Fr. Stuart MacDonald demonstrates why the hierarchical structure of the Church works best when those with authority are virtuous men seeking the Kingdom of Heaven.
INTRODUCTION BY FR. GORDON MACRAE
During a recent telephone call from prison, I asked my Canadian friend, Father Stuart MacDonald, to write a guest post for These Stone Walls. I mark thirty-seven years of priesthood on June 5 this year, much of it in dark times, and I wanted him to lend some perspective to that. I then learned that the day I made this request was Father Stuart’s twenty-second anniversary of ordination.
So I asked him to write something candid, something as much from the heart as from the head. In the harsh glare of spotlights borne of moral panic, these are not easy days for priests. And I happen to know that these are especially not easy days for Father Stuart MacDonald. He is a stellar priest and a highly trained canon lawyer for whom fidelity to the Church and priesthood is his greatest charism.
Father Stuart was ordained in 1997 for the Diocese of St. Catharines in Ontario. After earning a licentiate in canon law, he served in ministry for two years in 2003 and 2004 processing abuse cases in the disciplinary section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Holy See. He left that post to preserve his own integrity as a priest.
In 2012, Father Stuart faced an accusation of his own. He was deeply wounded by it. The innocent always are. And though there was no legal impediment or charge of immorality in it, he nonetheless was subjected to a three year exile before being exonerated of any crime and restored to ministry by the Vatican. Throughout his ordeal, Father Stuart remained, and remains still, a faithful and courageous priest. His guest post follows:
OUR BATTLE WEARY PRIESTHOOD
A priestly vocation has become so foreign to the Catholic mindset that people want to hear every priest’s “vocation story.” It’s as if a priestly vocation is some sort of mystical experience or lightning bolt from Heaven event. That’s not a good commentary on the modern Catholic mindset. Gone are the days when parents, and Catholics in general, knew that vocations are fostered in families, faithful families, faithful practicing families. Good Catholic families hoped and prayed that one of its sons would become a priest. Most vocation stories are nothing more than a slow, organic process that began early in life.
I can only ever remember wanting to be a priest. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. Before I made my first Holy Communion, after which point I could become an altar boy, I used to go up to the very front pew of the Church by myself. (My parents were good Catholics and sat somewhere near the back with everyone else.) I wanted to see everything that was going on. I stared at the life-size crucifix wondering how much it hurt to have nails go through hands and feet. I knew that Jesus was in the box. Nothing spectacular. Just a normal geeky kid who had been taught to say his prayers and who knew that Sunday morning meant Mass and an ice cream cone afterward. So started my vocation story.
There were no miraculous moments of grace; in fact, far more moments of rejecting God’s grace. So it continued through school and university. I remember well trudging down Mount Royal in Montreal on frigid Sunday mornings, with Saturday pub night still ringing in my head, to attend Mass at St. Patrick’s Basilica – what I thought was the most beautiful church I had ever seen. I started serving Mass again – something I had stopped doing years earlier when the too-cool priest became pastor of my home parish. In Montreal, there was incense, beautiful music, and dignified liturgy. No Newman Centre gather-around-the-altar stuff for me.
No one knew about what I wanted to be. It was my secret until I told my best friend in high school and my sister when in university. A perspicacious priest confronted me once and asked if I had thought about being a priest. I was embarrassed beyond belief and grateful beyond words for his gesture. That man is my spiritual director to this day. How crazy is it that priests don’t ask young men about vocations? It wasn’t until I was finishing my final year in university that it dawned on me that I had to do something about being a priest. Time was up! There was no wavering; but, now I had to tell people. The reaction was a mix of “that’s so cool!” to “I knew it!” Okay, my mother cried and my father said it was all right even if it meant he wasn’t going to have any more grandchildren.
The process of becoming a priest after that is the usual story of its ups and downs, periods of doubt and times of wanting to be the best priest in the world. Since ordination, my priesthood has given me experiences I never expected. How many priests get the opportunity to study in Rome, let alone work at the Vatican under a future pope? How many are assigned as pastor for the first time to the parish that, secretly, they think is the dream parish of a lifetime? Those are the good times. But it has had its dark times as well. More than anything, the dark times have taught me the most about being a priest, about being another Christ and about what the cost of discipleship is. I had forgotten that when Christ said, “Come follow me,” that He was going to the cross. I had just been blissfully walking along the beach for too long. Many priests in the last couple of decades are learning this lesson as well.
RESIST THE TRIUMPH OF THE THERAPEUTIC
In September last year, a sometime co-worker of mine at the Holy See was accused of solicitation in the confessional. He resigned his post in January because of the bad publicity. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Holy See announced that, after the preliminary investigation required by Church law, the penal process against him would not continue because no crime was committed. I am happy for the priest with whom I used to work – he is an intelligent, devout, respectable man. Not everyone is as lucky as he, if you can call him lucky after all the negative publicity and his resignation from an important office in the Church. At least his innocence was published; at least the decision in his case took only a matter of months.
Such is priestly life today. No one is safe from accusation – true or otherwise. Reputations are tarnished; truth is unimportant. I know because I was placed on so-called administrative leave for reports of conduct which my superior admitted were not criminal, which were not immoral, and about which I was never asked my side of the story. After recourse to the Holy See, and over $15,000 of personal money spent on canon lawyers, more than three years later, the Holy See decided in my favour, restoring all of my priestly faculties. The Holy See gave me the option of having the decision published locally; however, any future priestly assignments remained with the bishop who had illegitimately relegated me to private masses for three years. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know when to leave well enough alone.
Those three years were, perhaps, the most devastating (I hope!) and never-imagined, trial of my life. I was sustained by my belief in truth and the fact that God is faithful. At my first public Mass after the restoration of my faculties, I preached on Mark 5:19: [Jesus] “said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’ “ There was and is no rancor in me, but only the firm belief that God is good. The Lord saved me from becoming something Fr. Gordon MacRae wrote about in his post “Notre Dame Burned but the Smoke of Satan Is More Subtle.” The Lord saved me from becoming another…:
managerial clergy who address us in therapeutic tones [… whose] greatest ambition, it seems, is to broker a concordat with the sexual revolution so that Catholics need never feel the least tension with the world’s ethos. (R.R. Reno, First Things)
I have learned that priestly ministry today involves a complete dedication to Christ and His Church, regardless of how humanly weak or corrupt she may be.
Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ, one of the great canonists in Rome taught me that:
A bishop must respect the rights of his priests and must ensure that those rights are respected by the other faithful. […] This requires, in so far as possible, that the bishop know his priests personally, knows their weaknesses, capacities, inclinations, spiritual lives, their zeal, desires, physical and spiritual health, their economic situation and that of their families. (La Civiltà Cattolica, 18 May 2002, p. 349 [my translation])
Unfortunately, instead of being co-workers of the bishops, of being sons gathering the harvest, priests have become a potential liability for managerial clergy who are more interested in the here and now rather than in truth and the proclamation of the Gospel. Instead of knowing their priests, managerial clergy want only plausible deniability. Priests have become chattel who depend on their owners for their work, for permission to exercise their right to exercise priestly ministry, for their sustenance and living arrangements, for their reputations, for everything and anything that purports to give them human dignity. The sad truth is that priests are expendable when push comes to shove simply because they can be, because superiors have so much authority that they mistake for power.
HELP WANTED: VIRTUOUS MEN SEEKING THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
Nowhere is this clearer than in the recent letter issued by Pope Francis which gives new laws to the Church so that bishops and superiors are made to recognize that they, too, are accountable to God and to the law. Such legislation was unthinkable only 20 years ago. The hierarchical and legal structure of the Church works only when those with authority are virtuous men seeking the Kingdom of Heaven. It falls apart, as it so evidently has in the last 20 years, when the hierarchy is concerned about its reputation in this world and the goods it has amassed.
And so, it has come to pass that superiors can completely flout the law and get away with it unless a priest has the wherewithal to challenge them. Make no mistake about it. Challenging the abuse of authority comes at great cost. During the period of my “time out” as I call it – because I refuse to recognize the legitimacy of “administrative leave” for a priest – I was shunned by the presbyterate; people whom I considered close friends stopped speaking to me; and I had to live with the reality that, even if I won a battle, there was still a larger war looming. Now that I am restored, the friends don’t call because they assume that the corrupt Church must be covering something up for me; priests are polite but the newly ordained clergy have all heard ‘about me’. Christ gives me ample opportunity to practice humility and forgiveness, tasks at which I don’t always easily succeed. As for the war, it is more of a détente and that is a blessing. But then I was reminded of the reality of being chattel when, after losing more than 30 pounds in three months because of the stress of an untenable pastoral assignment, I was told that there are benefits to stress. Such is priestly life today.
Some, including my mother, have asked why I continue? There is only one answer: because I love Jesus Christ Who has called me to serve Him. Sure, there are still periods of doubt and wonderment. In the wake of the McCarrick scandal, Fr. MacRae quoted me in “The Once and Future Catholic Church”:
I have been so shaken by all this that a few weeks ago, I informed my small congregation that henceforth all weekday masses would be ad orientem because the time has come to focus on Christ and not the cult of the priest and his performance. I pray the canon in Latin sotto voce now and we pray the Prayer to St. Michael at the end of every mass. Call me foolish if you want, but it is the only way I am going to survive.
But mostly there is a quiet joy and peace in the knowledge that there is nothing new under the sun. There is the reassurance of the example of people like Fr. MacRae whose priestly ministry frightens me. Frightens me because God’s grace is evidently alive and kicking in a hellish situation. I am encouraged when Fr. MacRae can make me laugh out loud with one of his jokes when I imagine that he is in a place where tears and despair are the order of the day. He has followed Christ to the Cross: he inspires me. So, too, does his blog, the pulpit from which he preaches much needed wisdom to the world. Week after week his writing inspires me more than any other human resource (and gives me a lot of my homilies!) I think he said it best when he wrote in his blog:
[B]ishops and society expect a priest’s heart and soul to be so magnanimous that he is willing to die for the very ones who are killing him. Who has a right to such an expectation? The bishop who throws his priest-son beneath the bus? The laity who are often too stunned to do anything or speak out? May I suggest that such an expectation belongs to God alone who empowers the priest to love unconditionally without any assurance of human reciprocity. (“On the Fatherhood of Bishops with Disposable Priests”)
There’s the priest’s work: to be Christ, that is, to love unconditionally without any assurance of human reciprocity. Such is priestly life today. If a priest thinks otherwise, he is doomed. It is God alone who empowers so many of us to go on. The Church is not always, nor everywhere, a pretty bride. That should discourage no one. Speaking to a young man who is thinking of being a priest, who is weighing the cost of discipleship, I told him that it is evident to many that Christ is gazing on him with love, inviting him to come and follow. Only the young man can decide to accept His offer or not. But I told him, “It’s a marvelous offer.” I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything, except Heaven. “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name give glory, for the sake of thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness!” (Ps 115:1)
Editor’s Note: Please share this post. Don’t let Facebook and other social media suppress the stories of faithful priests. You might like these other posts of Father Stuart MacDonald at These Stone Walls:
- Ever Ancient Ever New: Jesus’ Priesthood in Today’s Chaos
- Last Rites: Canon Law in a Mirror of Justice Cracked