrote in the Forward to Padre Pio Under Investigation (Ignatius Press, 2008):
“In this journey we will in turn be helped by the many hidden Cyrenians who in silence offer up their suffering and their lives, and by the extraordinary ones, those whom the Lord sometimes elevates on the hill – as in the case of Padre Pio, this humble and quiet friar, the great Cyrenian of our time.”
Editor’s Note: Please be sure to watch Gloria.TV’s coverage of Father MacRae’s story:
Also, a continued thanks to TSW readers for their generosity in responding to Ryan MacDonald’s appeal to help with the legal costs, at the Federal level. We haven’t reached our goal yet, so please share this link to Ryan’s news alert post!