When I met him on my entry into the seminary, he was practically everyone’s hero. He was a third year theologian preparing for Deacon ordination. He had it all. Top student with an honors licentiate in theology from a prestigious university, superb athlete, brilliant in baseball, star basketball player, exceptional singer with credits from several choirs, sparkling personality, confidently moved easily in all social levels, spiritual, sharp sense of humor, tall, handsome, everyone’s favorite when he preached in his clear, rich, resonant voice, and great practical Faith. He had almost universal popularity. He presented to the world a persona of the ideal seminarian.
Yet, after only two years of serving as a priest, he walked out of what seemed to be a perfect match between two factors. Chad and priesthood. How could this be? Should it happen in this modern era, there would be some surprised reactions , some shoulder shrugging, but generally this would be probably seen as just another career change. A smart, “with-it” young priest I knew told me that he was not going to stay in this “job” more than ten years! So, he married and began a chic job with Pepsi-Cola, selling carbonated water! Priesthood to him was analagous to being a teacher or clerk in Walgreens. No necessary, pervasive commitment. However, seventy years ago it was colossally chaotic. It was unheard of. It was unbelievable. It was simply not possible! I was three or four years behind Chad, in preparation for priesthood, and I was stunned.
How could this happen? This was every one’s question. Later, I used him as an example of Paul’s admonition: “Lest after having preached to others, I myself might become a castaway.” Even in far away South Africa where I functioned as a missionary, I knelt in small chapels and darkened churches and shuddered as I thought of Chad. Terrified lest it might happen to me. After all, if this happens in the green wood ,what can we say about the dry? Whenever I thought of what Chad had done I became semi-nauseous.
But what had he done?
He met a pretty girl from tenth avenue with a slim, graceful body and an engaging, outgoing personality. She was an accomplished dancer. I used to dance with her, myself, during my high school years and was not surprised when later she joined the June Taylor troupe favored by Jackie Gleason and the Big Wigs of television. Somehow, Chad and she developed a relationship which became more than “ good friends”. First it was the popular young priest ministering to a lively young Catholic girl which subtlely, imperceptively became, in time, more than a young man fascinated by flapping pretty eyes. He was “captivated” by her. Utterly. So, he left the priesthood to pursue a life with his Love.They had six children together, including a set of triplets.
Initially they had great difficulty making it in a tough competitive world but he eventually made a comfortable living in the world of insurance. Further, he earned a pilot’s license and became a master magician performing publicly as a professional. His many gifts made worldly success a highly predictable outcome.. But, as the world knows, no one escapes the pain and suffering inherent in being human.. In due course, she developed problems with alcohol, possibly from unconscious or unrecognized guilt. Sadly, she died leaving him alone with their children. Chad, however, went on not only to a second wife who also died but finally to a third one who followed her predecessors in death.
Three wives. All dead. Six children, two of whom are deceased. What now?
I received a phone call from Chad two years ago after years of non communication. He had seen my name pop up in his research for any priest who might remember him. His only son drove him in to my rectory where Chad had briefly served so many years ago. He told me the following. He is now a daily communicant. He makes a Holy hour once a week. He is a Lector in his church. A veritable pillar of his parish even at the age of 96 years.
Nevertheless, he wanted to talk. To put things into some kind of perspective. A man in the mid nineties, with a wide theological background who believes, despite all his reconciliation and spiritual direction, that he has “betrayed my Lord”, and who will need strong encouragement as he feels inevitable death moving in on him.
He is too educated in formal theology to accept the superficial observation of my young priest friend mentioned above regarding the “tossing off” of priesthood once he took off the collar!! Chad had studied the theology of the Catholic priesthood and firmly believed in the ancient concept of “ a priest forever” according to the order of Melchisadech. He believes that his soul was imprinted with an indelible seal which he will wear for eternity. When I told him that I am the oldest, living member of my community, he quickly replied” “No, you’re not. I am”. “Seal” wise, with his few years of ordination seniority, he is correct even though I am the oldest active member. Yet, his insight is traditional and classic.
After a profound pouring out of heartfelt remorse he asked me to take him to the altar where he was ordained so many years ago. It tore me up to see his “look” as he seemed transfixed before the huge altar where he became “alter Christus.”
I had many thoughts and ideas after leaving Chad. The one that strikes me most is the following.
It is crystal clear from a Catholic theological view, from a Catholic spirituality point of view, from a Catholic tradition point of view that the loving, generous Lord of ours is mercy itself, Who puts all of our sins in back of Him, always forgives those who truly ask for forgiveness, even for what seems gigantic sin. This is the Lord Who embraces His Prodigal Son who is us all!. This Lord always gives a “second chance”— even sends His Son to die an unbelievably cruel death to redeem us all from our sins.. All because of His implacable love for us!
One would conclude that a person fully educated in the Catholic stance would accept such a perception - - - even as elementary. It is obvious and logical. But apparently, there is something functioning which is stronger than the obvious and the logical. For people like Chad, vibes pour out in a stream—guilt, shame, unworthy, unloveable, unforgiveable, need punishment, and endless expressions tantamount to saying that God would never really forgive me! I cannot accept forgiveness—especially from God. My sin is too great. Is it a humility problem? I’m better than those guys who accept less than perfection!
Do we not have powerful examples of persons, terribly human and weak but loving, who, somehow, by God’s warm grace, “made it” into the peace and joy of the saint? Do I not hear voices shouting, affirmatively? Is it not Peter I hear? Or Paul? Or Magdelene? Augustine? Or the thousands over the centuries who accepted the Divine Embrace? Why can’t it be Chad, too? He has done well in handling his debt to the Lord. But why the prolonged suffering? The guilt? The remorse? Why can’t he let it all go? Why can’t he heed the call of Mercy from Jesus?
It strikes me, then, that I am basically looking at an emotional tangle not an intellectual puzzle or math theorem. There are certainly real evidences of intellectual distortion of Christ’s loving invitation. But, this pain cannot be intrinsically healed by high flown literature as beautiful and inspiring as it often is. The resolution of his pain somehow is giving in to God. Or as Mother Teresa taught : Give God permission to love you. Or relying more on the explosive grace of the Lord than on white knuckling! Would it be so terrible to seek humbly the skilled help of a Therapist, knowledgeable in things spiritual? Human feelings are explosive and often need human modes of treatment along with the classsic wisdom of the Faith.
It is clear from the Lord’s teaching that we cannot have eternal happiness until we have paid the last penny.But I cannot find anywhere even a trace of brutality in His love. Cannot our repenant awareness of our failings co-exist with an acceptance of His continued assurance of His lovely inner Peace, His sense of joy? Can not atonement live in harmony with “appropriate “ fun? Are we not an Incarnational people? One’s resolution of these apparent antitheses is essential, I think, for a balanced Catholic spirituality.
In any event, it goes on obsessively —“round and round”. People of high education and character can punish themselves for years—relentlessly, and unnecessarily. Do they believe that this is God ’s Will? The Sinner should suffer endessly and terribly in his life for what he or she has done or not done? Is he is afraid to take God at His word? Or won’t he trust the Love of the Lord.? Is this some kind of perverse, loopy, spirituality which grabs decent people and hurls them into a vicious, merciless hell on earth? Weren’t harsh attitudes like this consistently condemned by God’own Church? The Cathari, the Albigensians, the Jansenists? Yet, I recall William Langland’s “Pier’s Plowman” in which he describes some nuns of an earlier era as “ Pure as angels, but proud as devils….” Lopsided views of God have alway been with us. Or is it a kind of confused humility? If this is the case, then, not only are they proud but from my experience, often joyless and driven.
I wonder if people who suffer like Chad have difficulty in having real fun! Personally, I’ ll give my vote to Hilaire Belloc who, I think, had a telling point. “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine There’s laughter, dancing and good red wine
at least, I’ve always found it so, benedicamus Domino”
Old buddies saying goodbye!