Father, Forgive Them

Palm Sunday
6:00 a.m.
My clock radio goes off. It is set to a local news station. The spiritual maxim is this: Upon awaking in the morning, give your first thoughts to God. I am beginning to learn that clock radios don’t always enable this practice. Before I can give my thoughts to anything in particular, the radio announcer says, “In the headlines: crisis in the Catholic Church over priest pedophiles.” The announcer sounds very concerned as she reads a script cut and pasted from the Boston Globe and New York Times. She even refers to the Supreme Pontiff, whom she calls “Pope Paul II.” I wonder whether she really meant to refer to Pietro Barbo, who reigned as Pope Paul II from 1464 to 1471. Then again, she is a professional journalist and I am not, so this is best left to her. This is going to be a long week.

Monday of Holy Week
It is a beautiful afternoon and I go for a walk. Heading back toward the center of town, the idea of a cup of coffee starts to seem better and better. I pause to look at a cafe, trying to decide whether it is priest-friendly. Most people who work in coffee bars are very friendly and polite in a kind of T-shirted and steel-studded way. But some of them look askance at priests. A young man and his wife come out of the cafe. The man smiles at me and says, “Hello, Father. How are you today?” The answer is fantastic. Why? Because the man was glad to see a priest. Bear in mind that he has no idea what my name is or where I am from or whether I am intelligent or a dolt, kind or mean. He sees the collar and knows I am a priest, and it makes him glad, and this means he has the Faith, and so he smiles and says, “Hello, Father.” Not, “G’way, you pervert” or “Stay away from my kids.” It’s a simple story and I will cut it short because I am getting sentimental, but not before I say, “Hey, New York Times and Boston Globe: Catholics still love their priests.”

Tuesday of Holy Week
I find myself thinking of a memory long suppressed. Something that happened 10 years ago, during my first year of priesthood. I was the parochial vicar (assistant priest) at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. Around noon, someone phoned the rectory and said, “Father, have you seen the commercial they’re running on Channel Zero?” (I have changed the name of the TV station to protect the guilty, thus showing them more consideration than they showed me and other priests). I turned on the TV and, after a few minutes of soap opera, the commercial came on. It showed the silhouette of a young man wearing a cassock, holding rosary beads, while the announcer said something like, “They care for our souls and hear our deepest secrets, but can they be trusted?” Then the screen showed the front of a church. I recognized it at once. You could even read the letters on the facade: Our Lady of Perpetual Help church. I remember exactly what was said then. “What is the shocking secret that the diocese does not want you to know about its priests?” I felt sick. I had no idea what was going on. The announcer told me I wouldn’t find out until 11 p.m.

It was a sad story, of course. An old priest, now retired out of state, had been accused by a long-ago altar boy of having interfered with minors. The private detective trying to dig up dirt had contacted the TV station. Allegedly the diocese had been told about these allegations 30 years previously, but had simply transferred the man from one parish to another. And one of the parishes just happened to be Our Lady of Perpetual Help. And this is why I was being defamed—why we were being defamed.

Naturally, parishioners continued to ring the phone into the afternoon, intent on finding out whether one or both of the parish priests was about to be arrested. This was intolerable. I phoned my attorney. I explained the whole matter. “Are you sure you want to do something about this?” he asked. “It could backfire.” I told him to go ahead. This simply wasn’t right.

Now, some critics of the Church will maintain that Catholic priests hold sway over the faithful simply by the perceived power of the sacred words that only priests can speak. If they believe that, they should look to the awesome powers of the attorney. Armed only with a telephone and some magic legalese, my lawyer went to work. First he identified himself as a member of a sacred order. “Hello, this is Attorney Charlie Michaels. I need to speak to whoever is responsible for the commerical being run to promote your 11 p.m. news program.” This brought about a fairly rapid response. Charlie let loose a lawyerly spell, explaining that he was calling on behalf of his client, that this phone call was an official legal communication, relating that his client was in great distress over the commercial. The TV professional protested that my name had never been mentioned. Charlie explained that damage had already been done, that his client’s reputation had already been caused serious harm. The TV professional said, “Well, we had a meeting and we’ve decided we’re not going to run that commercial any more.” Now Charlie spoke the word of power. “That’s good,” he said. “Because if you run that commercial one more time…you will be sued. Do you understand me?” They did not run the commercial again.

Wednesday of Holy Week
Father H. asks, “Have you seen the latest issue of Time?” The cover screams, “CAN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH SAVE ITSELF?” I note the cover date: April 1.

Holy Thursday
A day to commemorate the Last Supper, at which the Lord gave his disciples two commandments: (1) Do this in remembrance of me; (2) wash each other’s feet. Holy Thursday gives priest their identity. For priests, it is a day to renew their commitment, to celebrate together their common identity. The present Pope has written a Holy Thursday letter to priests each year since his election. It is a wonderful thing to be a priest, to be able to say, “The Pope writes me a letter every year.” Of course the letter comes out a few days early, and is released to the press. North American journalists in particular were amazed and annoyed that this year’s Holy Thursday letter did not say what they wanted it to say. They hate that. This gave journalists such as Janet Bagnall of the Montreal Gazette the opportunity to criticize the Pope’s Holy Thursday letter in an article published on Holy Thursday itself. I doubt Bagnall went through the exercise of reading the whole letter. Rather, she was more exercised about what the Pope did not say in it. She complains, “The pope did not pronounce the words sexual abuse or pedophilia. He did not name the evil that traumatized so many innocent young lives.” Now, the Pope did speak of mysterium iniquitatis—the mystery of evil—which you figure embraces pretty much everything that could traumatize innocent young lives. But Bagnall ain’t buyin’. When Vatican official Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos spoke of “today’s culture of pansexualism and libertinism,” she scoffed. “Is he saying there’s something in the air? Is this an actual theory?”

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