NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part XIV
Part 3 of 3 on "Jesus, touch and skin"
A moving confession of a priest's call to fatherhood…
Watching a baby being born into our world is a fascinating experience; the infant comes wrapped in soft skin, an already finished product of inter-related organs ideally designed for enjoyment, prosperity, and future survival of the human species. When nature had given its stamp of approval that all systems were set to go our son Thomas Patrick came down the birth canal on Easter Sunday morning, 1979; a glorious rising sun illuminated the birthing room and Doctor Vince Nola handed Tommy to me, saying: "here, Tom, he’s yours; take good care of him". I was fifty years old and had just witnessed for the first time the miracle of birth and the awesomeness of new life. I was witness to an age-old extension of the Genesis story. I knew that this child was not my possession, more a nature gift of the Creator and my responsibility to raise. I had in mind Kahlil Gibran’s "the child is the arrow and the parents the bow". I was a priest-father Father. (Tommy is now 29, a graduate of Cal Berkley, about to be married to a Vietnamese woman in August).
Vince questioned me: "when do you have to go back to work?" and I responded "Mass is at 8am". When I went up the stairs of the rural church built in 1898 people lined both sides of the twelve steps, smiling and greeting me with "good morning FATHER". Prayers of the Faithful included thanksgiving for new life. Tommy was our second child; Stephen Alexander had been born two years previously and I missed his birth. Many in the COMMUNITY OF CHRIST OUR LORD AND BROTHER knew Steve well. One Sunday when we had monthly tot’s liturgy, I in alb sitting on the floor surrounded by toddlers, Steve maneuvered his way into my lap, looked around, and one could hear him silently thinking "what are you other kids doing here?" Tommy's coming authenticated my membership in this vibrant community. Like dormant tulip bulbs in a rural setting inside high tech Silicon Valley a married priesthood had blossomed after a 700-year clerical winter. These were glorious days for people and that priest. Jesus was alive! (Steve is married to Maydya, grand-daughter of Catolonia, Spain, parents of two sons; Steve teaches math at his alma mater high school and was teacher of the year in 2006 of the San Jose Unified School District.)
Steve, a child of surprises, was late in coming in 1977. I kissed my wife goodbye as I left to officiate at the funeral of my brother, Judge Alexander John McMahon of Sonoma, sixty miles distant; during Al's burial mass I knew from an early morning phone call that our first son had arrived, a healthy 10 lbs, 3oz. Can anyone of you readers imagine the mixture of feelings as I watched my mother grieve her eldest son dead at 51, I knowing Mom had a new grandson and I was a first time parent … life with its Ying and Yang. I knew my dilemma, a married Catholic pastor with a new child in the midst of an institutional church hostile to women and clerical marriage. I also knew I was key to the people’s happiness in this new-found Vatican Two community. Some would call me sinful while others saw me as human.
Shortly after Stephen's birth I experienced for the last time a sense of guilt; still immature in human sexuality and not wishing to embarrass the Church I took my resignation letter to the chancery office; I would return to the parish with it unopened. Ordained now some twenty years and having been used by the bishop to quell a number of unhealthy parish scandals the archbishop bargained with me to stay on as pastor … his only demand was that I abandon my wife and child and get back to being a good pastor.
I was now an adult, fully aware of the secret game playing that went on inside the business called Romanism; I now had a clear picture of a medieval bishopric totally out of touch with the real world, capable of thinking only of protecting church property. Stunned at first and for the sake of the people I lied to him (as I had done a number of times in the past to bring justice to a parish); I agreed to return temporarily to New Almaden. The archbishop told me he would seek out a Vatican Two priest to replace me in this now successful Vatican Two community; that replacement never came and the people got to know the two McMahon boys. Elaine and I decided January 4th, 1980 was the time for me to leave and no longer live my double life. I was a therapist in an agency that worked with run away children and I was a successful pastor in a burgeoning community. After my confrontation with the archbishop I no longer entertained guilt; like a glue, guilt holds two opposites together, in my case a promise made in ignorance and youthful innocence and the God-given right for me to be fully human.
I need tell a 1969 story of drunken parishioners and myself ordained 15 years. The life of a priest is very lonely; in past days workaholic clergy warded off temptation and occasions of sin by staying busy, you know keeping up the parish books and church grounds, some, if not many, had by routine lost interest in a communal spiritual life and many were not skilled at socialization; I rarely drank liquor and especially at parish social gatherings. Holy Spirit parish sponsored a BBQ for volunteers upon whom the parish depended for a myriad of activities; the cooks got bombed and the meat was not cooked on time and the people drank too much. I can see them now, three couples, three sheets to the wind, coming at me arms locked together and trapping me. They worked over the "god" priest "for his stand on birth control, without mercy; the virginal 14-year-old in me said not a word knowing that my defiant adult had decried the church’s birth control condemnation in homilies since the era of Paul the 6th. I was deeply hurt and anger protected my raw psyche; I had been thrown out of two previous parishes three years previously, the archbishop and the old boy system protecting two old pastors who hated women and Mexican children. I left the drunken parish party and sought out the peaceful companionship of my long time friend Elaine and we watched television together. I returned to the parish at midnight, all people gone; I checked to see that the toilets weren’t running, turned out the hall lights, and locked all still open doors. As I write this I can still feel the betraying hurt; I went to sleep confronting myself and questioning if this was a human way to live and was the clerical way of life healthy and worth while. Elaine my friend of 20 years and I would marry and have two sons within the next seven years.
People from my old parish, where I served for seven years, had tattled to the chancery about the liberal priest with children; in their Sunday church bulletin a notice ran "we hear there is another parish started nearby; please be sure to put your Sunday donations in our collection boxes". (So much for the old church’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic …) A young bishop, friend then and closer today in 2008, knocked on the rectory door and said "Tom, we hear you have a child" and I responded: "Frank, I have two and I feel your visit is like the Nazi Gestapo making a call on the French Underground in World War Two; I am glad the charade is over." By then Elaine and I owned our own home and the kids were ready for school; people were becoming aware that the priest who had witnessed last Saturday’s wedding was also a member of the PTA. Both Elaine and I were tired of the infantile ignorance of those who saw evil in a priest being a family man; they acted as if my body was their property, solely for their use.
It was the beginning of the era wherein chancery offices became aware of sexual abusing priests; three years after my departure a cleric who had served time in prison for sexual abuse came to pastor. Disgruntled people who could not handle Vatican Two got rid of the married priest; I often wonder today how they handle the onslaught of reports about pedophile clergy. I read recently that the sexual abuse discoveries may last for another 16 years. When John Paul came to visit America in 1985 a local San Francisco Bay Area TV station came to our home for a six-hour interview of our family and our new home-based community. The interviewer could not get over the reality that I had served the archdiocese for 26 years as a respected priest yet was dismissed because I had a family. By then members of the still existent (1980-2008) Community of Jesus Our Brother were in full swing as a Christian extended family, breaking bread, learning about Jesus, and meeting weekly. I remained their primary teacher; today (April 20th, 2008) we shared dialogue concerning the connection of the monastic life and liturgy of the Middle Ages to the present-day needs of people in the age of technology (remember the Bishop’s hat, a medieval symbol of a land owner). Today I was a veteran teacher and I could say with Augustine that I am a member of the People of God; the Spirit of Jesus in simple way guided our gathering. We are a church in the modern world and our people know their power as Jesus priests. I often compliment the early Christian people as they encourage that a bishop should be a family man and only once married. I often wonder how many bishops could be successful as a family parent?
Let’s hop back abroad our spiritual transponder, back to 1954, the year of my ordination.
Within a month of my ordination I sought out my friend and confessor of old, the now deceased Bishop Mark Hurley. We both believed at the time that confession was the roadway to spiritual well-being. Then 25, I shared with Mark my new parish setting, young fathers and mothers and lots of kids and, in spite of an alcoholic pastor, I was happy. My conversation ran as follows: "Mark, I have a problem; today as I passed out communion (recipients then knelling at the communion rail and priest bending to put the host on the tongue) I saw more cleavage than I have ever seen in my life. My problem is I found the experience most beautiful and I know it will happen again next Sunday." For years I continued to question older priests on how they handled the beauty and attractiveness of the female body, never receiving a meaningful response. When in seminary as a teenager I had confessed to seeing nudie magazines but now the experience was different and I could not call it sinful on my part and certainly wasn’t going to call it sinful for the innocent women. I began to realize that as ordained priest I had never ceased to be a human being and my nature was creative. I was by nature attracted to women. Elaine taught me to dance when I was 40. I still sense at 79 my reproductive potential when I see female breasts.
I began to understand why priests needed alcohol; alcohol kills the power of testosterone. Before Vatican Two four clergymen might gather socially for what became known as Vespers, two or three sound rounds of bourbon or scotch and then wine with dinner … and then off to bed in those good old days. Vatican Two introduced the evening after dinner meeting with parishioners, Parish Council, Finance committee, etc., meetings by the big numbers at which the priests need attend, I well recall the brutal meetings of clergy in which the personal conduct of the priest was a #1 subject; we shall address this under "ex opere operato" in our summer series on sacraments.
In my last six years of major seminary I was most conscientious, allowing the Spirit of Jesus to guide me into being the best priest possible for the good of people; that mysterious calling dominated my life after meeting Pope John the 23rd and becoming an advocate of his Council. Every seminary day I prayed St Francis’ "LORD MAKE ME AN INSTRUMENT OF YOUR PEACE"; I have a copy hanging on my 2008 computer. I have been clay in the Spirit's hands, at times joyfully and others painfully. I honestly believe that my life has been guided by the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ; I know in my heart that I am still today guided by the Gospel and a calling from the Mystery called God. Be of service to your fellow human beings and you will experience the same. Saving Christianity today will not depend on having a married clergy, such may help; the future of Christianity is in the hands of ordinary people. People possess the grace of humaness to be successful.
You have been reading the life account of a person who meshed with the priesthood back in early grade school days; over a period of 70 years my life has developed and intertwined with Jesus whom we call the Great High Priest. The priesthood of Jesus is one of service to humankind; the Master counciled "leave your gift at the altar and go reconcile with your neighbor". I had to leave clericalism to be fully at work in a Jesus priesthood. People don't have to go to seminary to become priests.
Tom McMahon, San Jose, Ca., 25/04/08
NEXT WEEK: In my final paper on priesthood we will see what Richard Rohr has to say about human sexuality.
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part XIV
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