Compassionate and Honest

Green Pastures/Megan Duncanson
Green Pastures/Megan Duncanson

I’ve remembered more from my first appointment with Father Michael. I know some subjects carried over to the second and subsequent appointments. I suppose it really doesn’t matter- except from my perspective. That first appointment was an introduction to a stranger- a very holy man – who was full of surprises. One of the amusing things that happened was that Father Michael kept trying to find out my age.Several times he mentioned the year he graduated from high school and other significant events of the ’70s and asked me where I was when they occurred .  I finally realized that he wanted to know my age, so I just told him. I don’t know why it was so important to him, but he seemed calmer once he knew.

Another discussion was about my family, my ethnicity, my siblings, my parents. I mentioned that my dad had died in 1986. Father asked what my dad had died of and his age. I replied “He died of leukemia at sixty-one”. Well, as soon as I said that Father said loudly and incredulously. “Sixty-one? sixty-one? Why, I’m fifty-nine myself!!!”  And as he spoke, he reacted- he put both hands to his face, holding them there for a second , then ran them up over his head a couple of times. And he paced as he did this. He seemed truly distressed. And I was touched again by his visible emotion. Then Father asked how long my dad had lived with the disease. “Two months,” I replied, ” he died in remission.” Again Father repeated my words “Two months?????” and again he got very upset .

Now you know Father had memory troubles; I’ve mentioned that before. The scene above about my dad’s death was repeated no less than four times in the two years I knew Father Michael. Each time, Father reacted exactly the same way. It was like he took it personally, as though it were a message for him. It was this experience and several others that bolstered my belief that Father was intuitive and ‘knew things’.

Before he was even diagnosed with cancer, Father would talk about things having to do with his death. Once I visited him in the sacristy and the first thing out of his mouth was that he had decided that when he died, he was going to have Instant Lottery tickets spread all over the inside of his casket. And then he said “but of course, I wouldn’t have them buried with me and waste them. I’d have them distributed to all the mourners before they closed the casket”. I was amused, but said , “Father M, why on earth are you even thinking about stuff like that??!!”  That time he answered that he’d been to quite a few wakes recently where this had been done–and he liked the idea. He brought this up a second time also, freaking me out a little.

Back to the appointment…..Father talked about his family, his older brother, in particular. Father was very proud of all his siblings. But there seemed to be a special bond between him and his older brother. I believe his older brother protected Father Michael as a child; he’d often spoken of being picked on. Father told of his brother’s education, accomplishments and wealth (yes, a little bragging). Then said “he is a wonderful, devout, progressive Catholic”. Then a moment later “and I am a progressive priest”.

I kind of expected that as I surmised it was part of the reason for Father Michael’s popularity. But I am not progressive, and I’d rather not label anybody or be labeled. When Father said this, he sounded so confiding and secretive, I immediately wanted to let him know that I thought differently. So I asked to tell him a story.It was about the parish I’d belonged to before St Vincent. It was a pretty wild place. My two older kids went to CCD there. Two sisters and a deacon prepared them for Reconciliation and First Communion. I attended the parent education meetings and in the ones for First Communion, I was taken aback by the lack of understanding of the sacrament. People talked about, bread, wine, symbols; no one seemed to have any kind of grasp of the Real Presence. The two sisters said nothing to enlighten or correct anyone. Nothing. I was shaken.

The sister in charge of the Communion catechesis began to preach at Mass on Sunday. It was nearly every Sunday. She was quite gifted,an excellent preacher, no denying that. The parish was integrated with many African-Americans coming to Mass because their kids attended the school. Sister, also African-American, really spoke to them and their lives. And her perspective was certainly enriching to the rest of us.But I realized she should not have been preaching and it bothered me.This continued for a year and then the sister began to wear priestly vestments for Mass. I tried to rationalize that one out; I couldn’t. My gut feeling was that sister was trying to enhance her authority by wearing the vestments. And though there were people like me who would think “who are you kidding?”, there were others who would not be aware of the falseness. I just thought it was wrong.

I contacted the Office of Divine Worship to talk to someone about it. (Father Michael nearly had a conniption when I told him this. He sat there listening, but steaming.) I had to document my observances by letter, so I did. I had to describe the vestments she wore. The priest in that office made sure I knew that a pastor could give permission for someone else to do the homily. He didn’t know what to say when I said ” But Father, it’s nearly every week!” Well, nothing happened. I left the parish and found St Vincent’s-a calm place. About ten years later, a conservative bishop had the sister reassigned. She became head of her order-no surprise there!

I made the point to Father Michael that the sister who was so driven to preach was the same one who didn’t bother to educate at all in the First Communion classes. He got that, but was irritated with me for my contacting the Archdiocese. He yelled at me, so angry that I would question a Dominican’s preaching charism. I yelled back “No, she was NOT a Dominican, Father Michael!”  He was also chagrinned that I would not automatically and unquestioningly support another woman. Father M must have been exposed to a lot of really testy feminists- that’s all I can figure. He acted like he was completely in their corner, but I feel he was trying to show sensitivity.

Anyway, Father Michael understood me better after that. Part of me didn’t want to ever hear that he might be at odds with church teaching. But now I often wonder what interesting scenarios he might have been part of, being progressive “and proud of it” and also open to “trumping the law”. Our appointment ended pleasantly and we continued to meet a few times more, before the cancer.

Once, on the phone, with Father Louie nearby, Father Michael stated that Louie was one of a select group who’d ever seen him get angry. I refreshed his memory about the experience I’ve just relayed. He was surprised and then remembered.

Always the Shepherd

The Lost Sheep/Daniel Bonnell
The Lost Sheep/Daniel Bonnell

Yesterday I was looking at a video of a Dominican event that took place in March, 2013. At the end of the video the camera panned the group of people in attendance. Then it focused on some Dominican friars standing in the back of the room. And there he was, Father Michael, holding court just like he used to do at St Vincent, hugging and kissing up a storm. There was audio, too, and I could faintly hear Father’s voice. Gosh, it brought tears to my eyes to see, as real again, a  common scene I have remembered and cherished. Sad to say, they were still tears of sadness, not joy. I watched the clip twice and and then decided to just leave it alone. It’s not surprising to me that these ‘little things’ still hold a very deep meaning. Later I remembered that I had actually called Father M that day, wanting to know if he was ready to eat some pies after completing his chemo. Well, he was out of state, he said, but he was anxious for pie upon his return to St Pius. It was exactly a year and a day before he died.

I want to focus on the positive. So I’ve decided that I will share some early memories of Father Michael-before his cancer diagnosis. I know that I have mentioned that I came back to my parish to discuss some spiritual issues with a priest. It was not a matter of confession; there was more to it. After a long delay, I approached Father M and he was very welcoming. First I emailed Father, then I visited him in the sacristy, then set up an appointment. This is about my first appointment.

I made the appointment about a week before and was a little nervous, yet felt I had found the right person. I was so impressed with Father Michael, I thought “I just know he’s going to talk about the grace of Reconciliation”. I was sure he would suggest that to me. I thought if I made my confession to Father Michael, I’d be so emotionally spent that I wouldn’t be able to talk about all the other stuff. So that morning,after Mass at St Vincent, I went to a close-by parish for Confession. I knew the priests were available right after Mass. So funny, because I think I felt like I had to cleanse my soul before I dared face the very holy Father Michael. And yes, he did bring up Reconciliation that day!

Well, I was on time for the appointment, Father Michael was a few minutes late. I knew he had been with a prominent member of our parish who had passed away. The receptionist had been on the phone “getting the word out”. When Father arrived, we went into his office and sat down. Even though I had eaten, my stomach had been rumbling away-probably nerves. I decided to just be open about it and apologize for the noise ahead of time. Well, Father M laughed and said “Oh you don’t know about me and my stomach issues. Girl, you and I will just sit here and gurgle at each other!” So that broke the awkwardness for me! Father Michael then started to give me a history of his stomach issues,the current ones (which many ladies of the parish knew well-and discussed freely) . He then told of the bleeding ulcer he had in Denver. He was Dominican Novice Master at the time. He said the doctors had told him he had “24 hours to live”. He claimed he told them “Good, no drama, don’t worry about notifying my family”. He never said how long it took him to recuperate or if his family were ever notified. I asked what he thought caused the ulcer and he said “I kind of let everything get away from me”. I didn’t feel comfortable asking him to elaborate, though now I wish I had. In later conversations, he did say that whenever his stomach would give him trouble, he’d just stop eating,sometimes for a few days. He talked about possibly having lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome and multiple bowel obstructions. Father M was very frank about this stuff- though he never mentioned a doctor’s diagnosis. And– he also alluded to some regret about not being stricter as a Novice Master-“when I hear how some of them are now.”

So after the stomach discussion Father asked me about myself. He was so careful in how he asked about education. It was clear to me that he was leery of offending someone (especially a woman) by assuming her level of education was lower than she had achieved. I’ll bet he’d made that faux pas a few times! The caution was actually very charming. But I only have a B.A. from Loyola-so he had nothing to fear. That’s pretty average. Then Father asked more questions about possibly stressful situations in my life. I recognized all the queries as being pretty standard about death, divorce, moving, job, abuse, addiction. Father was very gentle and kind and tentative in his questioning. I think he just assumed I was having marital problems. He mentioned annulments and remarriage a few times. Well, my issue was none of these, but it took me three or four appointments before I felt comfortable telling him. I didn’t want to be discourteous and shut down all his kind effort, so I went along with it.

Of course we talked about other things, most notably family, Reconciliation and the Eucharist. But most interestingly, Father Michael gave me a little lecture on the power of the sense of touch. He explained that when he was a freshman at Dalhousie University, he and his older brother had attended a seminar or lecture by a very famous scientist. The lecture was all about the sense of touch and how important and meaningful it was. I found myself thinking “I am a wife and mother of three, why is he telling me this? If nothing else, I am fully aware of how important this is for bonding mother and baby.” Well, Father talked for over ten minutes on this subject. I was fascinated at his great emotion in relaying his thoughts with such conviction. Father ended his talk telling me of the new widow he had just left. He described poignantly how she had stroked her dead husband’s arm over and over. And he showed me just how she did this. He choked up and teared up as he described his awe being in the presence of such a great love.Quite an unexpected turn in our talk, but as I grew to know Father better, I learned that using touch was a hallmark of Father Michael’s being.

Then we spoke of the Eucharist. I’ve written about this awhile back. For some reason Father Michael was impressed by my words that day. I still wish I could remember what I’d said. In any case, Father M started talking about the way people received the Eucharist , people who would just grab IT from him, those who approached disrespectfully, those who would receive and just walk out the door. He lamented that poor catechesis  had resulted in people ‘who didn’t have a clue’. He was truly sad about this. Then Father shared the experience of celebrating Mass in Canada with those very close to him. He quickly gave a rundown of those who were no longer practicing Catholics and those extended family who belonged to different denominations. With big tears rolling down his cheeks, he said “I feel so bad about their receiving Communion, but I don’t know what to say.” Wow, was I surprised about that!!!!  After all he was a priest-and a good and holy one- who wouldn’t listen to him?  I was concerned and empathetic, seeing again this great emotion show so quickly. I said “Father Michael, I can understand that you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or start a war, but maybe one of your brothers could explain this in a non-hurtful way”. Father just shook his head, he felt truly helpless about the situation. Father was unique in openly showing his vulnerability and I was privileged to see this in significant matters of faith. When he visited Canada, I prayed that he might have peace about this.

In my earliest posts, I’ve written about other aspects of this meeting. I won’t repeat them here.The meeting ended most pleasantly. And I felt that God had given me a great gift in leading me to Father Michael. It is so nice to reminisce. So much was so meaningful.

Made To Shine

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More thoughts from my illness hiatus are coming back to me. I did a lot of internet reading while sick; couldn’t do much else! I have several favorite blogs I tapped into regularly.

One of these blogs is “One Mad Mom”, written by a California home schooling mom, who wholeheartedly supports embattled Archbishop Cordileone, of San Francisco. She’s just excellent. I especially enjoyed her posts “Meet the Laity” and “Doing the Pastoral Thing”.

Here’s a quote from that blog that I really like; it is from Archbishop Cordileone’s speech to seminarians:

This is being pastoral: encountering the other, establishing a relationship with them, being lovingly present to them. A priest cannot possibly hope to help his people grow in holiness if he is not present to them. His loving, pastoral presence to them at those most critical moments of life – the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, marriage, times of crisis – all of this prepares the ground for him to, when necessary, challenge them for their own ongoing conversion. So make no mistake: truly doing the “pastoral thing” will always be harder, it will always place demands on you, sometimes inconvenient and uncomfortable demands; it will require you to work hard.

The Archbishop then goes on to contrast ideologue and lazy priests with those being truly pastoral. Lots of food for thought, especially for Catholics who would never question the behavior or motivation of their priests. I commend ‘One Mad Mom’ for spotlighting these things.

Speaking of behavior of priests: one ‘rock star’ priest is one too many, in my opinion. A local community is having to deal with the aftermath of ‘an error in judgment’ by their very popular priest. I am aware of a similar, but as yet unpublicized situation in another neighboring diocese. Lawsuits all over the place. These sad situations brought back to my mind some thoughts of Father Hunwicke in late 2014. (his blog is Father Hunwicke’s Mutual Enrichment) Father wrote a post on celibacy in December. I think he makes some excellent points, particularly about extreme extroverts in the priesthood:

Since the 1960s, there has been much talk about mercy, and forgiveness, and similar very splendid things. It has been an era in which we have been urged not to be too preoccupied with sin, particularly sexual sin. A Catholic priest with much professional competence in this area has explained to me that one psychological reason for the bitter hatred of the Extraordinary Form among senior clergy of a certain age has been that they associate it with a cruel, rigid, sin-obsessed sex-proccupied form of Catholicism upon which they look back with fear and detestation. So: ‘merciful’ bishops were disinclined to ‘ruin’ a priest for ‘just one lapse’, or even two or three. Or four. After all, as we have been informed over and over again, sexual sins are not the only sorts of sins; spiritual sins such as Pride, and sins against Social Justice, are far more displeasing in the sight of God than mere lapses from Chastity. Our Oz friends could look into the problem of ‘liberal’ bishops as well.
My own, again anecdotal, experience has inclined me to think that ‘charismatic’ leaders, admired by the media and surrounded by adoring groupies, can be peculiarly vulnerable to sexual temptation. J F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and, within the Church, bishop Eamonn Casey … and Fr Macial Maciel … and Fr Lelio Cantini … spring to mind; and one bishop of my acquaintance in the Church of England was another. He was held in such tremendously high regard, not least in the very highest reaches of the British Establishment, that after acknowledging his guilt, accepting a police warning, and resigning his diocese, he immediately started spreading it around that he was completely innocent, but had pleaded guilty to save the Church the embarrassment of a public trial. This claim was accepted by people unwilling to face up to the fact that they had been gullible dupes. So plausible was he that his one-time diocesan superior, when he came later to write his own autobiography, roundly asserted the total innocence of his fellow-bishop and put the entire episode down to a Wicked Plot. I think psychometric experts should examine with even more than their usual acuity candidates for ordination who are at the extreme ‘extrovert‘ end of the spectrum. Oz could look into this side of things as well.

Father Hunwicke is so erudite and so funny. And his Latin references bowl me over and challenge me, as I have only studied Latin for two years. He never ‘dumbs it down’; he is respectful to his readers. I appreciate his wise and frank words.

And then there was a post on the Personalist Project’s website titled “Overcoming Clericalism”. I will only quote a small portion addressing clericalism, which I have edited. Katie van Schaijik wrote:

Homilies that seem addressed to a congregation of fourth graders. The priest is the teacher; we are the children. He tells a cutesy anecdote or two, then gives us little explanations and instructions designed to make the faith accessible for beginners. Nothing in the tone or content expresses a due awareness of the fact that the church is likely full of mature Catholics, many of whom are highly educated in their faith—some more educated than the priests (and deacons). They don’t need instruction, but preaching of the kind Pope Francis calls for in the Gospel of Joy.

…………….. Some lay Catholics need instruction. But nobody needs patronizing; no adults should be addressed as if they’re children. And all Catholics, regardless of our level of maturity and knowledge need good preaching. Good preaching, like the Scriptures it’s about, should be “shallow enough for an ant to wade in and deep enough for an elephant to swim in.”

One of the problems we’re dealing with, though, is that an alarming number of priests come across as serious cases of arrested development. They don’t seem to have matured properly as human beings. I hope the Archbishop will find a way to address this problem at the seminary and beyond. Among my suggestions would be to encourage much more interaction between priests and laity on the level of true friendship.

I identified with hearing a fourth grade level homily. It’s not always the case in my parish, but it happens enough. And I don’t know about the arrested development being rampant. I’m not a psychologist. But I can definitely see the point of interaction between priests and laity on a level of true friendship. In my experience, this is where many priests will go through the motions, and say all the right things, but never truly let down their guard. They are friend-ly , but not a friend. The priest shares his presence, but not his true self.

Formators talk about attracting well-rounded, intelligent, highly educated men to the priesthood. Somehow when I read their assessments of their newest candidates, they sound more like snobbish brags anxious to cultivate and advertise an ‘intellectual’ machismo. I get the feeling that that aspect is most important, rather than nurturing and inspiring virtue in these men.  But what do I know? These days an awful lot of people abide by the adage “If it works, don’t fix it”. Maybe that’s the case here, but I have to wonder—is it really working?

So thought I’d share the thoughts that have been on my mind this last month. I swear I dreamed of these things over and over when I was sick! They just stayed with me. But I am glad I was compelled to do the reading. And there is so much more, I’ll save it for another time.

Devil in the Dryer ?

9-1Gone for over a month-and I come back with such silliness. That’s fine, I need a break from the serious stuff !

In a way , this is still a serious matter. My niece, who has MS, is about to become a mother. The baby, a little boy, is due to arrive on July 11. There was a baby shower in early April. I had crocheted a beautiful multicolored afghan in fluffy yarn for the baby. The afternoon before the shower, as is my custom, I decided to wash and dry the afghan. I have a dog and a cat and I just think it is courteous to wash the gift item, so it will be free of animal hair. Also, fabric softener lends a nice scent.

Now I’ve done many, many baby blankets with this fluffy yarn, washed them with no problem. The yarn label states “machine washable and dryable”. But that evening in April, I removed the afghan from the dryer and was stunned. First, it had stretched to about one and a half times its correct size. As a result of this, all the stitches were loose and stringy-looking. Then the beautiful colors had lost their intensity because they were so spread apart. It looked dingy. The yarn, which normally is nubby and irregular in a cozy way, turned wispy and ragged. I was so upset!

Luckily, I had stopped at a local shop and picked up a few little extras for the baby earlier that day. Those became my main gift at the shower. I wrote a note to my niece explaining what had happened. And I said another afghan would be forthcoming.

I really wanted to do the same pattern, but decided I should choose a different one- but using the same normally lovely yarn. I had to order some more yarn. A week later it arrived and I was anxious to get started.  But then I became very ill and my arms ached so much, I was not able to do a darn thing! After three weeks, I felt better  and I finally was able to start the blanket. I completed it in three days; I was very pleased with how it turned out.

So again, I decided to wash the blanket. I actually prayed as I placed it in my washer on the “delicate” cycle with lukewarm water. I left out the fabric softener. Later I held my breath as I removed the blanket from the washer. It looked just fine! I was so happy. I put it in the dryer with a big fluffy towel to help prevent any pilling. And I added a fabric softener sheet……and I think that was my mistake.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled out another raggy, beat-up afghan. My heart sank. I was beside myself. I could have cried, but I also was angry. It had to have been either the fabric softener sheet or the dryer itself. As I said earlier, I’ve washed this yarn before – without a problem. I’ve used fabric softener every time. So, maybe it was just the dryer…..I am tempted to call it the demonic dryer. Found the perfect picture to illustrate this-haha. I’d show you pictures of the two hideous afghans, but I think most people would have a hard time believing they were ever pretty.

So now I have started again. Same yarn,different pattern. I’ve actually chuckled seeing reviews of the yarn stating “washes and dries like a dream”. More like a nightmare!!! I find the possibility of facing the same dryer experience scary. But maybe the third time will be the charm. And hey, it’s a Mystical number!   My niece is waiting, probably thinking she will get nothing from me. I am so irked that my lack of a gift comes across as discourtesy, when really it has been completely demoralizing for me. Plus there is the fact of all the work involved, going down the drain. Yes, it is work I love to do , but work nonetheless!

Say a prayer for me!

“Patience gains all things”- Teresa de Ávila