Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Two Priests

I met him only on a handful of occasions and spoke with him once on the phone. I likely heard more about him from my parents and my sister than I actually experienced of him first-hand. Yet Father Bob, the beloved priest who regularly visited my parents' village church from his own parish 55 kilometres away, said Mass, and socialized with the parishioners, left a deep and lasting impression on me.

One was first struck by his appearance, which was most unpriestlike. In the good weather he wore running shoes, baggy shorts, usually in some wild colour or ridiculous pattern, and a tee-shirt. To say Mass he would throw on a clean white alb and a stole with the liturgical colour of the day; I never saw him wear a chasuble (but them I only saw him in the summer). Throughout the hot summer months his "thirty-degree rule" was in effect: no homily if the temperature was over thirty degrees. And by the time any member of the congregation reached the church stairs after Mass, Father was already there in his shorts and tee, smoking his ubiquitous cigarette.

I imagine that no one, not even the bishop, had seen him in a Roman collar in years.

Father Bob died of cancer in January 2008. Shortly after his passing and the funeral Masses that followed, my father, already in the early stages of Alzheimer's, touched me deeply by sending me a copy of Father's obituary, which he had clipped from the local newspaper. On it - thoughtfully, in the tiny spaces between the tiny paragraphs - he had scribbled, "Thought you might appreciate this. Dad." I wonder how he had known how much I would appreciate both his simple, loving gesture and having this memento of a man I so admired. My father died in December of that year.

In addition to the usual biographical information, Father Bob's obituary said the following: "There was no pretense about the man. He lived very simply, spoke by both his words and example, and had a special gift of ministering to children. His droll humour, sharp wit, and empathy for those less fortunate will long be cherished."

The lack of pretense and the simple living were certainly reflected in the dress, both secular and liturgical, and also in the pleasures he took. He loved to sit in his garden at the rectory and meditate and he loved to stay in the little house beside my parents' church that had originally been built for catechism classes but was later renovated for the use of the visiting priests. He enjoyed drinking coffee - and smoking - with the men of the parish, and certainly appreciated a glass of wine - or two. There were very few children in the parish as my parents' village is more and more being populated with the retired; what children and young people there are do not attend the Catholic church. But it was commonly known in the parish that Father Bob loved his nieces and nephews; he once broke his collar bone playing football with them. He liked football too.

Father's obituary left out an important aspect of his character: his integrity. Bob was his own man, not the bishop's man, not his Basilian superior's man. He said what he believed and what he believed did not always conform to the "party line" of the hierarchical Church. In one of the few homilies I was able to hear him deliver, he stated that if the Church expected to attract young people into the pews, fundamental changes had to be made. When a Basilian colleague with whom he shared the duties of administration of the parish was transferred back to the southern United States, Father Bob made it clear that he was not going to be transferred. He liked being right where he was, and if anyone tried to move him, he would simply retire, which he was old enough to do. He knew how desperate the diocese was in its need for priests.

It is said that when the hard-line traditionalist Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope, Father Bob openly expressed his disapproval. My sister, considering returning to the church after many years of lapse, told Father that if she came back she wanted nothing to do with confession. His reply was that she shouldn't worry: confession was highly overrated anyway. And in a telephone conversation I had with him after he had read one of my scripts, we talked a bit about the local seminary; he informed me that he did not like that institution and was not at all impressed with the product it turned out. In the same conversation he expressed his disgust over the Vatican's treatment of women. Then he wondered aloud why the bishop let him get away with so much.

When I met Father Bob, I had recently read Father Dominic Grassi's book Still Called by Name: Why I Love Being a Priest. I had just returned to the Church and was already thinking of the priesthood; Father Grassi, a diocesan priest in Chicago, was a real human being, an approachable man with strong emotions and with doubts and flaws, who loved people, loved God, and loved his vocation. He was nothing like the pastor of my youthful Catholicism, and I wanted to be a priest like him.

Still Called by Name is a collection of stories that reveal a multitude of facets of Father Grassi's personality, his ministry, and his relationship with his family and friends. It is by turns humourous, touching, enlightening, and inspiring. The accounts are also unfailingly honest. In the second chapter, "Remembering Faces," he laments his chronic inability to remember names:

I, on the other hand, really struggle with names. Sometimes during the course of a meeting with someone, I forget the person's name. Once I tried to fake it while helping a couple fill out their wedding questionnaire. I had drawn a blank on the name of the bride, whom I had just met, so I asked, "Spell your name for me please, so I get the right variation." She hesitated and then smiled at me, saying sweetly but quizzically: "M-A-R-Y." Oh, well, it was a nice try.

In another chapter, entitled "Passion and the Priesthood," he says:

When I laugh it is out loud. I cry often. I am quick to anger. And I love deeply. The only priesthood I know is one filled with passion. It does wear me out. It might even shorten my life span. But it is only by being passionate that I can be the effective priest I have to be.

In a recent article in America Magazine, Monsignor David Rubino offered to young clergy advice he had gathered "from among their retired brothers" in the Bishop Michael J. Murphy Residence for Retired Priests in Erie, Pa. The advice included Be yourself ("Learn from [your parishioners] and with them. Otherwise, your efforts to prove yourself rather than be yourself may obliterate the 'real you' from your priesthood.") Practice sacrificing self ("...practice becoming a better person and a better priest by sacrificing your self, as well as those petty things attached to your self-definition.") Be easy on the folks ("Smile and take it easy. People should not be harshly judged. Tenderly wait on your people and be present to them.") And much more. From the nature of the advice Msgr. Rubino offers in this article, it is not difficult to discern that he is also "a priest of the people." His excellent piece would have been splendidly crowned with one more suggestion: Read Father Grassi's book.

Despite their self-admitted personal weaknesses and spiritual doubts, Father Bob and Father Grassi have both maintained an unshakable belief in God's love for his children and in the gentle healing power of grace in the face of suffering and pain. The essence of the priesthood of each of these men has been its humanity; they have been servants of the people of God in the fullest sense. Neither was - is - a slavish adherent to Church tradition or a yes-man to autocratic Church leaders.

As I have stated in other posts, I am fascinated by priests and the priesthood - by the Roman collar, by the vestments, by the priest in celebration of the liturgy of the Mass. This fascination is perhaps one aspect of being a liturgy queen. I really don't know. Father Bob wore no collar, was casual about vestments, and said Mass in the simplest possible way. Father Grassi says of himself: "Neither hero nor saint, but also neither tragic loser or addicted idealist, I am just an ordinary person who still finds incredible joy, profound awe, silencing mystery, and overwhelming peace as a priest." Nevertheless, I am more in awe of these two men than I have been of any other priest.

I do not know what drew me as a child to the priesthood if the attraction was not simply to the theatrical. I was not exposed to priests like Father Bob and Father Grassi. The pastor of the church we attended during my childhood and adolescence does not in retrospect strike me as a particularly holy man or as especially pastoral. He was cool and remote as a person and neither liturgically nor homiletically inspiring as a priest. Without a true priestly model, it is no wonder then that at the age of 13 I was not at all prepared for the hard realities of seminary life and left (or was asked to leave) after only two months. My passion for the priesthood went underground after that experience.

It has been gloriously revived by these two men, who in my humble judgment, are true holy fathers.

No comments:

Post a Comment