The Priest

I was raised Italian Catholic and on church on Sunday. Before I realized that boys could be fun, my goal in life was to become a nun. At some point, our old church minister was traded for a younger model with modern thoughts and long hair. People talked. A lot. I wasn’t there, but one day he had had enough and he delivered a sermon on compassion and understanding then cut his hair off in front of the congregation.
We never saw him again.
I never went to church again.

Courage can come with many faces, many small decisions, many fear filled moments of strength. And sometimes you just get tired of the lies.

He came from a middle-class family, or so it can be imagined. We don’t know who his first love interest was or why he decided to become a priest. These sorts of tales often have a mentor or a spiritual uncle that had taken the cloth. Perhaps he knew uncertainty and desired something secure, complete. We must fill in the back story ourselves; but like many good yarn this isn’t about where you came from, this is about what you did.

Don’t tell me what you can do, show me what you will do.

In his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, author Kevin Dutton relates a conversation he had with a psychopath who refuted the notion that he was somehow more inherently brave than others. He was fearless, a military Seal with a reputation for a daredevil spirit and courage under fire. This patient argued that something cannot be considered an act of  ‘bravery’ if it does not involve fear or any of the other myriad of negative emotions associated with facing certain death. How can you be brave if you have nothing to fear?

For much more than a millennia the pontiff of Rome (and occasionally other places but that’s a history lesson for another day. And yes there was once three popes) held life and death sway over virtually all of the European world and parts further askew. The supplicant must contend with a millenia of ritual, obedience, and unquestioning loyalty. Becoming a priest is a holy thing, superior even to a doctor or lawyer, and only slightly below an end table on Friends.

Priests are made, not born. A young child, virtually a toddler, learns to speak the words and dip and weave in time with the Service. This is a rich culture, and our young friend must have burned with passion for something wondrous, magical, something far bigger than this pitiful existence. Such a calling comes with a price; a life which will never feel the touch of a lover. No children to mourn your passing or keep you company when you are old.

Conformity on a scale unknown to most of society. It is not only the nun who is married to the church, the Bride. Religious Orders are not to be embraced lightly in a subculture with more than 1600 years of practice in weaning out the unworthy, the impenitent, the uncommitted. It can easily be argued that the Church has not always done an adequate job of straining out the deviation, but that is for another time.

So then, what was in his mind on that day when he burned it all to the ground? Why throw it all away to make a point? But alas, this is not really my tale to tell, I heard it from Candace. It is, after all, her story not mine:

I come from small coal mining community in the East Kootenays, Sparwood is a pretty small town. For most of my life, there were maybe about 3500 people in the entire place, most of them Italian Catholic, and first generation Canadians. They were tough, no nonsense people with coal dust and religion deep down engrained in them. Politics were a strong topic of discussion, often loudly, almost with militant enthusiasm.

The church, though, was a different thing. No one spoke badly about the church. That was hallowed ground. So I thought. Catholic nuns ran the only school in town, a big stone mausoleum of a building. I sucked in the religion like coal dust. I wanted to be a nun. I went to Sunday School and church every Sunday. I believed in the sanctity of the church. I was devoted, I as an idealist. I even had the habit. Full gear with the cross at 6 years old. I have the photo to prove it. Crazy stuff!

The minister in town had been around for years. I don’t remember much about him really except that he never really hung around us kids, but always kept an otherworldly distance, enough that I honestly thought he had an in with The Almighty. Some deeper, mysterious connection that the merely mortal would never know. He left town for retirement when I was a young teen, amid talk that he and the church secretary were doing more than typing up the Sunday sermon. I wasn’t entirely naïve, but this was my first experience with any real ’adult’ gossip, let alone about the church. I had been taught to respect my elders, and to mind my own business. Rumours spread quickly in a small town, and while I tried to ignore most of it, I remember feeling a little uncomfortable. I shouldn’t know this, and, even more, how could it be true. My world was black and white. I believed that a priest was supposed to be entirely above those kind of mortal faults. Reality was starting to set in.

Shortly after he left town, a new minister arrived. He was young, energetic, and full of new ideas. And he had long hair. It was the early 70’s. Everyone young had long hair and new ideas. But this was the church. The Catholic Church. In Sparwood. The nuns had only recently changed their habits from the full length semi burka of the old guard to a less modest version that relaxed the tight, white headgear that completely encased the head, and, heaven forbid, allowed a shorter skirt. 

The new minister had a job ahead of him. Things went OK at first, but it wasn’t many months until the rumours began to spread; how this new guy was not what some members of the congregation expected, how his hair was too long, his ideas too at odds with the expected way things should go. I heard them vaguely, and dismissed them as people just getting used to something new. I was young and still naïve enough to think people would eventually get used to new ways and that the bad press would eventually dry up. I was obviously and sadly wrong.

The rumours persisted. In fact, they came with stronger wording, deeper passion than ever. I heard them more and more, as I often spent time with a new youth group the new father had begun as an effort to engage the young people in town. This was a first. It came at an important time for me, as I was a troubled teen, and badly needed a positive, caring example or two. I wasn’t the only one, as there was always a group of us in his home on a weekly basis, playing games and connecting, instead of getting into the trouble that could be easily had even in our small town. I liked this man as a human being. He wasn’t otherworldly. He really connected with his parishioners and I thought he really cared about us kids, beyond teaching doctrine. He really seemed engaged, and truly interested in people, more than almost anyone I had known in the church up to that time. I loved that he was approachable, compassionate, curious and human. I didn’t have to climb his pedestal to talk to him.

This was an entirely new type of priest, and I was excited to be part of this new, accessible church. I was late for mass the day he cut his hair in the pulpit, in front of the entire congregation. I came after the sermon ended. It was a very short mass. I understand that he gave a heartfelt talk on understanding and compassion. Most of all, I remember the congregation milling about outside after it was all over, speaking in hushed tones or not at all, lowered eyes, embarrassment and shame and concern in their voices. It felt like some kind of weird funeral. I was heartbroken. I never saw him again and I have no idea what happened to him after that. His actions may well have cost him his calling. I do know that I stopped going to church entirely.

My bubble had been burst, well and truly. Faith is a funny thing. I had placed faith in people –that they would be good and kind, that the truth would rise in the face of idle gossip. I believed that truth, my truth, would prevail in the end. I now know that these things are never just black and white. Good doesn’t always win over evil, positive over negative. It’s not like the movies. It’s never that easy. In my life, I am a conflicted character. I try to do what’s right, but I know that, often, I only succeed part of the time at best. I know I am flawed and I’m not entirely comfortable with that. I still admire those folks who bravely do the right thing, in spite of the cost.

Honour. I admire that. And, in spite of a decided knack to constantly screw it up, it’s something I still aspire to. And integrity. To try to do my best, even at my worst. I like to think that most of us are like that. But we get screwed up. We forget. We do stuff we don’t admire and often we don’t even see it. This guy, this man, he saw that. As a minister, but even more, as a human being. he chose to step up to the plate and show the rest of us what all those sermons on integrity, honesty, and truth really looked like.

Did his actions really matter? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that minister, whose name I don’t even remember – he left a lasting impression on me as a truly dedicated and real human being, and a genuinely loving and spiritual soul. I admire anyone who can forge a path against the tide, in spite of all it may cost. Those are the people whose actions renew my faith, inspire me, forge the path to the future. Wherever you are, thank you for that. In my eyes, that is truly the earthly and divine all blended into what is the best in all of us. And thank heavens for that.

Amen.

 

 

 

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