Sunday, January 27, 2013


More than a few of my friends can hardly hear the words “minister” or “priest” without becoming angry.  The images summoned up in their minds are harsh, punitive, old white men who will only scold and judge, impose penalties, and divert justice.  How did this image get so strong?  Somehow the Ward Bond/Barry Fitzgerald sorts of benign, slightly goofy priests, cycling across the Emerald Isle on a mission of mercy, have been co-opted, along with the Ingrid Bergman/Deborah Kerr saintly nun.  Maybe it’s about times changing -- these gentler versions are images from my childhood.

Even as an adult, I knew priests like Father Griffin, who served St. Andrews Parish in Portland where I grew up a few blocks from the church.  Not that I knew him well, though I did attend mass there now and then, but I knew his works.  He was famous for unscrewing the pews so as to drag them into a circle and for selling the church communion silver in order to pay for a public phone for the poor people.  (He served communion from an ordinary wine glass and saucer.)  One of the major needs of street people was a “permanent address” so he gave them his.  He died in 2000 at age 68.   Below I’m quoting in part from his obituary.

“Father Griffin received his doctorate in canon Law in 1964 from Lateran University in Rome, during the Second Vatican Council.”  He never left those ideals, which were in part to pull law back into usefulness and to return the institution to the ideals of Jesus.

“Father Griffin was also known for his community and pastoral work as inner-city pastor of St. Andrew's Parish in Northeast Portland . . .  Under his leadership in the 1970s, St. Andrew's became a hub of social action and a welcoming place for the neighborhood's low-income African-Americans.”  Most big churches in neighborhoods that “go bad” just close up.

Just north of the church, which is a major piece of architecture, were a couple of streets of humble houses on small lots, many of them owner-built.  When I was working for the City of Portland, these houses were meant to make way for urban renewal.  Father Griffin spearheaded a way to buy the houses, and then inexpensive land so as to move them to instead of demolishing them.  They were sold at reduced prices and low interest.  Somehow the church carried the mortgages.  How bad was the area?  The moving contractor found a dead woman in one of his heavy-duty trash bags.

'Father Griffin was the most beloved and highly respected priest in the archdiocese,' Archbishop Vlazny said.   'He was held in high esteem by his fellow priests and people themselves. He was a good man, and that's what makes a good priest.'

What they said privately was that Griffin would have been suppressed, thrown out or disciplined except that he was a genius at accounting and the only one who truly understood the diocese books.  He had a firm grip on a crucial part of church anatomy.  When churches are about money, they are not about God.  But money is necessary.

“Father Griffin was active in Ecumenical Ministries and served as the statewide group's president. He nurtured dialogue between Catholic priests and rabbis. He also helped start local Lutheran-Catholic dialogue.

“Father Griffin helped establish the Portland Organizing Project, a grassroots coalition of churches still active today, and was a founding member and president of Oregon Fair Share, a citizen-action group.

“At the same time, the priest earned a national reputation for envisioning the future of the church.”

Maybe the “mean” image of priests and nuns comes from parochial schools.  One summer I worked at a counseling center on the Hyde Park seminary circuit and got to know a Benedictine monk pretty well.  He wasn’t a priest -- didn’t officiate at mass.  If you want to have a good time, look for a Benedictine.  He was a lot of fun and told this story which I’ve repeated many times since.  

When he was about ten years old, one of the legendary superstrict teaching nuns went past him on the aisle and smacked him for something.  Not really hurt, he nevertheless screamed and flopped onto the floor.  She tried to make him get up, nudging him with her foot.  This was in the old days when nuns wore habits to the floor, giving the impression they were on wheels.  Seeing a human ankle revealed, our hero (now out of control) bit the nun just above her shoe.  Her turn to scream.  Then she marched him to the principal.

My friend sat squirming on a hard chair in front of the imposing priest, waiting for execution.  The man worked on papers and let him suffer.  Finally, he looked at the boy and with his mouth not quite under control demanded,  “Did you REALLY bite Sister Agatha on the ankle?”  When the boy admitted it, the principal could contain himself no longer and began to laugh and laugh.  “I’ve often wanted to do that myself,” he admitted.  But then he sobered up.  “It really won’t do, you know.  You must not bite nuns.”  

Totally confused, our hero agreed never to do that again.  Many years later, after he had been in religious orders for a few years, he ran across Sister Agatha at some conference.  She came up with tears in her eyes to ask if he would forgive her.  She tried to explain why she had been in such a bad place in her life.  I don’t think they went out for drinks or even indulged in a hug, but there was real forgiveness.  She turned out to be human all the way up.

These days the parochial school on the Blackfeet reservation is where the good kids go.   In the bad old days you sent a tough kid to be “controlled” by the nuns, because they could punish harshly without being fired.  These days the troublemakers are simply excluded -- the individual outvoted for the sake of the group.  The task of today’s parochial school is to provide a peaceful, constructive place to learn.  It is the public school that has to take the near-incorrigibles while being forbidden to do anything more to them than “in-school suspension,” meaning sequestration with a pile of homework and a non-teacher supervisor. 

Meanwhile back at the church, Pope Benedict is no longer allowed to condemn defiant priests like The Rev. Tony Flannery to be burned at the stake.    Lucky for Father Flannery.   He can only be an excluded troublemaker, not burned alive. The individual is protected at least that much.  But what a lot of people don’t realize is that ultimately what’s "at stake" is the formation of an American Catholic Church breakaway.  Every time the Vatican is shown to be out of touch, out of step, out of control, the breakaway happens a little more.  I think of the polar ice caps losing vast melting shelves that float off into the sea.  

Because of the need for good priests, more and more priests are previously married men who stay married and more and more nuns are empowered to offer Communion.  Still the breakaways increase.  The present Pope will probably not live long enough to see a complete break, unless the Hispanics leave the church. You realize, of course, that many Hispanics are at least partly Indian.  The present pope, I believe, is not in favor of Liberation Theology.  He loves the little children and obedience.

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