I’d like to share some anecdotal information that I personally experienced both as a seminarian and priest, who became part of the clerical culture. There certainly were “benefits” but there was also a price to pay for being put on a pedestal by parishioners as well as people outside the Catholic Church, who had some unrealistic images of anyone who wore a Roman collar. I’m not suggesting that my experiences represent the majority of those who were ordained in pre-Vatican II, but I think my experiences can resonate with others who were ordained during that period of time, and for those who are interested, they can vicariously identify with the dynamics of becoming part of the clerical culture.
In my next commentary, I will move from my personal experiences as a former “cleric”, and consider the concept of the clerical culture from an institutional, sociological, and psychological perspective. I will first examine the abuse of—and—and addiction to power in the Catholic Church, from the Vatican on down. Second, how the perpetuation of clerical culture has contributed to the sexual abuse of children. Finally, I will propose how I believe that we, the people of God can begin to change this elitist culture of clericalism.
Naïve and Immature
I have a section in my memoir entitled My Calling. It describes a casual conversation I had with Father Harry Hinds. He was the director of the Catholic Youth Program (CYO) for the diocese of Albany, NY. I worked in his office as his assistant during my last year in high school. One day while we were working on the spring baseball schedule, he asked me what I was going to do after I graduated. I told him I was thinking of going to Siena College to study social work. He asked if I ever thought about becoming a priest. I told him I thought about it, but I didn’t think I had a calling. The next thing I knew, he was on the phone talking to the Chancellor of the Diocese telling him he had a young man in his office who was thinking about a vocation to the priesthood. By the end of his phone call, he had made an appointment for me to talk to Monsignor Rooney about my vocation. I was a little surprised to say the least, but part of me was flattered that he thought I was worthy enough to join their club. I was also more than a little naïve and immature. To make a long story short, the next September, I was off to St. Thomas’ a minor Seminary in Connecticut to become part of the clerical culture. My parents never questioned or pushed my decision, but being “good Catholics”, I sensed that they were pleased with my “choice”.
I took to the seminary like the proverbial “duck to water”. The sports, the camaraderie, the feeling that I would have a purpose in life that would not only bring me closer to God, but would give me an opportunity to help others to know and serve God. In my puerile mind, I imagined myself as being like Bing Crosby in the two movies Going My Way, and The Bells of St. Mary’s, where he playedFather Chuck O’Malley. For me, being a seminarian was like being a member of a Fraternity. We even had our own song, Ecce quam Bonum, the first line from Psalm 133, “Behold how good and how joyful it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”. That was also our chosen class song at the major seminary, St. Mary’s Seminary and Pontifical University.
The Hot House
During the eight years I was in the seminary, we were required to spend eight weeks of our summer “vacation” at Camp Gibbons, the diocesan camp for seminarians on Schroon Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. The schedule was much more relaxed than the seminary’s. In the morning they bussed in children from parishes in several towns near the camp for religious instructions. It was a chance for us to teach catechism. The rest of the day was time for swimming, playing tennis, sun bathing, and living a life of luxury. Our colleague from other dioceses accused us of being put in a “hot house” for the summer to maintain our chastity by not being open to the temptations of the outside world. Looking back, I suspect that they were right. Especially, since we were under the watchful eye of our bishop, who spent his summer with us in what he called “his Villa”. At the time I thought it was just another opportunity to bond with your brother seminarians, after all they would be my major support group after ordination.
When I was getting close to ordination, one of our neighbors, a non-catholic woman wrote a poem that she dedicated to me. The title was, He Walks with the Hand of God. I just remember the first line or two, a little corny but it was her perception. “Not long ago a boy I met, who my kind of life did not covet, for he walked with the hand of God. His air was so proud, and he so perfect, for he walked with the hand of God.” You see what I mean about it being a little corny? Thinking about it now, it’s a little scary—me, perfect?—years later I used to do a workshop entitled Be Ye Perfect: Mission Impossible! I must have intuitively known before my ordination that perfectionism was not achievable, at least for me.
Here’s another example of the perfection that was expected of me. One of the meditations that I often used in the seminary was written by a Dominican priest, Father Jean Baptist-Lacordaire, who lived in the nineteenth century:
Thou Art a Priest Forever
To live in the midst of the world with no desire for its pleasure; to be a member of every family, yet not belong to none; to share all sufferings; to penetrate all secrets, to heal all wounds; to go daily from men to God to offer Him their homage and petitions; to return from God to men to bring them His pardon and hope; to have a fire for charity and a heart of bronze for chastity; to bless and be blessed forever. O God, what a life and it is yours, O Priest of Jesus Christ!
At the time it seemed like a very quixotic role to play. But even then, I used to wonder, why me? There were so many guys in my high school class who were: smarter than I, holier than I, more popular than I, why was I the chosen one? Looking back, Father Lacordarie’s description of the role and responsibilities of a priest was indeed a “mission impossible”. The expectations seem overwhelming. When I expressed my doubts to my seminary confessor, he told me they were just goals and that no one could meet them all the time, and that no one is perfect, we just do the best we can. When I told him about my concern about having “a heart of bronze for chastity”, andthat I was struggling with impure thoughts and temptations, he reassured me that once I was ordained, God would give me the grace that I needed to overcome those temptations.
It was not until I read A.W.Richard Sipe’s book, A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy, published in 1990, I realized just how many other priests were struggling and often losing their battle to have a “heart of bronze for chastity.” Sipe is a former priest, and now is a psychotherapist, who has been engaged in research on the institution of the church and priestly celibacy for over thirty years. The research for this book presented empirical evidence of sexual activity by almost 50% of the Roman Catholic priests. I wonderedif my seminary confessor knew that there were that many priests who were ordained and did not ipso facto receive the grace of celibacy. And if he did, would he have given me different advice.
At my first mass there was a line of over 200 people waiting to receive my blessing. I realized that it was not Don Fausel they were waiting for, but Father Fausel—but it was still a rather spine-tingling feeling to have everyone from my long lost relatives to Erastus Corning II, the mayor of Albany kneeling at my feet as I pronounced in Latin, “May the blessing of Almighty God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, descend upon you and remain forever.”
After I finished blessing everyone, my boyhood friend, Muggsy McGraw, pulled me aside, and brought me down to earth in his own inimical way, “Look Fausel, you got your butt in a tub of butter, three squares a day and no heavy lifting, don’t screw it up! You got instant status, instant security, and a job for life. Yesterday you were nobody and today you’re Father Fausel. Ya get my drift? ” How right he was!
But I was elevated again when I got to my first parish. Like most parishes in those days, there was an older lady that acted as cook and housekeeper for the priests. We ate at a formal table with a white table cloth, the pastor sitting at the head carving the roast; solid silver eating utensils, expensive China dinnerware, and a little bell to summon the cook for dessert or coffee. I’d come a long way from the kitchen table where my family ate our meals and where I thought my mother ate the neck and wings of the chicken because she liked them.
I remember one morning I went into the kitchen after Mass to let the housekeeper know I was ready for breakfast. I noticed a note scotch taped to the wall that said, “Father Fausel, turned over easy.” My immediate thought was someone had been monitoring my sleeping habits, until she told me the note was a reminder of how I wanted my eggs. Sitting at that table alone for breakfast, I always felt like the “poor little rich boy.”
Then there was Mamma Leone’s Italian restaurant on West 48th Street off Eighth Avenue, one of the most popular eating places in New York City. When I was a student at Columbia, occasionally several of us cleric types would go there for dinner dressed in our clerical clothes. We’d be standing outside in a long line, when a Maitre D’ would spot us and rush out to say loud enough so others could hear him, “Fathers your reservations are ready”, and then usher us into the restaurant, leaving dozens of dinners waiting behind . Of course we didn’t have reservations. As I became more accustomed to similar privileged treatment, it was easy to assume it was an entitlement.
In my memoir I recalled an incident about the pastor of the church I was assigned to in the Schenectady, NY. It was in the early sixties, I was on duty at the rectory, when I received a phone call from the captain of a police precinct in New York City. He introduced himself and asked if we had a Father Mac (factious name) stationed at our parish. He went on to tell me that they picked him up at a local hotel down near the Bowery and he was “drunk as a skunk” and didn’t have money to pay for the hotel room. He told me they wouldn’t press charges, and asked if we could pick him up. I told him I’d be down the next day and thanked him. Before hanging up he sheepishly gave me some advice, “Look Father, this poor guy needs some professional help. Our records show that this ain’t the first time we picked him up. You know what I mean?” The next day I was off to NYC to pick up our pastor. It was a sad one hundred and fifty mile drive back to Schenectady. Father Mac was either apologizing profusely or crying, or both.
This episode demonstrates several things about the clerical culture: the deference the police captain had for priesthood, and the willingness he had to cover up for a drunken priest. Plus my congenital condition of being an enabler and coming to Fr. Mac’s rescue, so he wouldn’t be embarrassed for having been charged with a crime and the parishioners wouldn’t be scandalized by his behavior. The good news is that the other associate pastor in the parish and I arranged a quasi-intervention to persuade Father Mac to get professional help. Which he did!
Priests Need Priests
There were number of us relatively newly minted priests stationed in Schenectady. A few of us decided we’d like to get together on a regular basis to go out for lunch. The group grew to about eight or ten. We would meet at different restaurant each week, have lunch and chat mostly about what was going on in our parishes, complain about our pastors, gossip about who might be made a pastor, etc. Some of us would play golf together, maybe go to an occasional movie, or go to NYC for a Broadway musical, and several of us when to Cape Cod for a week’s vacation. Our mantra was Priests need Priests. There’s certainly no question about that, who else were we going to relax with or enjoy our free time with? It only occurred to me recently, even though we might talk occasionally about theological issues or the up-coming Vatican Council, it was always on an intellectual level. Even if we discussed mandatory celibacy it was not about our getting married if they changed the rules, it was as if we depersonalized it. As I remember we never talked about feeling or personal problems that we might be struggling with. At least that I was struggling with. Being able to share feelings should have been one of the major reasons the Priests need Priests group were meeting for.
Fast Forward to 2002
On June 12, 2002, my friend John Rusnak and I boarded a plane to Dallas Texas to attend the meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). We were not invited quests of the bishops but where members of Call to Action (CTA). John was the president of the Arizona Chapter and I was a card carrying member. We had been reading the news papers accounts about the out- break of the scandal of pedophile priests in the Boston Globe, and we were a tad cynical that the bishops would have the integrity to put the best interests of the victims and their families ahead of their history of secrecy of protecting the church. As we buckled ourselves into our seats and the cabin door slammed shut, I looked at John and said, “What the hell are we doing going to Dallas?” Neither of us had a rational answer, but our plane was taxing down the runway as we both shrugged our shoulders as if to say—beats me!
Well, here we are ten years later! Little did we think that the sexual abuse of minors would be worldwide. In the United States most catholics are still not satisfied with the bishops’ negligible response to the clerical sexual abuse debacle, or with the fact that the bishops refuse to acknowledge, and take responsibility for their part in covering up for the perpetrators.
So contrast those experiences I described above, when I was wearing a Roman collar to about forty some years later to the USCCB 2002 meeting in Dallas. In addition to attending some very stimulating workshops, one of the other activities our CTA group participated in was a protest march from a local parish to the luxurious Freemont Hotel where the bishops were holding their meetings. The closest we could get to their hotel was across the street, where we set up our signs of protest and peacefully demonstrated. At one point I had to go to the men’s room. When I tried to cross the yellow tape police markers, I was informed by a policeman, that I wasn’t allowed in the hotel unless I was a guest. When I explained my urgency, he accompanied me into the hotel, turned me over to another officer who told me I would have to give him my driver’s license before I could take care of business. The men’s room that I used was not even close to the room where the bishops were holding their meeting. I guess they weren’t taking any chances. Since the media was out in full force, the thought briefly went through my mind to make a scene, but nature’s call prevailed.
The few experiences I described about my life as a seminarian and priest (I have a million of them) might seem rather trivial, but they’re typical of the unearned deference and distinction made between priests and “ordinary folks” that underlies clericalism. It’s the same distance that the Occupy Wall Street movement brought to our attention when they pointed out the disparity of the 1% of the top of the economy to the 99% at the bottom. As priests we definitely were part of a privileged class, not just in those little acts of reverence we were given, but more significant Father was always right. After all, at that time priests had more education than most of our parishioners. We had spent four years after college studying theology; we had the power to administer all the sacraments; we were always in a place of honor at any parish event. The only ones in the Church that were above us were the bishops and the pope.
Remember as priests we were at the bottom rung of the clerical latter. Although there was often a gap between priests and people, I don’t believe that gap was the same for every priest, or that most priests had ambitions to climb up that latter. Nor do I believe that every bishop is equally addicted to the power that corrupts to the point that he loses sight of the children he is suppose to protect from predator priests, or the disenfranchise in society, and puts his own or the church’s interest first. But given the structure of governance of the church, its current culture, its process of how clerics are groomed, and given the psychosocial up-bringing that many clerics bring to the table, major changes are essential for the future of the Church. Please join me on my next blog, where I will discuss solutions to these issues.