Among top Catholic blogs, These Stone Walls written from prison has been called “A Voice in the Wilderness.” Five years of truth about priesthood under fire.
“From Heaven the Lord looked at the Earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die.” (Psalms 102: 20)
As July turned to August, These Stone Walls quietly turned five years old. I was not even conscious of that fact until I began receiving dozens of messages from connections on the social network, Linked-In. Behind these prison walls, I am blind to what happens in the online world. When I called a friend who reads your comments and messages to me, she started reading all sorts of congratulations about my “work anniversary.” It was a mystery, and it took us awhile to figure out that all those messages were from Linked-In connections who noted that TSW was launched five years ago near the end of July, 2009.
How TSW came about is an interesting story that I have told, at least in part, in previous posts. TSW actually began in protest. Writer Ryan A. MacDonald came across a criticism of Cardinal Avery Dulles for a letter of encouragement that he sent to me in 2005. In 2008, a copy of that letter somehow ended up online. Ryan protested that the Cardinal’s letter to me was taken out of context, and the fact that I am a priest in prison was used in a subtle attempt to discredit Cardinal Dulles. Faced with Ryan’s rebuke, the writer quickly posted an apology of sorts, and a clarification.
That was in May of 2009. On the far side of the world, Ryan’s posted challenge to that writer was spotted by Suzanne Sadler in Australia who was to become TSW’s Managing Editor. She likes to stay in the background of These Stone Walls, which could not exist without her, but she described her reaction to Ryan’s posted challenge:
“Back in May of 2009, I happened on an article by Ryan A. MacDonald, which introduced me to Father MacRae’s case. I spent days reading every scrap of information I could from court documents, Wall Street Journal articles, etc., to learn all I could about his particular case and about the abuse of the abuse crisis.
“Within a few weeks, I proposed that Father MacRae start a blog to alert faithful Catholics about the post-Dallas Charter witch hunt that has stripped many innocent priests of their reputations, social and economic support, shelter, liberty…and hope. What I didn’t know was that the late Avery Cardinal Dulles and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus had also encouraged Father to write about this. Cardinal Dulles wrote to Father MacRae in 2005: ‘Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound, will be a monument to your trials.’ “
STONE WALLS DO NOT A PRISON MAKE
To be honest, I did not really take Suzanne’s proposal seriously at first. I had read about blogs but had never actually seen one. They did not exist when I was sent to prison in 1994, and prisoners have no Internet access whatsoever. Armed with only a typewriter, I just did not see how it was even possible that I could write a blog from inside a prison cell. “And besides, who would read it?” I asked myself. My experience at the time was that groups like SNAP, Bishop Accountability, and VOTF had so effectively used the news media to carry out a campaign of propaganda against the reputations of priests that restoring a voice to an accused priest in the public square, especially an imprisoned one, seemed beyond hope.
It was a discussion with my friend, Pornchai Moontri that convinced me to move forward with this blog idea. When I told him of the proposal he didn’t know what a blog was either, but said, “The truth has to be written, so if you don’t write it, who will?” Then I asked a friend to help me send a message to Australia: “Let’s give this blog thing a try!” Friends printed lots of material for me about blogs and formats, and samples of other good Catholic blogs. I had to educate myself quickly.
Above all, I thought, this blog must have a singular purpose, one expressed by Father Richard John Neuhaus in his last letter to me in this life. It would be a Catholic blog, and above all else it would be marked by “Fidelity, Fidelity, Fidelity” to the Church, to the priesthood, and to the truth.
Then the discussion turned to what we might call this new blog from prison. I am a great fan of the “Aubrey-Maturin” series of novels by the late Patrick O’Brian about Royal Navy warships during the age of Napoleon. There are 23 of them in print. In fact, my choice for TSW’s first “Stuck Inside Literary Award” was subtitled, “At Sea with Patrick O’ Brian.” It has some great photos of Pornchai’s shipbuilding skill. Anyway, in one of the Aubrey-Maturin novels I spotted a poem that I like. It was attributed to Richard Lovelace (1618 -1658) entitled “To Althea From Prison.” One verse of the poem now inspires These Stone Walls:
“Stone Walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
that for an hermitage,
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above
Enjoy such liberty.”
So there it was. “Stone Walls” would be the theme for our blog, but we had to settle on a title. I wish you could all have been flies on the wall in this cell as Pornchai and I bantered some titles about. Suzanne suggested “My Stone Walls,” but I nixed that one straightaway. I had been in this prison for 15 years at that point, and didn’t want to lay claim to it. So after a few more bad ideas of my own, Pornchai suggested “These Stone Walls,” and it stuck. In the five years since, TSW has radically changed both our lives.
A year or two earlier, Charlene Duline, a retired U.S. State Department official, wrote an article for the National Catholic Reporter entitled “Throwaway Priests.” She sent me a copy, and we began to correspond. I told her of the idea of These Stone Walls, and that I just didn’t see how I could get my meager typed pages to Australia for posting. Charlene wrote back immediately: “That’s simple. Mail them to me and I’ll scan and email them to your Editor.” These Stone Walls was born.
Almost immediately there were obstacles. A month before TSW was to begin in July 2009, I was invited to write an article for the Catholic League Journal. “Due Process for Accused Priests” was published in the July/August 2009 issue of Catalyst, but just as I finished it, my typewriter died.
Under prison rules, I could have the typewriter repaired under a grandfather clause, but not replaced. Being in prison, shipping an item for repair is no easy task. It took over two months to ship the typewriter to a Smith Corona repair vendor in Dunkirk, New York for a replacement of its print mechanism. It was because of this, you may have noticed, that my earliest posts on TSW were very brief. I had to hand write them, then Charlene graciously retyped them for transmission to our Editor.
Post Number 12 on TSW – “Contentious Convicts” – was the first to be typed by me and then sent for scanning. I came across a copy of that one recently, and it made me laugh. It’s easy to forget in prison that there are still things in the world that can make us laugh. It’s a little embarrassing. From prison I was typing my blogging debut to be read all around the world, and what do I do? I write about how much I miss my pet fish! In “Contentious Convicts,” my nerdhood was naively bared for all to see.
NOT A SINGLE UNPUBLISHED THOUGHT!
While the next five years unfolded, I had no idea I had so much to say. To date, TSW has published 250 original posts by me, 10 reruns when the post office didn’t cooperate, and 18 guest posts by some far more distinguished writers such as Pornchai Moontri, Michael Ciresi, David F. Pierre, Ryan A. MacDonald, Father “Jim” (last week), Father George David Byers, Father James Valladares, Ph.D., and Monsignor Michael Palud, JCD.
Somehow – I really don’t know how, or why – These Stone Walls has received a lot of notice over its five years of existence. It has been cited and recommended in three published Catholic books. It merited a chapter in David F. Pierre’s Catholic Priests Falsely Accused (The Media Report, 2012). TSW was also cited in a very special chapter about Pornchai Maximilian Moontri in Felix Carroll’s inspiring Loved, Lost, Found (Marian Press, 2013). And TSW was cited and quoted throughout Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast (iUniverse, 2012) by Australian priest-psychologist, Father James Valladares, Ph.D.
These Stone Walls also found its way into a few press releases from The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and in several Catalyst editorials including “www.TheseStoneWalls.com” (September 2011) and “Father MacRae’s Appeal” (April 2012) both by Catholic League President, Bill Donohue. In March of 2010, Bill Donohue recommended These Stone Walls on EWTN’s “The World Over with Raymond Arroyo.” See our “Special Reports” for the link.
In August of 2010, These Stone Walls was selected by readers of Our Sunday Visitor for “The Best of the Catholic Web.” A year later, writer Brian Fraga cited and quoted TSW extensively in a feature article for Our Sunday Visitor, “Father John Corapi Walks Away from Priestly Ministry” (OSV, June 29, 2011).
Also in 2011, Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond cited These Stone Walls in “Priests in Limbo” (National Catholic Register, February 15, 2011). TSW has also been cited in the venerable Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Marian Helper magazine, and many online Catholic publications. And in 2013, TSW was promoted in English, Spanish, and Portuguese in the homeland of Pope Francis in “Behold the Man,” by Argentine Catholic writer, Carlos Caso-Rosendi.
Also in 2013, These Stone Walls became one of five finalists for the Catholic About.com “Best Catholic Blog Award” coming in a close second to Father John Zuhlsdorf’s Blog, “WDTPRS.” Reportedly, it was the tightest margin ever seen at About.com sparking a “cause for alarm in Father Z’s combox” according to TSW’s Editor. Most important of all – to me, anyway – These Stone Walls has been given the highest marks for fidelity in a review of Catholic blogs at CatholicCulture.org. If Catholics cannot expect fidelity from their priests – even their maimed, broken and scapegoated ones – then what’s the point of writing?
A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
Ryan A. MacDonald wrote a review of These Stone Walls calling it “A Voice in the Wilderness.” That is, to me, the most apt description of TSW. I like the concept because it was originally applied to Saint John the Baptist who was also in prison, and so it captures the reality of the place from which I write, and the unlikely odds against my ever being heard. And yet, I AM heard, through the grace of God and the courage of readers who join me on the front line of this battle for truth and justice and for the integrity of priesthood.
Please do not think me vain for highlighting five years of success behind These Stone Walls. None of this was my doing, nor was it just the work of those wonderful and selfless people who brought it about. This was all your doing. All yours. And it isn’t over. We need your help to promote TSW. So please tell someone else of it, send a link to your contacts, post our posts to your social networks, and continue the greatness of your hearts and the magnitude of your justice that got us this far.
Now, if only I could see TSW. I sure do wish I could see it!
“I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from prison, those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42: 6-7)