Today Tom McMahon shares with us another of his letters written for his children and the archives. This one was written ten years ago in 1999 and is a pretty frank overview of his time as a priest and what led to his disillusion with clericalism and the institution. By way of introduction to this letter, Tom writes: "I have in mind two things, #1 I want to let readers know who I am. I am not a trained theologian and I have a sense that reform for the people will not come from the academic world but from the school of hard knocks, real life in the church. You are experiencing this with the priest at St. Mary's in Brisbane this very day. I am humbled with your report of how many have read my papers and I feel a responsibility to them to give them a background how I came to my present spot in life. The #2 reason is that I am deep into study and research for my series on MARRIAGE and I'm finding the matter challenging, confusing, and so often opposed to the present stand of the Roman Church today. I need some time to get together a worthwhile presentation; I should have it ready by the 11th of March."
This piece is written 32 years after the crisis and by request. It is my understanding that it may eventually end up in the archives of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, a rightful place of history and many buried secrets that the Roman institution of the 1960's desperately tried to hide and keep from the people. At the time Vatican Two was passing its initial stage and the Roman Catholic Church was struggling to understand its message. The gap between people and the hierarchy was vast. The times were bitter-sweet.
I was ordained for the Archdiocese of San Francisco on June 11, 1954, after twelve years at St. Joseph's minor seminary and St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park. My uncle, Father Thomas I. Bresnahan was ordained for San Francisco in 1922, also from St. Patrick's. "Tuck" was my mother's brother, a surrogate who replaced my father who died in 1931, and a highly dedicated-to-people priest. I learned more from him about service to people than any knowledge I gained in seminary. His story of an honest priest badly used by the archdiocese is another episode; from his experience I knew at ordination that we were "numbers" at the chancery, not persons, exploited by the ordinary of the day with our only right, as we said in seminary, that of Christian burial. The spiritual life of the people hardly mattered.
My first assignment was in a suburb of Oakland, new parish and wonderful people. The pastor, an alcoholic, was jealous of my people involvement and my rectory life was a hell. I sought to join the Air Force as a chaplain and was denied by the chancery since I was so young. Then principal of O'Dowd High School and my confessor, now retired Bishop Mark Hurley protested my being moved to South San Francisco and the infamous Egisto Tozzi; the chancery said just "one year, to settle down the people". Five years later I arranged the old man's funeral and got nothing of the over one and a half million dollars he had in stock and the bank; I did take with me a contempt for Rome and the Vatican which had intimate ties with this corrupt individual who offered nothing to the people but harm. By then I was a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserve, with a promise from the Archbishop to be the next San Francisco priest to enter active duty; Monsignor Eugene Gallagher, Tozzi's replacement and full time head of CYO, requested I stay on at All Soul's to help in the transition. I had run the parish for five years and Gene found it difficult that the people continued to look to me for spiritual guidance. I recall one lecture he gave me on my need to be less popular with the youth. I was transferred to San Jose where Monsignor John Kilcoyne, just after thirty years in the army, had become pastor of St. Leo's, a parish once wealthy and now filling with poor minorities. Vietnam killed my ambition to go on active duty; my protest of the war cost me my commission.
We ran minority programs, especially ones for youth and after four years the pastor brought it all to an end … "Get your god damned Mexican kids out of my church" was his 1966 Easter Saturday public proclamation and I was history. I privately accused Archbishop McGucken of race prejudice for moving me as insubordinate. (I had told Kilcoyne and his janitor to get out of my way, as I entered to share Mass with 25 little Mexican kids, or I would "beat the shit out of them".) Archbishop McGucken got his revenge by sending me to St. Francis Cabrini where conservative Fr. Robert Essig was pastor and I had been weekly confessor to the nuns for four years. Cabrini had not heard of Vatican Two. Bob would teach me protection for the clerical image far outweighed the spiritual needs of the people.
"Bobbie" Essig and I had been friends; he was genial, a priest sacramentally interested in people, classically out of touch with life and Vatican Two ( "Andrew Greeley is an asshole , Tom", was his response as I encouraged him to read CRUCIBLE OF CHANGE in 1968). On the beach at Anzio, Italy, American forces engaged in "friendly fire", killing Bob's fellow chaplain, his first anointing in World War Two and thereafter Bob anointed anything that moved, "ex opere operato" [Wikipedia explanation] being the motto of his ministry. Bob never slept in a bed since WW2 and was alcoholic until entering AA in the late 1980's. Bob saw to it that I had nothing to do with youth; a seventy-two-year-old nun ran the CCD high school program, in which students numbered over 500. The other associate priest, my friend with many problems, buddied with the teens by sharing some marijuana. Cabrini was a huge dysfunctional parish of pre-Vatican Two style.
The crisis arose when the pastor preached from the pulpit that it was a serious mortal sin for parents not to send their children to CCD; the aging nun ran among the milling crowd of teens sending home any girl that had on a sweater. The teens loved it; the girls wore their sweaters and met with the boys down at the pizza joint. The CCD use of the classrooms was limited to one day a week, since bingo games dominated the remaining days. The sisters in the grade school had warned the 8th grade girls to wear a T-shirt if they wore a bikini at the parish picnic. The parents were desperate, trapped in ignorance, fear, clericalism, and misogyny. The matter was showing up in my confessional on Saturday night. I had always been a popular confessor, a base upon which I would build my future counseling practice after leaving institutional ministry. In the parish panic someone had to do something. "Is it I, Lord?"
The scripture of that crisis breaking Sunday was "You have made my Father's house a den of thieves". I preached at all the Masses; the pastor was celebrant of the last Mass and the head of the bingo committee was the lector. I carefully outlined the Catholic tradition on the dignity of the female body, a God creation, a co-creator with our Maker; I asked the people if they would tolerate any longer the abuse of their children "in the name of God" and I called for a reform of the CCD program and questioned the bingo game monopoly. In response I was offered a standing ovation by the people. Five days later I was transferred by Archbishop McGucken, without explanation to Holy Spirit parish. Fr. Tom Murray, who had preached at my first Mass, having heard of the fracas and having seen on local TV the people picketing the priest house had called the Archbishop and requested my services. I was a clerical basket case by the time I went to Holy Spirit in the Almaden Valley. I never again trusted a bishop and I began to see the folly of trying to bring Christianity to the Roman institution. Romanism had died for me.
Twenty years later while talking with Bishop Tom Gumbleton at a social justice meeting a newly ordained spoke to me by my seminary nickname. I said I was flattered he knew me and this was his reply: "Bear, you are a legend in the seminary; you are the priest who took on bullying pastors and they lost; they have never been the same. You are well remembered." I have often wondered how many left seminary during the 1970's aware of the deceitfulness of the hierarchy and the brutal insensitivity of some of the older pastors. I am ever grateful to the institution that they dismissed me for marrying. I found life!
32 years later , equipped with a sound education in humanistic psychology, I am a married father of two sons; I am healthy of mind and body. Professionals encourage me to sue the Roman institution for failure to protect me from emotional abuse. I am too proud to do so; the Roman Church and its present clergy on the whole are pathologically sick, many dependent on their evening whiskey to get through the night. There are only a few priests who can do good for people; seminary destroyed them emotionally. The Tridentine priesthood is dying and a new church of Vatican Two is birthing. I am content to be "banished" from their style of ministry; universally plate collection money continues to protect paedophile priests and in time the people will catch up with this abuse and withhold their contributions. I know many of the clergy are homosexual; 65% of the seminary is gay and I hold no bitterness. Faithful Catholics will receive no spiritual nourishment for the heterosexual, especially women; marriage and family life will remain unmentioned. The people in their silence will continue to see to it that their children are never alone with "father" … I would not sue a sick organization who takes money from good people and in the spirit of my widowed mother, who raised four kids during the depression, I hold my head high in pride that I am a good priest of the mind of Jesus Christ. I weep for the priests of today, especially those who think they are doing something for people by their robes and titles. A local bishop made a local priest a monsignor recently; all the years I have known this prelate I did not realize he was so stupid and out of touch with the real world. This morning's SF Chronicle carries a picture and article about my classmate John Kelly and the reasons John left ministry some twenty years ago. John runs an outreach shelter for the disadvantaged of San Mateo County. John, who has been my friend since St. Joe's in '42, continues to be the best priest ordained in the Menlo Men of '54, even though he denies such. John is not Roman! John visits San Quentin prison every weekend.
Peace, my reader! I possess inner peace and I hope it for you. I have prostate cancer and I have been taught in the Preventive Medicine Research Institute how to enjoy life. Study shows that tension may be a large factor in the growth of cancer; perhaps my clerical history is the source of my illness. I do not intend to let the Roman Church and its toxic religion be a destructive influence on the remaining years of my life. I am happy with my life, a fulfilment of the type of priesthood I dreamed of in seminary. I give glory to my Creator by merely living and enjoying the Creator's gift. May the peace and joy of Jesus the risen one be with us all!
Tom McMahon 3 June 1999
Image Credits: Clicking on the images in the body of the article will take you to the original source.
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