Next week, on June 19th, the Feast of the Sacred Heart, the Year For Priests begins. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers many resources including a rosary and prayers for priests in both English and Spanish on their special website. We are being encouraged to pray for our priests, that they will remain faithful and holy. All well and good.
And then something that challenges my capacity to pray and forgive comes along. The request, received through the Renovación website, seemed innocuous enough. A parishioner at St. Eugene Catholic Church in Asheville, North Carolina, wanted prayers for her pastor, Father John S., who, she said, had been dismissed by the bishop from his position.
The request immediately piqued my curiosity and so I did a little investigating. Turns out that Fr. John Schneider was forced to resign because he is being charged with obstruction of justice in a child pornography/sexual exploitation of a minor case involving the parish's music director, Paul Lawrence Berrell. The complainant in this case is a 13 year-old girl. In addition to being the music director at St. Eugene, Berrell is also the composer of a number of published contemporary Catholic hymns.
For whatever reason, Fr. John decided to "help" Berrell by going to his apartment and deleting hundreds of child porn photos from his computer, according to the police warrant for Fr. John's arrest. Fr. John is now out on a $10,000 bond while Berrell remains in jail, his bond having been set at $1.5 million. As he stepped down, Fr. John asked his parishioners to pray for him, so the hermana passed the request along to us.
Honestly, when I read the news accounts, I don't feel like praying for Fr. John. I want to grab him by the shoulders, shake him, and scream: "What were you thinking? How could you be so stupid as to interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation? At a time when the Roman Catholic Church has a zero tolerance policy on child sex abuse? At a time when it is almost easier to get a high level security clearance to work at the Pentagon than to work with children in the Church?" And in the darkest part of my soul, there is suspicion and distrust. "What was in those files that made you so hot to delete them?," I want to ask (but I'm not sure I want to know the answer).
We want to have faith in our clergy but incidents keep cropping up that chisel away at that faith. Padre Alberto didn't really bother me. He was involved in a relationship of mutual consent with an adult woman. He became an Episcopalian. Goodbye and God bless. But covering for a child molester is something else. It makes you wonder what other secrets are out there and it challenges my capacity to forgive.
I have heard priests deliver the "please pray for me" line too often, as if it were some sort of "Get Out of Jail Free" card that protects them from righteous anger or from having to be responsible and actually make reparations for their misconduct. It has unfortunately become an expression of cheap grace. To my ear, it no longer rings authentic. I seldom associate it with genuine contrition or a real desire and effort to bring the person's life and actions into alignment with God. I sense about as much consciousness of sin as in the preschooler who, fearing his mother's anger, looks up at her with big, sorrowful eyes and says "Mommy, I'm sorry" as if those words will make it all OK. For a child it usually does, but we should expect a little more from Christian adults, especially those who want to add "Reverend" to their names.
These incidents challenge my faith in the clergy and they challenge my ability to forgive. Fr. Fabio de Melo has a beautiful song, "Humano Demais", in which he admits that he is too human to be able to understand Christ's ability to love and forgive even those who seemingly don't deserve to be loved and pardoned. As a priest and confessor, he has had to struggle with this question. His candor is refreshing and gives hope to the rest of us even as we know, theologically, that the value of the Sacrament of Reconciliation transcends the priest's own human limitations. Acting as Christ, the priest can grant us absolution regardless of his personal feelings about the nature of our sin.
I'm not sure I can pray for Father John but maybe I can pray for my own heart to become more like Christ's. Perhaps in this Year For Priests, we should pray not just for our fathers but for an increase in our own ability to forgive our fathers' trespasses and that we may all -- clergy and laity -- grow in openness and become more faithful followers of our common Father.
Photo: Paul Berrell and Rev. John Schneider in happier times