A Calling in Crisis

Conversations with Catholic priests

By

Mike Fones has his hands full. With one, he totes a slide projector. In the other, he balances a stack of plastic containers full of leftovers. He scans the building's directory for Alice Kennedy Hooten's apartment and buzzes to be let in.

Once the chicken and potatoes, pasta and beans are stowed in Mrs. Hooten's refrigerator, the two sit by the living-room window overlooking this river town. In the distance, steam rises from the pulp mill where the late Mr. Hooten worked for 37 years.

The Rev. Fr. Fones is younger than Alice Hooten's three sons, but to her he is "Father Mike," a Roman Catholic priest. They face each other, hands folded, as the familiar litany is performed, the sacrament administered. She is recuperating from a fall, and Fones prays aloud "for wholeness of body and heart and spirit."

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Once the private service is finished, the two join Pat and Richard Armstrong upstairs for tea and scones. It's a quiet Sunday visit – except for the moment when Mrs. Hooten declares herself "very upset with the hierarchy" of her church. Fones is not the target of her ire, but faraway officials whom she perceives as mishandling cases of child sexual abuse by priests. "I'd like to just shake and bake 'em," she says, her Irish dander flaring. Fones lets the moment pass.

The recent sex-abuse revelations have rocked the Roman Catholic Church hard in such places as Boston, Philadelphia, and Palm Beach, Fla., where priests have been jailed or bishops have resigned.

The impact is less pronounced in places far removed from the scandal, like this college town along the confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie Rivers, but it is evident nonetheless. It's on the minds of parishioners, and it most certainly preoccupies priests, who must comfort or counsel their flock even as the scandal threatens to erode the moral authority of the priesthood itself.

In Fones's 10 years as a priest, these days rank among the church's darkest. He has been praying about how to broach the sex-abuse subject with the 800 or so members of St. Thomas More University Parish. This particular Sunday, though, won't be the day he takes on the subject.

Still, he will have plenty to occupy him: By the end of the day, he'll have donned his white and purple robes three times for mass, helped organize a slide presentation with a local author, and talked to University of Oregon students experiencing final-exam jitters. He'll have cooed over new babies in the parish, and held vespers at the house next door to the church, where he lives with two fellow Dominican priests.

For all the current troubles, he still can say, "This is a tremendously blessed life."

* * *

It would seem these are hard times to be a priest – and the scandal is only part of it.

About 20,000 men have left the priesthood in recent years – a large portion of the church's "workforce" in the United States. Most left to get married.

Their empty posts outnumber the new priests coming out of seminary. And the shortage is made more acute by the fact that church membership is growing. The ratio of priests to parishioners is about half what it was in 1950, leaving hundreds of parishes without their own fulltime pastors.

Some priests, says Fones, are concerned that being spread so thin in their parish duties will leave them "simply sacrament-dispensers."

Many Catholic writers and leaders also note that the percentage of homosexuals is significantly higher among priests than it is in the general population – and especially high among young seminarians about to enter the priesthood.

Discomfort with that, they say, may deter some heterosexual men from entering seminaries, and – in public perception, at least – it relates to the current scandal in which the majority of reported abuses have involved adolescent boys.

All this has stirred intense debate of late – among the laity, but also within the priesthood – about the historical or theological necessity for priestly celibacy, and whether priests should be allowed to marry.

Also under discussion is ordination of women, which is favored by a large percentage of American Catholics.

Such questions "will not quietly slip away," noted a recent editorial in The Pilot, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston.

It should come as no surprise that priests themselves are listening hard to the debate. "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," by the Rev. Donald Cozzens, has become a bestseller among priests. In it, Father Cozzens, a priest and a pastoral adviser to other priests for many years, writes: "Caught in the wake of the Church's authority crisis, priests have seen their moral authority, their ability to lead and to offer pastoral guidance, likewise diminished."

Still, he emphasizes that "most priests are men of high ideals and moral passions ... [and] they struggle with no little courage to serve with integrity and generosity."

* * *

For the Rev. David Orique, part of that struggle is simply learning how to give a good sermon.

In the sacristy at St. Thomas's, (the small room where vestments, altar linens, and other liturgical items are stored), Father Orique is suiting up for mass. Orique – "Father Dave" to parishioners – is relatively new to the church. After college, he worked as a commercial lending officer for Bank of America for eight years before entering the Dominican seminary in Berkeley, Calif. He was ordained just last summer. He's of Portuguese descent, and his dream is to serve in Latin America some day.

The two priests gather in a circle with the laymen and laywomen who will participate in the service. The group holds hands and prays.

During the service, these lay members will read from the Bible (this Sunday, it's Ezekiel and Romans), and they lead the congregation in spontaneous prayers offered for those in need (the people of Afghanistan and the Middle East, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, church members who are ill). Standing behind the priests, they help distribute the wine and bread wafers to those taking Holy Communion.

This Sunday, it's Orique's turn to deliver the homily, or sermon. He takes as his text the story of Lazarus. He talks about how Lazarus's sisters, Mary and Martha, react differently to the apparent death and then resurrection of their brother by Jesus, likening this to how his own family members reacted when one of his brothers died. He works in quotes from American author Mark Twain and English poet William Wordsworth. He uses a little black humor in the form of a joke to lighten the subject.

"Jesus calls us to leave whatever tomb we are in," he tells parishioners.

The wood-paneled church, simple in design and decoration with its single candle on the altar and stained glass window above, seats about 300. The two Sunday morning services (mass is performed four times over the weekend) are filled with families as well as university students and older parishioners. The happy din of children mixes with the hymns accompanied by guitars and other instruments.

Later, Orique wants to know if the sermon worked. He works hard on his homilies, scans magazines for ideas while working out across the street at the gym, and seeks regular feedback from a couple of parishioners who are retired English professors here. Dominicans (who spend eight years in seminary instead of four years in seminary for most diocesan priests) are known as the "Order of Preachers" dating back to their founding by Spanish priest Dominic de Guzman in the 13th century.

Of those who hear his homilies, he says: "My goal is to see God in them, and for them to see God in me."

* * *

Ever since the mid-1960s, the Roman Catholic Church has been going through an evolution that may ultimately be revolutionary. This doesn't have to do – directly, at least – with basic theological beliefs or the church's position on such issues as abortion, birth control, unmarried priests remaining celibate, the role of women in religious orders, or the authority of the Vatican – all of which remain fixed.

Rather, Vatican Council II, called by Pope John XXIII and held between 1962 to 1965, set the stage for the Catholic laity to become more actively involved in church affairs and services.

Among Vatican II's "distinctive teachings," states the Encyclopedia of Catholicism, is this: "The Church is the whole People of God, not just the hierarchy, clergy, and religious [i.e., those in religious orders]...." Also, according to this source (which is written and edited by Catholic scholars and clergy), the ministry provided by church members who are not ordained "is a direct participation in the mission of the Church, and not simply a sharing in the mission of the hierarchy."

Over the years, in conjunction with the decline in the number of priests (some of whom left because of Vatican II), this affected the way priests work.

"In the so–called good old days, the pastor made all of the decisions," says the Rev. Thomas McGreevy, the third Dominican priest here and a man who was ordained nearly 40 years ago. "Maybe this is a time when the Holy Spirit is wanting the laity to be more involved, and the way to do that is to take away the traditional leaders."

"To my parents, being a good Catholic lay person meant going to mass, sending your children to Catholic schools, and supporting the church financially," says Fones, who taught high school for a few years before entering seminary. "Today, I think people want more than that."

This has been both challenge and opportunity for Father McGreevy, the pastor and senior priest here, who has had to remind himself that "this father does not know best." "More and more, I'm beginning to realize that my role as pastor is to help the lay person recognize their gifts from God and put that in service to humanity," he says. "I see myself as a 'Christ-bearer,' and not for the function of proselytizing but for the purpose of loving, of forgiving, of reconciling, which is a lot harder than proselytizing."

Over the five years he's been here, parishioners have noticed the difference. "One of the good things Mike is doing is inviting people into other aspects of his life – having supper, working in the garden – and not just at the services or through the confessional screen," says Denise Gosar, an artist and parishioner at the church. "He's learning to delegate and to let go."

It now seems obvious that this democratization of priest and parish (especially obvious in the United States, a country founded on political democracy as well as the separation of church and state) also has opened the church leadership to more questioning and criticism – including how it handled the revelations of sexual abuse.

* * *

On a cool, overcast Sunday following mass at the St. Thomas More University Parish, anger flashes now and then among many of the parishioners gathered outside. But the general atti-tude regarding the ongoing scandal involving priests elsewhere around the country is more muted.

"It's very disappointing and sad," says Larry Wibbenmeyer, a parole and probation officer.

"If there's anything that would make me angry, it would be knowing that the church had knowledge of this and let it continue," says Mr. Wibbenmeyer, who's had considerable experience with sex offenders and whose wife, Dorothy, is a counselor who has worked with their victims. "It's really distressing that these representatives of the church have done something so horrific."

Others note that sexual abuse of minors is more likely to involve adults who are not priests. "It isn't a Catholic thing," says Dave Tobin, a retired postal worker. "But if it isn't addressed, it will be a Catholic thing. The fault was the church was about 10 years behind the professionals [in psychology and law enforcement] in how to deal with it. It's very sad."

For some, the sexual abuse of minors by priests raises fundamental questions about a male-dominated church hierarchy and about who can become a priest. "I think optional celibacy eventually is going to happen," says Patricia Armstrong, a writer and poet who converted to Roman Catholicism years ago.

If that happens (and there's no sign that it will under the current Vatican leadership), it will lead to the question of married priests.

There are in fact already some married priests in the Roman Catholic Church. In the United States, these are priests who have converted from other faiths – mostly former Episcopal clergymen. In some countries where the Orthodox Church is dominant – Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia for example – the Vatican centuries ago agreed to allow priests of the Eastern Catholic churches to be married.

"Maybe it's time to be serious about asking about the gifts that women can bring to the ministry," says Ms. Gosar. "And not just the ministry of children and music, but the ministry of preaching and the sacraments."

Later, the priests take up the subject while sitting around their kitchen table.

"I personally favor that," says McGreevy, who recently joined his two fellow Dominicans here in Oregon. "Why shouldn't we have women priests or married priests?"

Orique, McGreevy's younger colleague in this small Dominican "community," as they call it, is less sure. He is hesitant to endorse what would be a radical change for the church, and reluctant to appear critical of higher authority.

But he acknowledges the trend, and says, "there's a greater role for laity and for women, and that's a good thing."

The two priests' comments point up a difference between their generations. Those (like McGreevy) who entered the priesthood about the time of Vatican II often were caught up in the spirit of liberalization. At the same time, some began raising questions of their own.

Orique observes that his generation tends to be more respectful of authority.

"I'm not a papal-positivist," he says, adding that younger priests sometimes may voice criticisms on issues such as how the church has handled the sexual-abuse scandal. But in general, he says of his generation, "We love the church, we respect the church, respect the traditions and hierarchy of the church.

"The world doesn't need any more cynics," he says. "It's easy to tear down, but what's needed is to build up."

* * *

Life in a Dominican residence is not all formal robes, serious sermons, and sober discussions about how the church can survive unprecedented challenge.

Orique is taking classical guitar lessons, and Fones finds time now and then to play the bassoon he's had since he studied music performance at Michigan Technological University (where he majored in geophysics) more than 20 years ago.

Both point out, however, that those instruments actually belong to their religious order now, since they took vows of poverty as well as chastity when they became Dominicans.

The three priests here have a fourth housemate – the Rev. John Rosenberg, a Lutheran minister and interim pastor of a church in Eugene who spends a day or two each week back home in Vancouver, Wash. Before he's off to his own pastoral duties each morning, Pastor Rosenberg joins the priests for their morning readings and prayers. Since he typically lights the single candle for this simple daily devotional, he jokes that he's the acolyte here.

Over a dinner of fresh Mexican food on a Monday night, he's trying to talk the priests into going out to a movie after their church's finance-committee meeting. "C'mon you guys, my wife said she'd pay for the tickets!" he urges them.

The movie offer is tempting, but they decide instead to stay at home, make popcorn, and watch a video of "Evita." It's another wild night at the rectory.

* * *

It's in those moments, out of the spotlight, that the priests confront the issue uppermost in their mind: the recent controversy within the church.

Seated in their plain but comfortable living room, the three Dominicans are discussing "Fall From Grace," a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter by former priest Eugene Kennedy, professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University. The weekly newspaper describes itself as "an independent voice within the church."

Mr. Kennedy's long analysis of the problem pulls no punches. "Bishops believed that the good of the church justified denial, delay, and evasion in managing the problems of priests," he writes.

McGreevy, the oldest of the three, remembers the days when such sexual offenses were seen as a "simple moral lapse," and not something discussed in public.

"In my family, we never even talked about my cousin who had gotten a divorce," he says.

"If they didn't talk about it, it didn't exist," says Orique.

The discussion turns to the broader subject of human sexuality. "There's a need for a lot more open discussion of sexuality and where sexuality fits into the spiritual life," says Fones.

"We [Americans] are oversexualized, but people are starving for intimacy," Orique comments.

"And that's at the heart of spirituality – intimacy, companionship, friendship," Fones chimes in.

For these men, part of their quest is finding a healthy expression of intimacy and companionship within their community of priests as well as with parishioners and others outside their Dominican order. These days, that presents at least two challenges: the vow of celibacy and relations with children.

Greeting parishioners after mass, Fones often is hugged by children. But how that kind of affection may be perceived is never far from his mind now.

"I suppose the way that it has affected me is a realization of the need not to be alone with a child," he says. "People hand me their babies, kids will come up and hug me, and I feel comfortable with that. But if that were to happen to me [alone] in the sacristy, I would immediately leave and take them back to mom and dad."

"Human beings need to be touched, they thrive because of that touch," he says. "It's a real tragedy today that we look on that touch with fear and suspicion."

Some critics are suspicious, too, of the role that celibacy may play in sexual abuse. In his article, Kennedy suggests that the "psychosexual maturity of seminarians and priests" is a subject that needs much more attention by those who approve men for the priesthood and oversee their careers.

While acknowledging that "these waters remain dangerous," Cozzens writes that the "emotionally mature" priest can have intimate friendships that "actually enhance his ability to live a healthy and holy celibate life."

"In moments of authentic, celibate intimacy, one is, at the same time, one with God and all of creation," he says in "The Changing Face of the Priest."

For the priests here at the St. Thomas More University Parish, the issue is very personal, very profound, nearly ineffable.

"Being married seemed like a good idea, but I could never visualize it for myself," says Orique. "I love the rhythm of our lives – the prayer, the study, the services. I don't think I could have a wife and children with everything I do."

Digging deeper, he says: "I see that there's a freedom in celibacy. My love is not exclusively to one woman in my life. There's a freedom of my affections.... We don't give up sex because it's bad. It's a good thing. But we give it up because we seek a higher good."

* * *

On a Monday morning, the priests talk about how to address the sexual-abuse issue with their parishioners. During their early-morning devotionals, Fones prays "for all victims who suffer abuse, especially at the hand of the clergy.... For healing of them and for their families."

By the following Sunday (Palm Sunday), he's written an article for the church's weekly bulletin and addressed the issue in his homily.

The contemporary scandal is like the "scandal of the cross," he tells the congregation that Sunday marking Jesus' entry into Bethlehem shortly before the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

"The scandal of the cross for the disciples was the seemingly utter failure of Jesus' mission as he was wrongly judged ... and his life ended as though he were a criminal," he says. "It is a story with betrayal falling upon betrayal."

"Our contemporary scandal, the abuse of minors by priests and the inability of our church to honestly and directly deal with that abuse, is also a story of betrayal," he continues. "In both stories of betrayal, there is a common thread of fear."

"People fear for their lives, or simply fear for their way of life.... For many Catholics, our current crisis has shaken their faith, ... " he says. "Yet in spite of human sin and reluctance to change, Jesus will never abandon us. Let's pray our current crisis, this moment of truth, may be a moment of conversion in which we embrace Truth...."

A few days later, he's uncertain of his words' impact. "I got positive responses from a few people who appreciated the subject being broached," he says. "I never know if silence from others means they agree or disagree."

But he has spoken from the heart, as Orique did – weeping – when he spoke at the church's daily afternoon mass, telling parishioners "how much it pained me that someone could betray the trust of so many ... being a cause of harm rather than a source of healing."

They have spoken openly and from the heart, and these days, it seems, this is the best thing to have done.

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