Last week I was at the ordination to the Diaconate of a man I’ve known for almost 8 years now. Before the Mass, a seminarian who was also attending this happy event and I were chatting when he asked “So Father, how long have you been ordained?” I answered back, “This Wednesday it will be 20 years.” The guy seemed genuinely surprised, laughed and said “Wow – Father, I would have never guessed that… I would have pegged you at 5- 10 years at the most!” I kind of laughed at first not quite sure how to take that. Did I display a lack of intellectual prowess or gravitas in the few minutes that we were chatting? He explained “you just look so young, I would never had guessed you were a priest for 20 years.” Somewhat relieved, I thanked him for the compliment, and explained that I was ordained at 25 years of age having entered seminary right after college. Having both a Theology and Philosophy degree from a Catholic University, the Archbishop back in 1995 overruled the seminary officials and put me right into First Theology, which put me into a 4 year formation process (rather then the 5-6 that would’ve been more common). The guy continued to joke with me and said “well it looks like you’ve weathered it well.” To which I half-jokingly responded “I internalize things a lot.”
Half joking, because there’s a lot of truth to that. I do internalize things a lot. I would imagine many priests do. Particularly this past year. It’s been a horrific year for priests. I actually feel relieved just writing that. (And wonder as I’m staring at those words if I will actually ever publish this….) From the revelations almost a year ago that, the man who was that Archbishop who accepted me as a seminarian in 1995 and would ordain me in 1999 – has been revealed as this monstrous, manipulative man who has abused children and seminarians in ways that I don’t even want to revisit.; who just a few months ago was laicized (meaning removed from the clerical state by the Vatican) — to equally revolting, damaging and under reported stories of how some “knew” about all this and turned a blind eye, covered up that depravity has been beyond difficult to face (including another lengthy story about this cover up coming yesterday here) .
Suffice it to say, this will be the first year I won’t look at my ordination video or pictures, lest I see Theodore McCarrick’s face and hear his voice. I share that not because I’m looking for sympathy. Theodore McCarrick’s victims deserve that genuine sympathy. But it’s been hard not revisit memories; shudder at conversations, interactions, encounters with this man – and not have a mix of emotions.
First is an overwhelming genuine gratitude to God that I was not one of his abuse victims, that somehow I was protected, that my vocation and my very faith was protected from this man – especially when I read far too many accounts of those who were not so blessed. But a whole host of other emotions and feelings from anger to deep sadness about all of this comes like waves.
Just as distressing is to read voluminous stories from around the country, including our own Archdiocese of Newark of other priest-abuse scandals (some that were already known, some just coming to light now) being revealed. These weren’t stories of men who had a moral failing and ended up being unfaithful to their ordination promises – these were stories of grossness and depravity… that is vomit inducing. Like everyone else, priests are sinful people who need Jesus Christ as their savior. Many of us priests know that this not an easy life or vocation (not that being a faithful married man or woman; or a professed religious woman or man is either). We know that it is by God’s grace and mercy that we strive to remain faithful to our promises. But these stories that have finally come to light aren’t the stuff of simply a moral failing, or a “misstep”. They, to my un sophisticated theological mind feel diabolical.
This is where some are asking “then why do you stay?” Particularly when priests who publicly announce they are leaving are in some quarters applauded, congratulated and are even labeled “courageous.”
For me, I stay first and foremost because of the grace and mercy of God. I’ve not hid that I came close to leaving the priesthood (way too close) 13 years ago. So I know not to be arrogant and say “I will never leave.” I hope and pray that is the case… that I will remain faithful to the promises I made to God. That I will be a Happy, Holy, Healthy priest for the rest of my life – for my own salvation and to help others’ souls salvation… that I help them grow close to Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life. It’s because of Jesus Christ’s call that I am a priest. It is for Him that I’ve laid down my life, my desires, my pursuits to serve Him, His Church, and His people.
This brings back a memory. I had only been ordained a priest about 6 or 7 months when I was on line for a procession for a Funeral Mass for the mother of a good priest friend of mine. Theodore McCarrick was still the Archbishop of Newark at the time came up to me and pulled me out of the line asking “how are things going” at my first parish assignment of Our Lady of Lourdes in West Orange. After giving him an impromptu report, I’ll never forget him saying “Jimmy, I love what you’re doing for me…” as he launched explaining that soon he would be calling on me to leave that assignment and to go to Rome for further studies (adding that unlike my previous declining to do so when he had asked me to consider studying while in seminary, he would expect me to go this time). It’s taken me years to recognize how inappropriate and manipulative that whole encounter was. But instantly, I remember saying to myself “doing for you? I’m not doing any of this for you [McCarrick] I’m doing all of this for Him…”
I’m thankful for these type of Holy Spirit clarifying moments. God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – has encountered me in similar ways throughout my life. I can remember moments from as far back as Kindergarten to just last week at that ordination ceremony I was attending where God has showed up. Where He reminded me of His presence, His call, His invitations…. He is why I became a priest. He is why, even at those moments I might not necessarily want to continue to do so – I remain a priest. He has generously entrusted me with being Christ to His people in the whole roller-coaster ride of human experiences: births, deaths and every high and low in between.
There are many memories that come to mind from 20 years ago… but one very tender moment was hours after the Ordination Mass at the family reception my parents had arranged. Both of my parents and my brothers got up to speak. Mom and my brother Craig had written, prepared remarks. Dad and my other brother Chris spoke more spontaneously or what at least appeared to be ad-libbing. Each in their own ways expressed their love for me as their son, their brother. Each in their own way, and from their own vantage point of faith expressed their feelings about what had happened that day. My oldest brother Chris (who I was completely expecting was going to roast me) just saying how it hit him “seeing my little brother where he was standing at the beginning of the Mass and then at the end standing there as this ‘holy man’.” His sincerity and genuineness was touching. Reflecting on it, I don’t know if I would agree that I’m a “holy man” – I’m trying. Each day, I’m trying the best I can to be the best priest I can: to be prayerful, to be attentive to the people I’ve been sent to serve, to be faithful to my promises… I’m trying. But 20 years later, thanks be to God, I’m still standing.