Is he your father? The woman smiled benevolently as I coaxed Father Don to take another spoonful of puréed meatloaf. With his huge bony frame randomly folded and tucked into the wheelchair and his head supported by a neck pillow, Father gave no indication he had either heard or understood the question. Maybe he was concentrating on my promise of vanilla ice cream if he would eat a few more spoonfuls of meat. He swallowed; I mopped his chin. When I pulled back the lid on the ice cream cup, the old priest opened his mouth in anticipation like a baby bird.
No, I explained, Father Don was the pastor of my parish, and I’m just a friend. Obviously caught by surprise, the woman murmured awkwardly, how nice and turned to speak to a wizened figure sitting nearby.
With the Catholic priesthood under unprecedented scrutiny and the secular media not only exposing sinful priests, but also marshaling a frontal assault on celibacy, an all-male clergy and other long-held and cherished (by some) traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, I am haunted by that question posed by the visitor to the nursing home: Is he your father?
If he isn’t my father, what is Father Don? Indeed, what is any priest to the person-in-the-pew? Healer? Magician? Wizard, shaman, ecclesiastical policeman, witch doctor? Spiritual social worker? Clerical Lone Ranger? Each of these roles presumes power. Yet, as I contemplate Father Don gobbling ice cream as fast as I can spoon it into his mouth, he seems anything but powerful.
Promising him more ice cream tomorrow, I roll back the years to when Father Don was at his peak. He had been a powerful man, the popular founding pastor of a huge suburban parish, and he had a large secular following throughout the town. Father’s descent into powerlessness was slow and painful to watchnot to mention what it must have been for him to endure. First he stopped preaching. Then he stopped presiding at Mass. Somewhere in that time a co-pastor was appointed to tidy up parish finances discreetly and deal with other details that had been somewhat neglected. But Father Don’s physically imposing presence continued to belie what was actually happening. Still, he was a priest and he still had power.
That priestly aura remains evident in the nursing home, where the management has loose connections with the Lutheran community and many employees are Muslims from Somalia. Father Don, who may not even remember that he is a priest, receives respect and deference from all.
Oddly, we are both attracted to power and repelled by it. This applies no less to the Roman Catholic priesthood than to any other position of rank, yet the priesthood brings with it a unique set of problems and circumstances. Ask any practicing Catholic what clerical power means to him or her, and you are likely to get an answer shaped by any number of things. We form our opinions from years of Catholic educationor lack of it; personal experience through counseling, confession or other encounter; a comment from the pulpit; or family lore about how Father Schmidt bungled Uncle Joe’s funeral in 1943. (Wasn’t it something about the incense? Aunt Edith would remember.) If we like our priest, we sentimentalize his role. He becomes Bing Crosby in The Bells of St. Mary’s. If we don’t like him, we tell everyoneand then send him the message via the collection basket.
But we, both clerics and lay people, can forget that priestly power has one source: the sacrament of holy orders. Any other power a priest hasparticularly the power of personalityhas no connection. The conflicted, shy, quiet, unassuming priest of George Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest has just as much power as a dynamic, brick-and-mortar, self-assured community-organizer priest. We tend to forget this and confuse sacramental with secular powers. Furthermore, when we lay people assign too much power to a priest, we not only tempt him to assume power that does not belong to him by virtue of orders, but we subtly abdicate our personal responsibility.
Take Pete, who to this day is still mad at Father Don for something he said in a homily 30 years ago. Pete has long since moved away, but hasn’t been to Mass since. Then there’s Margaret, who is convinced she will go to hell if she doesn’t say a rosary each and every day, because some priestshe can’t remember exactly who, when or whyapparently told her so.
So if Father Don is not my father, what is he? Once, years ago, at a weekday Mass, Father Don asked the six of us who were attending what was our view of God. I said that God was whatever I needed him to be. And I guess that is what I could say, not only about Father Don, but of any priesthe is whatever I need him to be. As I think about it, that is more than I would expect from my most intimate friends.
While I do not believe my priest to be quite as versatile as God, I assume he is on call to be my confessor, spiritual director, advisor in times of family trouble, a broad shoulder on which to dump life’s miseries, fixer of mixed-up marriages. Oh, and I forgot to mention that he will say Mass every day, preach brilliantly, keep the money rolling in to support the parish and be available for instantaneous anointing should that be needed. Intellectually I accept the fact that each of the 10,000 people in our parish should be able to ask for the same, and each should find it only reasonable that our priest intuitively tweak his services to match the needs of every unique personality. Like most Catholics, I don’t expect much.
And like most Catholics, I pigeonhole priests into a particular role without ever getting to know them. We typecast one another in an instant, but when it comes to priests, we do it in barely a nanosecond. Upon hearing of an assignment, whether pastor or associate, we spread the word around the parish that the new priest is a lot of fun, seems shy, likes (or dislikes) kids, acts pompous, too cool, stand-offish, over-friendly, extremely liberal or hopelessly conservative. I’m not sure anyone is subjected to more rapid, relentless or ruthless scrutiny and quick judgment. In truth, though, aren’t we just speculating about how he’ll use his power?
What do we do to these men? It starts when George and Marlene’s kidthe same one who put a baseball through Aunt Ginny’s picture window and ran and hid, the one who drove his seventh-grade teacher absolutely nuts because he always handed in his work lateannounces he is considering the priesthood. Suddenly we begin giving him the star treatment. During his period of discernment we coddle him like a precocious young athlete with potential to make the pros, fearing he might discern the wrong way. After all, the church needs priests, and we wouldn’t want to let another vocation slip away.... George and Marlene’s boy is considering the priesthood, we say in hushed tones. And, after his ordination, it doesn’t hurt to know George and Marlene. They’ve got a new status and prestige. They’ve got power.
And that is what this is all about: power. But whose, really? The priest’s? I think it is more about our power. Para-clerical power is something enjoyed by those who surround priests, and the scramble for it kicks in as soon as the clerical aspirant makes his intention known.
There are lots of paths to para-clerical power, and I have trod a few of them. My feeding of Father Don in the nursing home was one, I suppose. Then, there were all those times my husband and I entertained him, cooking and serving him dinner. We also filled him with our ideas, opinions, criticism and, I’m sorry to say, on a particular issue, scorn. We had very clear views on how our parish should be run. And when I think of it, most of what we had in mind had little or nothing to do with Jesus. Yes, that Jesus, the champion of the powerless, who through his own powerlessness brought unprecedented power to humankind.
Father Don died a few weeks ago. At his funeral Mass, during the consecration, I recalled that last time I fed him in the nursing home. As I went up to receive Communion, it struck me that many times Father Don had fed me. He fed me, and thousands of others, the body and blood of Jesusfood available to us through only the consecrated hands of a priest. That was power, the power of orders, and he used it to make sure his family was fed.
I am still haunted by the question of the nursing-home visitor. Only now I think that when she asked, Is he your father? I should have said simply, Yes.