NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part XII
Part 1 of 3 on "Jesus, touch and skin"
As I begin this two-part article I have in mind three images.
Into this mix I place a four-day series from the Oakland Tribune, 30-04-08, each day two whole pages with sixty-our pictures of clerics who worked in the East Bay area dating back to 1950 and who have been accused of sexual abuse; most are dead. Lastly I throw in my calico lap cat and her purring need to be stroked. We are taking up a touchy subject. In my 12 years of seminary I never meditated on Jesus touching another person.
Since the 1970's I have been riding a fast-moving, clerical polar express, playing a variety of roles as space ship AGGIORNAMENTO speeds into the 21st century. I am a comfortable passenger and a mental health observer. All passengers seem to be healthy; they keep in touch with humanity. I believe the Holy Spirit is at the controls, whirlwinding new Pentecost pathways. Herein I chronicle my journey and mind-frame so a reader can envision my spiritual trek; I walk in the Master's footsteps. I suggest that it is only when one is onboard (listening and reading without judgement) that a person can appreciate and trust the divergent spiritual routes as familiar old seminary stations are bypassed and we hurtle into uncharted territory. At times I think the final stop is called Emmaus. I am sure that as I proceed I will need some fictional transponder help from Captain Kirk aboard spaceship ENTERPRISE. as we jump back and forth from the Middle Ages to the Galilee road and then back to Modernity. I have a sense that some readers may compare me to Hal the rebellious computer. My insurance policy for sanity on this wild toad ride is the historical Jesus and a dialogue Christian community of fellow travelers. Jesus used touch as a healing experience; Jesus is always in touch with his God and the people..
Come on board! Ah, today Jesus is collecting tickets stamped VAT 2. Jesus is a long-time passenger as well as trainmaster. We are on a seismic ride aboard the John 23rd Express as it leaves behind the rural church of the 1500's and plunges into the modern world. The transitional priest is a major player; those who still work and think within the box of feudal clericalism are fearful to come near John's Polar Express. I am reminded of the Gospel exhortations to use our talents so as to increase them seven fold and the chopping down of the weathered tree that produces no fruit.
The universal need for physical contact…
I awaken about 7am. 20 year old Calli Cat patrols outside our bedroom door, a feline alarm clock aggressively into her morning routine. On separate stairs down my two scratches on her head are rewarded with her purring motor running full speed; no time for affection as she routinely devours cat food, but soon she moves into her daily needs, sleeping and getting into position for petting and strokes. This cat has no human inhibitions or hang-ups about touch, her purring speaking the truth of the universal need for all creation to make contact. Calli goes with the flow of nature.
In Moscow, Russia, 1967, Lynda Martinelli, a 17-year-old South San Francisco 5.4 package of beautiful dynamite, came to this writer as representative of our touring 33 youth group … and Lynda said : "we had a council of war last night and you were the only subject" (one of the tools of Transactional Analysis council was called when we had internal communication difficulties or emotional problems among the group, most of whom had known one another for years. We traveled Europe together for 42 days, I the Fuehrer as train officials called me). …And Lynda went on: "after we were reunited with the five kids lost in Hamburg we all hugged and kissed; the kids are aware that no one hugged you and that none of us calls you by any name anymore. Can you help us solve our problem?" I well recall my response : "tell them my Christian name is Tom and as physically difficult as such might be for this priest I think I will enjoy being a member of this hugging group". …And so it was that the priest who had taught them first communion learned to hug and share in their celebrations.
I was counterscripting an early seminary training steeped in silent fear of that infamous homosexual touch. My first trip on the Polar Express had been the day I saw the smiling face of John the 23rd; in Moscow and later on Lake Thun, Switzerland, amongst 30 teenagers I took my first steps toward mature humanity. Those who called me by name never lost respect for my ministry; the only title I have ever prized belongs to Jesus … Jesus the Christ, my personal human savior. I never saw Jesus as a homosexual; I now can see him married to Magdalene. The Jewish boy would have grown up in a religious tradition that virtually required the propagation of his race and Joseph would have sought his son a bride by the time he was twelve.
An introduction to psychology…
In 1956 I had my first invitation to a new way of life when Dr Eric Byrne invited clergy to sit in on a session at McCauly Clinic, a psychiatric unit of St. Mary's Catholic Hospital, San Francisco. I was the only priest to show at this sobering exchange of doctors and patients, my first glimpse at working with mental illness. I would return to the clinic some 12 years later as a patient struggling with my commitment to God and the priesthood after Vatican Two. When my mother found out I was in therapy she said "Tom, you are not crazy" and I replied "Mom, being in therapy is the main reason I am not crazy". Soon after I would return to school, eventually over the years becoming a State of California licensed therapist while still in an active pastorate. I would learn that fear of a punishing God was the chief contributor to mental ill-health. Hearing confessions became a vital factor in my honing therapeutic skills; I was getting in touch with the humanness of people while becoming more human myself. Jesus had come to set us free and John Courtney Murray's Vatican Two Declaration on Religious Freedom became essential to my work as a Jesus healer. For many priests confession time had become a bland automatic routine, particularly in hearing innocent children's confessions. Before he was hanged by Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would leave us the idea of cheap meaningless grace.
I was/am a well-traveled conductor on the Polar Express that carried 27,500 American priests out of clericalism by 1980. As a therapist I was getting first-hand insights into the clerical sexual scandals. Clericalism (a performance, clerical role playing; per=through and form or way, often not humanly authentic) was spiritually sick and dying. Clerics were often out-of-touch with the goodness of creation. In the Oakland Tribune, 30-04-08, among the 64 priests accused of sexual abuse I saw pictures of men with whom I had gone to seminary. I have as well sat in the priests' plot of Holy Cross Cemetery, Colma, Ca. reading the tombstone names of the over 300 who are buried in this special place. The tombstones circle a replica of DaVinci's LAST SUPPER, the dead all ordained mass priests. I know the human story of most, classmates, personal friends, pastors of parishes, chancery office clergy, military chaplains, seminary professors, all so neatly ordered in death — numbers of them great priests and others lonely men who living in unhealthy isolation. Some were addicted to alcohol, some definitely no longer authentic human beings — long time mere performers.
When I was a young priest we would send a few dollars to the Paraclete Fathers in Jeminez Springs, New Mexico to help the local priests who had a problem. If you are Irish you know what the problem can be for the clergy; little did we realize in 1958 that the disease of alcoholism was known by the Paraclete psychologists to be the tip of the iceberg of underlying abuse. (David Rice's OUR FATHERS, 2004 and Jason Berry's LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION, 1996) I realize today that for many of these misguided clerics the combination of alcohol and their touch on human skin was toxic, a terrifying price to pay for being out-of-touch with the real world of God's beautiful creation. Skin is the most active organ in the human body; from the days of our infancy we crave to touch and be touched. For those who are "forever 14" immaturity and curiosity can lead to foolish criminal involvement, even addiction. To this day there is no training in psychology for the average priest. (ON BECOMING A COUNSELOR, a Basic Guide for Non-Professional Counselors by Eugene Kennedy 1977).
In their attempt to bury the elephant under the rug Rome and the American bishops have attempted to crush Dominican priest Tom Doyle for alerting in 1980 the hierarchy to the pending financial disaster and worldwide scandal that awaited the church as bishops moved unhealthy priests around parishes and dioceses. In 2008 I find myself staring at clerical abuse reports as they come worldwide into my computer. I am a family system's therapist and I view the present institutional church as a dysfunctional family system, with the old guard now refusing to take the healing medicine of Vatican Two. I hurt with the conspiracy of the bishops to protect their sacred men no matter what their crime; the Roman system sees priests as church feudal property useable while making money and disposable when old, ill, or caught with their hand in the sexual cookie jar. At Trent honest bishops literally imaged and invented a male priesthood suitable to stabilize the needs of the Middle Ages — a system reasonably workable up until the period of the two great world wars wherein the Christian family system of Europe was finally destroyed. In my 79 years with an inside perspective I have been witness to the collapse of the front-line guard of the old Trentan priesthood. (Joseph A. Tainter's THE COLLAPSE OF COMPLEX SOCIETIES, 1988 Cambridge Press). I have long gotten over my anger that I was banished from the Roman institutional priesthood for marrying a woman I love and having with her a natural family. Jesus was historically a fine human lover and he did not eliminate any one of his followers because of marital status. The Jewish Jesus held sacred what he found in Genesis that his God had created all life and "God saw that this was good".
I admit I still smart with the realization that in the mind of Rome I am lumped with the sexual psychologically sick abusers, a fascinating arrogant insult to the married laity of the world, but typical of leaders who have fallen out-of-touch with real life. As for centuries, the hierarchy continues to see a women's touch as defiling the cleric. Thomas Aquinas, ignorant of human biology, calling the female an incomplete male. War, anti-feminism, and stupidity are the foundation stones of the collapse of the Roman Catholic Church; the Spirit of Jesus will find another agent … is finding other agents — modern disciples and apostles willing to learn.
How to handle Tom McMahon?
I know well that I am feared by some clergymen and bishops for the theological and psychological knowledge I possess; I am treated as long-time friend, respected as a twelve-year seminary man and for my 26 years as successful and sober institutional priest as well as my theological adventures. At times I suspect I am the object of their clerical envy. If I were still in the clerical system Rome would quickly silence me; I often wonder if from early grade school days I ever did fit into the Roman system, perhaps externally by seminary and ordination but surely not internally as a prisoner of toxic tradition? I have pioneer genes, always mindful of the new frontier and ever grateful to my father who as a boy of five hiked with my grandpa and family from Virginia City, Nevada to Butte, Montana in 1886. The distance is close to 2000 miles. I don't wear a coon skin hat nor carry an authentic Davy Crocket Rifle (I do have a Disneyland version holding on to our kids' souvenir, wondering if the original owners, this new generation of parents, will allow our grand children a gun) I do believe the Holy Spirit is calling a priesthood to explore the future and the Polar Express is headed that way. With two sons graduates of the University of California, Berkeley I would enjoy seeing a religion fit for the age of technology. I shall address this issue in my summer series on Sacraments.
A week ago while at my seminary I was confronted with two experiences that made me question how much in touch the institutional church is with reality. Seven Menlo Men of '54 ate together in the student cafeteria, we all dressed in casual clothing, while the majority of seminarians sported clerical collars and black; in the adjoining Riordan Room (named after the second Archbishop of San Francisco who built the seminary in 1898) a salesman offered a display of clerical garb, albs and chasubles, chalices, and assorted church goods while six chaplains (in battle fatigues) of various rank and branches of the armed services ate together, there to enlist seminarians as chaplain cadets. Today's seminarian loves to play the clerical role … costumed before he is ordained; in America women priests enjoy the roman stole and clerical garments and I silently wonder what they know about Jesus and his ministry? Did Jesus come to this world to say Mass? And did Jesus wear a Roman collar? Maturity as a Jesus priest is not gained by costume; as one who wore the uniform of a military officer chaplain during the Vietnam Conflict I suggest to seminarians today that Jesus would have stayed a far distance from pomp as he spent his career in touch with ordinary people. Power is not a Jesus' grace — the Jesus' people of God were outcasts and poor. (Sean O'Connell's SCATTERING THE PROUD, Columba Press 1999).
The local telephone company for years ran an ad: "reach out and touch someone". The historical Jesus touches many in the world of 2008; the Christ is a man for every season and all peoples. I see Jesus today as the new kid on the block; from a desperate Trent we accepted "the priest is the other Christ" and now from Vatican Two we see what Pius the 12th called "the emerging giant", the 21st century people of God. The historical Jesus no longer walks the roads of Galilee; he died on Calvary and he was smart enough to leave behind a group of missionary disciples willing to walk the roads of the world in his new persona (mask). At Vatican Two Jesus began his resurrection from a dying clericalism and now we can say along with the early Christians: "the Christian is another Christ". Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ WILL come again. Will I recognize this Jesus of many disguises?
Tom McMahon, San Jose, Ca., 11/04/08 — hoping to "stay in touch"!
NEXT WEEK: More skinny on skin and the gift of human sexuality. Read IS JESUS GOD? by Michael Morwood, 2001.
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part XII
What are your thoughts on this commentary?