He would speak with an authority and confidence that captivated me. On the edge of my seat, and usually with a smile sneaking across my face despite myself, I would listen to him telling tales the likes of which I had rarely heard. At least not like this.
When Father Phil spoke, I listened. When he moved, I watched. When he smiled and laughed, so did I. Now he’s gone, his vacant place at the altar mirroring one vacant place in the congregation: mine. Since his departure, I have never been back.
The Trusted Teacher
Presiding over our local parish, Father Phil was the rare kind of priest who actually engaged his audience. He spoke to us as though we were capable of more than rehashed, over-simplified Bible stories, while avoiding the moralizing and lecturing more commonly encountered on sleepy Sunday mornings. Instead, he challenged us to hear—not merely listen to—the meaning behind words and passages we’ve all experienced time and time again.
But one day, as has become all too common of late in the Catholic church, Father Phil’s past—a past, up until now, tucked away, secret—caught up to him, leaving him exposed and vulnerable. Among explosive headlines in local papers and on television newscasts, Father Phil’s life in our parish came to a screeching halt. If it’s true that the truth shall set you free, then there, amid the rumors and the photographs and the swarming news cameras, the truth not only freed Father Phil, it ran him out of town.
Accused of sexual misconduct with a minor in a previous city, Father Phil eventually found his way to my parish. Along this path he received counseling and was considered rehabilitated and ready to serve the church by both religious and secular doctors. The facts and severity of his misconduct are not entirely clear, which almost makes matters worse, muddying the waters about just how feared, or revered, he really should be. While serving our parish, though, no complaints were ever made and Father Phil became, by all accounts, a beloved member of the parish. As for me, he was the sole reason I attended mass at all.
As a child I was taught that while the priest is an integral part of the church, he was merely a conduit through which God worked. So, if I didn’t like a particular priest and resisted attending or participating in mass, this logic was meant to guide me back towards the mystery of the mass and away from the personality that presumably got in my way. I still hear this argument used, especially as the Catholic church faces crisis after crisis: that priests are simply men and that their actions, no matter how abhorrent, should not distract from God’s message. Clearly, priests are men, and as such, laden with sin—I’m under no false illusions. But it wasn’t until adulthood and encountering Father Phil that I realized that this logic of dismissing the priest and focusing on the mass was, to me, fundamentally flawed. The priest’s role is much more important than this and should not be reduced to simply that of facilitator—if this were the case, there are many devoted laypeople, in my experience, who would gladly take up the staff. The fact was, I had never realized just how compelling mass could be with a real teacher at the helm, and I felt short-changed for all those years of lifeless, uninteresting and unchallenging services.
Suddenly, though, this teacher had been found to have committed a crime, to have violated trust, and rehabilitation or not, the scent of his misdeed now fouled the air.
What was I to do? What was I to think? Did everything he ever say, his stories and conversations, his great homilies that seemed to cut through to the heart of the Bible with a surgeon’s precision, suddenly lose all meaning? These thoughts plagued me for days and weeks. I faced for the first time the prospect of losing my tenuous lifeline to the church, someone who finally made the words of God not only real, but relevant.
As Christians we are taught to forgive. But are there unforgivable sins? I tried to rationalize my own selfish feelings of losing this great positive influence on my faith with the reality of the crimes he perpetrated. Thoughts of his victims increasingly needled their way into my consciousness, forcing me to face the facts. No matter what benefit I may have received by his presence in my life, there were people out there whose lives were forever damaged because of his presence in their lives. As time wore on, I fought a losing battle with myself, feeling the increasing burden of putting my desires first.
Of course I understand that faith is more than a good priest and that mass can mean much more than a great sermon—even a really great sermon. The trouble is I am afraid I no longer care. Whatever mystery the mass may have once held for me has largely vanished. When I did attend, it was not because of some intangible, millennia-old story, but because of a priest I learned from and admired. I have come to realize that I am not the kind of person who can simply drift away on some content, self-satisfied cloud listening to the sounds of an off-key choir and the monotony of a well-meaning but passionless priest. Briefly I have felt the rekindling of my interest in mass, the genuine possibility of learning something new about my faith. Too bad the only priest to ever awaken this in me is also a criminal.
To be sure, the last thing I want to do is make excuses for Father Phil. He is responsible for his actions, before the law and before God. Now that he has voluntarily stepped down and left our parish, though, many personal questions remain. I have seen two extreme sides of one person, two distinct, polarized aspects that are forever joined. It may be relatively painless for me to ultimately forgive Father Phil, since no one in my life was personally harmed by his actions. However, I am still left feeling disoriented by the revelations of his past and his sudden departure. One thing that is clear, though, is that for now, and for the foreseeable future, Sunday has returned to being just another day of the week.