NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part III
THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK UNMASKED
When I was an 8th grade boy, 13, I had a set of keys to Mission Dolores Church*; it was 1942 and we were at war and the sexton had been drafted into the army, leaving us teenagers as the men of San Francisco.
I rang the huge church bell for funerals, playfully hanging onto the rope as it lifted me skyward; I came late to morning class, my first insight into what would become my awareness of clerical privilege; putting out Mass vestments and many other sacramental preparations linked me to a junior priesthood, a step above the altar boy status I had already enjoyed for four years. I enjoyed freedom within a strict institutional church; I saw the human inside of the mysteries.
My Mom was the parish secretary and our pastor was a bishop. I was groomed, one of "chosen" eight who served the bishop at his daily mass; in 1940 having served at confirmation in the chapel at the San Francisco Presidio, processing in under raised swords of officers in full dress uniforms I sat at a military banquet … visions of sugar plums danced in my wee little head … and I saw a future army chaplain … which I did become in 1959.
As time marched on the junior priest finished his 12 year seminary training — the Marine Corp of the Catholic Church. I returned to my home parish to say my first Mass in triumphal pomp and ceremony.
Ireland born venerable Joe Higgins, the kindest man I have ever known and our neighbor across the street since the days of my childhood, on the day of my ordination knelt in the street and kissed my hand; I can remember so well my saying to myself "O God I am no longer one of them ". I was 25, an ordained Mass priest, set apart from the human race, so naïve and innocent. Yet this writer turned his ministry to one of service to God and people; the pomp faded fast and if it were not for Vatican Two I would never have reached ten years as a functionary in institutional priesthood. The parish pastors were the chief block to my service to people ministry. I was a prisoner of outmoded tradition … For this I had spent 12 years in seminary … no way!
My home family background and people were far more important than clerical rules that would try to keep me separate from community. Jesus was "where two or three gathered in his name", not in the loneliness of the celibate state and an isolated rectory.
Vatican Two, with its "silver bullets" would ride into my life like the Lone Ranger and from 1962 it was "hi ho Silver, away". I was rescued from clericalism by John the 23rd: could I remain sane and valuable as a human being if I stayed in the institutional priesthood?
By1967 I had my doubts; I began my 15 year-ong education in psychology and my search for a personal life. My ace-in-the-hole was my mother's brother, Uncle Tuck ordained in 1922, a people's priest who was a weekly overnighter in our family home. In 2007 I found the 1934 receipt-down payment on the Victorian house Mom brought in San Francisco, my childhood home. Mother had title while the receipt is made out to Thomas I. Bresnahan who as priest becomes our surrogate father after my Dad's death in 1931. Uncle Tuck was my buddy, giving this depression child my first electric train. Today when I feel stressed I go upstairs and work on my model railroad. My father was a railroad man Uncle Tuck was a true human being; never once did visit me in my dozen years of seminary. What was the message given by this wise old pastoral figure? I would find out.
I write here about my archetypal images of priest and what I would learn about priesthood in the 26 years I served in six parishes and military service. My classmate and close friend Father Tom Burns, who served as a navy medic in WW2, told me "I went to seminary and learned the church; after ordination I learned in parishes what the priesthood was all about". Tom is a graduate of Santa Clara University and I do not include him when I agree with Richard Sipe about priests being "forever 14". I have many images of who is, could be, or should not be a priest. It took half-a-lifetime to understand fully that ordination and wearing a Roman collar and stole in no way makes a Jesus priest. I have a sense that many still think of priest as Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way. This type is fictional — a priesthood only of Mass, sacraments, and heavenly dreams with virtually no connection to Jesus. Clerical feet of clay have become apparent in our century. All priests are earthy human beings. Today the iron mask wears heavy on many roman clergymen.
My awareness of difference deepened when military chaplains who serviced during WW2 came to seminary; in 1945 Father Stan Riley, a survivor of the Batan Death March, spoke to us junior seminarians about his war-time captivity in Tokyo. This humble hero who saved many an American life did not own a black suit. When Dutch Cardinal Suenens came to lecture in Oakland on Vatican Two and when I shook Edward Schillebeckx's hand I realized that their lack of roman collar in no way diminished their wisdom.
After my own tour of military duty black cassock and identifiable clergy clothing became discards. Yet for many Roman Catholics the man in black, and I don't mean Johnny Cash, struck a note of separation and a mistaken notion of closeness to the sky God. I follow in this series with an adventure into an imaginative rich history of this illusion; my journey is like that of Alice in Wonderland. People have asked me if I regret having been a priest; I rejoice in the years of a ministry that entailed so many good people and I would do it all over again. We are transition men, distancing from the past and now armed with Vatican Two and glorious reforms; this series is dedicated to my 33 ordained classmates, the Menlo Men of '54, a third deceased, a third married, and a third celibate. We are a 70 year-long-brotherhood with a corporate foot in the old European world and the other foot in a Vatican Two future. We have had our calvarys and our transfigurations; we are Jesus men. I am proud of them and happy to be one of them.
Is this where it "went off the rails"?
Edward Schillebeckx says that when one goes into Church history from 800 to 1500 ce it is difficult to find hard facts. I suspect that the separation of ordinary people from the hierarchy and the monastic style of life had a profound impact on the status of clergy and their relationship to people. (I avoid use of the word laity as it carries such negative baggage; laity really means "duty"). Wikipedia simply says that the Middle Ages dealt a severe blow to the Roman Church. I am presently studying the Middle Ages, using a series of 9 CD's from the Great Courses; I listen for clues — the hard-to-find-data that Schillebeekx speaks of. I have discovered a gold mine (for later articles). In short, beginning around 800 ce Christian community is virtually brought to extinction in the sociological shift in society. In the Middle Ages the serf is a no-body, swallowed up in the massive land reform that gave rise to castles, estates, and nobility. Monks were the "clergy" of the day and with the abolishment of clerical marriage in 1139 the secular priest would disappear, or at least go underground for the next 500 years, eventually to resurface as the seminary re-tread of the Council of Trent, thereafter burdened with imposed celibacy. (Rank and orders in church are coming in this series.)
Secrecy envelopes the institutional church, developing clericalism and producing the "magic man cleric". When Innocent the Third (he is crowned with a tiara as "ruler of the world" in 1198) calls for clergymen who are lean and ready to fight in crusade. Chaucer and the Middle Ages offer up "the parve parson of a toon", a "shity mon". Eventually the Man in the Iron Mask is the fine-tuned perfect product of the universal seminary system produced by the Council of Trent, after 1542.
As genuine Christian community disappears, say around the end of the first millenium, a power papacy, using the feudal system fosters the institutional Church that we knew up to Vatican Two, further distancing from people and the human spirit of Jesus disappears (Christ has died again). Perhaps this is where the pre-Vatican Two communion rail came into existence, a tell-tale sign of keeping the unworthy people out of the holy of holies, the sanctuary. Wholesomeness (holiness) disappears replaced by robes and titles. Only the ordained male can say Mass, a pronouncement that comes as late as 1127 c.e. (Rome today in an attempt to regain the past is considering removing communion in the hand.)
Pius the 12th would remind the Catholic world in 1942 that people are temples of the Holy Spirit and the 21st century clerical scandals remind people that some of the fish in Denmark smell badly. When John the 23rd called for opening the windows of the church to let in fresh air he knew very well the sorry spiritual condition of the hierarchy and clergy of the modern era. The battle today has the People of God struggling with a dying male clericalism, with clerical job security and the cushy lifestyle of the elite at stake. John Paul the 2nd appointed deadwood bishops from the dying clergy and Benedict the 16th is trying to resuscitate the corpse of clericalism. The People of God are being challenged.
Tom McMahon, San Jose, Ca, 03/02/08.
NEXT WEEK: I meet John the 23rd and my iron mask slips even more. We discover a priesthood of people who are re-forming the church.
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part III
*For further background information on the history of Mission Dolores Church, the oldest Church in San Francisco dating from 1776 check out this link: www.aviewoncities.com/sf/missiondolores.htm
What are your thoughts on this commentary?