Earlier today, whilst travelling to Castlebar for a wedding rehearsal I turned on the radio. It was mid interview and a man (whose name I didn’t get) was talking about his grandmother who had given birth to a baby outside wedlock. She had been sent to a home where she had her baby and stayed for two years to pay back, through work, the help she had received. It was, of course, a sad story, made sadder by the fact that it had not been revealed by the grandmother during her lifetime. My heart goes out to all involved.
He said she was sent to the home by a priest who was “helping her” and then with a sarcastic chuckle, he repeated the line “helping her” as if this could not have been further from the priest’s mind, intention or desire. I wondered if maybe he was, in fact, trying to help her. Is there room for doubt? Is there, even a slim chance, that the man thought he was doing the right thing by her in the circumstances?
In fairness, the presenter tried to broaden the canvas a little and said the problem was wider than the Catholic Church. She said surely it was the woman’s family or families of women like her, who found themselves in this situation, that often turned their backs on them. He was determined in his response – the fault lay with the Catholic Church who controlled everything in society. When she said the problem was also linked with other religions, there was no turning on his part. The Catholic Church was to blame for it all. She didn’t pursue her line of questioning and other contributors to the panel were quick to row in their support for the blame resting solely with the Catholic Church and its control.
I was saddened to think we have come to this place where we are blamed for everything. My thoughts went again to the priest and the summary dismissal of any chance that he had in fact tried to help in what may have been the only way open to him.
All the while I drove to be with a couple preparing for their wedding day. I knew that from there I would go to the funeral of a relation and a priest and join others in prayer and support. Yesterday I stood with another couple as they exchanged vows. Last week, with another. A few days before that I sat with a young woman in her home, left empty by her father’s death and felt her pain as she sought to come to an acceptance that he was gone from her, and gone forever. I spoke with a young man who was saddened by life’s journey and wanted no more from me than an open ear. I recalled visits to hospitals and homes to spend some time with people coping with illness. I remembered the recent celebration of First Holy Communion in the parish and the joy I felt in seeing the happiness on children’s faces as they reached a milestone in life.
I thought of daily Mass in the parish and the, sometimes small but always devoted, attendance of those able to join with me around the Altar and thought of Sundays with a larger congregation, choir, people involved in various ministries and people passing by who might just join us because they happened to pass at that moment when we gather to worship on the Sunday in every week.
Twenty-seven years ago, this very day, I was ordained a priest in my home parish. My parents were there, my family and many friends from home, from the seminary – people supporting me in the moment, wishing me well and telling me they’d pray for me. I asked them to – I needed them to – and they said they would. I’ve never doubted but they kept their word. My parents are now gone from me but I still feel their support and presence. Did they think I was becoming a priest so that I could control people, make life difficult for them or ever subject them to situations that they’d regret for the rest of their lives or into a new generation? Did they think I’d treat any girl who came to my door, with a story of uncertainty, to a cruel fate that her grandchild would recount on radio forty years later? Is that why I became a priest?
The answer to all these questions is, I believe, no! I can say in honesty that I have never set out to hurt anyone in my life as a priest. That doesn’t mean I haven’t done so. I can nonetheless say I never intentionally sought to make life difficult for anyone. I have, as far as I know, always tried to be helpful. I cannot recall a time when I chose to ignore a genuine cry or whisper for help.
Do I think I am different from other priests? Of course we are all individuals and have our own ways but I don’t believe I am that different. I think most priests operate out of a desire to help rather than hinder, encourage rather than discourage, praise rather than condemn, share the load rather than burden – in short, try to do their best.
At this evening’s Mass I praised, in all sincerity, the three children who were serving at the Altar. I told them, in front of the congregation, that I was proud of them. Then I put the question – the wondering – if in thirty or forty years time they’re sitting in company and people are giving out about the church, about priests about our mistakes, will they just sit there, order another drink, sit quietly by or will they say, “That’s not my experience”? Will one of them say ” I remember a priest saying at Mass that he was proud of me”?
I’d love to think they would but sometimes the silence of people in the now of our confusion makes me sad. Surely there are very many people out there who have had good experiences of the work of their local priests? Surely there are very many who have felt the nourishment of their Faith and the strength of sacraments celebrated? Where is their voice? Where are their words?
Where is “the good word”?