For the next few weeks, while Tom McMahon continues his Aussie Odyssey he shares with us some of the letters he wrote some years ago, broadly addressed to his children, seeking to give an account of his life odyssey. Today's letter was written in June 2002.
Priesthood – a job? a God-calling?
Greg McAllister was ordained a deacon of the Roman Catholic church in 1965, slated for ordination and service in the diocese of Santa Rosa. Leo Maher, Santa Rosa’s first bishop had been Archbishop Mitty’s secretary when I was ordained in 1954. Leo was smooth, proper, always publicly smiling, immaculate of appearance. Humorously Greg tells the reason why he never went on to be ordained a priest; in a discussion the bishop challenged Greg as to who was the competition to the Catholic Church, Leo answering his own question with four words … THE BANK OF AMERICA. Greg had initiated the conversation around the Jesus spirit of living with the poor.
In 1969 at Holy Spirit parish at a Vatican Two public education series we had recently ordained priests share what being a priest meant; I was ordained 15 years, in my fourth parish high adventure assignment; I puzzled over a young clergyman saying this was a job for him. A job?! I had never heard priesthood and job connected; my brothers, lawyer and engineer, had jobs. I was a priest, servant of the community. I had a strange feeling seeing my position as a job. 33 years later I quietly allow my mind to mesh today’s clerical scandals and the idea of job/priesthood, even now for me a foreign combination. My mind and memory play tricks on me, yet I need overcome denial if I am to penetrate into the inner sanctum of this mystery. My faith understanding of Jesus, ministry, and church are different today, yet I look back upon many good servant priests.
I am haunted by the analogy I used in a previous article about the faith of Catholic youth being built around a rotted keel, an unhealthy sacramental foundation. I question today what did the Roman Catholic priest believe? Was priesthood just another job? Once taken-for-granted, is the faith content of an individual priest now under question? Perhaps only one like myself — a product of the 12 year seminary system — can penetrate this issue. Soon after seminary and ordination, a month, I would begin to realize that some clerics outwardly performed a factory-like assembly line faith without living a Christian experience; mechanical sacraments, prayer and mass in Latin made it easy to perform without believing in what one was doing. My first challenge to celibacy came from a 55 year old pastor soon after an infant baptism; I was becoming aware that there was sexual activity among some clergy. Dare I question clerical faith foundation? Was the keel rotted? And were people aware of this? What was my own faith foundation? My strength in faith came from my mother.
Early memories of home…
I grew up in an Irish Catholic parish, grade school with the nuns, altar boy from tender years. I was aware that a sermon by the priest on Sunday was part of Mass; I can only remember Fr. Erwin Becker comparing grace to Popeye's spinach and Bishop Connolly using the empty chair at Christmas dinner while talking about our boys in World War Two. The Sisters taught well the sacramental system, grace and sin; Sister Patricia Maria, a mighty mite, taught us patriotic songs ('41-'42) clearly helping us to identify the hated WW2 enemy. The whole was not much of Jesus and in the classrooms of my 12 years in seminary my faith content was never examined; I had as it were two keels, one for the ship of my family faith (solid in concern for others) and the official expression of Romanism, legal and ritualistic. Throughout 12 years of seminary I need only perform and say the right thing to pass muster to be ordained.
I had my own faith system in seminary. Backed by John the 23rd and Vatican Two, pushed by Humanae Vitae (the birth control encyclical of Paul the 6th) in 1966 I gave a six week series of sermons at St. Leo’s Church, San Jose, on what I believed, and no longer believed, centered as best I could at the time on my faith in the way of Jesus. I was maturing in faith as I intermingled with people. Most people appreciated my effort. Priest and people were connecting concerning mature adult spirituality and religion. I say nothing of those who choose to stay with their grade school training; I do recall the family that got up at sermon time from the front row, walked out, and returned in time for the Creed and communion. I knew they disagreed with me; they were a family of fear.
What do priests believe? And does this have anything to do with the present clerical crisis and scandal? Vatican Two demanded that priest and people think; some did and others did not; of the clergy who saw priesthood as a job they dare not think and some of them choose their own morality. For a goodly number alcohol continued to blur the picture and subdue the unrest. The people remained innocent that many clergy were in a faith turmoil. Today the words of Jesus are priceless: "by their fruits you will know them". We were a leaderless group; no one knew what our bishops believed.
Who am I to know the other and to judge? For myself I struggled and I studied and listened and hopefully learned; I concluded Jesus did not form a church, nor start a priesthood. I am a human being, this I believe and I search for truths by which to live.
I find myself falling back on the fundamental faith of my 15th street family, my mother’s sensitivity to others, her ability to forgive and not judge, her concern for the powerless and her love of her God and Jesus. (Thank you mother; you were the best of my teachers).
A people-of-God meeting...
Today in Dallas the Roman Catholic bishops will meet; their main topic will be the clerical sex scandals that have rocked America. They have a job to do, the bishops’ primary job of governance of the wealth of the RC institution; I expect little spirituality from their gathering. The problem is too massive; there is a need for a people of God meeting/world conference, accompanied by sound historical education and a sharing dialogue to seek out the possibility of the church remaining in the modern world; yet big is too big and impossible for communication. We need work community-to-community if we seek any success.
Only the foolish will hold to the idea that the Roman Church and its clergy are major players in society. Is a complete overhaul possible wherein trust might be reestablished? Will the people realize what is at stake and will the bishops recognize that the true church in the modern world is the people, of which they are a part? Leo Maher’s Bank of America comparison must go; the genuine and humble evaluation of religion and spirituality according to Greg McAllister need be considered. We need dialogue like the early followers of Jesus at Emmaus.
Tom McMahon 13 June 2002
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What are your thoughts on this commentary?