Friday, February 11, 2005

Everything is/
Everyone is/
Why can't you forget?/
Why can't you forget?

This is going to be a long post, so bear with me. I want to talk about Father Mike, the chaplain at Calvert House.

Father Mike is a round, balding man who invariably wears plaid. He's an accomplished cook, and has taken cooking courses in different nations ("the best way to learn the culture is the food"). He prepares these incredibly seasoned Polish sausages and the lamb-shaped cakes for Easter, cooking for more than a hundred Catholic students just passing through. Father Mike always made the menu right- something good for the vegetarians, variety between pasta and meats and salads.

He keeps a lot of animals there in Calvert House: finches, cats, fish, and two dogs. One of the dogs, Abby, is aged and blind and sweet, now answering only to Father Mike when he calls her "Boo-boo", whereupon she leaves from licking our hands to hopping up the stairs sideways, one at a time. The other is Camilla, a hyper little thing in dog sweaters whom Father Mike named after Prince Charles' ridiculous consort.

Father Mike always has a great deal of work to do; Calvert House is a nearly shoestring ministry for over 500 actively Catholic students. He says most of the daily Masses, does the Sacrament of Confession, personally runs Bible studies and the Catholic Inquiry group, all the while overseeing RCIA, the liturgy and innumerable student activities. He still always finds time to chat with the students who like to study in the Calvert House lounge; he knows all of our names after the first meeting, and he always chooses comfortable subjects to joke about (for me, mathematics: "well, it's all just addition and subtraction, right?"). He instructs Alice, whom he baptized last year, to take good care of me, and tells me to listen to her.

He has a doctorate in Sacred Theology, and knows his theology and ethics well enough to satisfy the pretentious theological amateurs like myself. When he ran a series on Catholic morality this past fall, he showed his teaching skills (which he hones with his class at Catholic Theological Union), and always reformulated the question in the right way to suggest the answer. Father Mike goes out of his way not to humiliate those whom he corrects, while being careful to keep to the truth.

As my regular confessor, he guided me through a time when I felt called to the priesthood for the wrong reasons; he told me again and again not to get discouraged for confessing the same sins, reminding me that God is working through me and doing good; when I was overly concerned with external actions, he pointed out my prayer life and my hidden conceit. Father Mike saw me the only time I've completely broken down since first year, and helped me pull myself together. He grew to know me well, and guided me rightly.

He supported and encouraged us, as we started and continued Gregorian Chant at the 11:00 Mass. He supported and encouraged one student to begin the Homeless Food Run Project, another to expand the tutoring program for neighborhood grade-schoolers. He helped us create the Monday night dinners that have formed a great community between the undergraduates. Under his watch, we've had to add extra Masses, and attendance is up greatly from my first year- his first year here.

He has led well, spoken well, set a holy example for us all, earned our respect and trust and love.

I say this as introduction to one of the most difficult episodes of my time at the University.

This Monday, as we stood outside with Father Mike burning last year's palms into the ashes for Ash Wednesday, those around the corner from me saw the reporters with news cameras. The next day, Father Mike was nowhere to be found. After another priest came to say Daily Mass (not a rarity, though; there are so many orders of priests in Hyde Park), the Campus Minister and the Coordinator, Bette and Kathy, gathered us and told us that Father Mike had resigned that day.

Fifteen years ago, Father Mike had been Dean of Students at a seminary, and had had a sexual relationship with a seminarian. He abused his authority (according to the seminarian) to cover up the affair at first. Father Mike then admitted it to the Archdiocese, and went through a long period of counseling that was a process of reconversion for him. He has been a good and faithful priest since, by all accounts.

When the former seminarian learned that Father Mike was again working with college students, he contacted the news media. The story was on the front page of the Metro section in the Tribune on Ash Wednesday, with a picture taken in front of Calvert House. Father Mike resigned immediately, to prevent things getting worse for us.

I've gone through a hundred emotional reactions since I first heard the news. But that's not quite the point. I wanted to begin the post with a description of what Father Mike has been to us. He is not a stereotype of an abusive priest; he is not a monster; he is not a hypocrite. He is a man who did something very wrong, years ago, and has been living his vocation faithfully since. He lives the ideal that he preaches on Sunday.

What he did fifteen years ago does not negate the great good that he did at Calvert House, though it does have consequences. Even though I still feel we students were safe with him, it was bad judgment to have him be chaplain. For one thing, the scandal was almost certain to surface in today's climate, and the revelation has not yet done half the harm it will. I can't help but feel let down by the Cardinal and Father Mike, but I still affirm that he has been a good priest to us.

A smaller tragedy within this episode is the warped view that the media provides. It's not bad journalism; it's just that the journalist hears of him first as "Abusive Priest", and all indications of his character and life are filtered through that lens. The Tribune story rather naturally assumes the angle of the hypocritical priest with the dirty secret; who would believe the story of the man with a terrible failing who has continued to redeem his life and ministry? Journalism subscribes all too easily to the simple Manichean model of the world, the one in which we separate out the "good people" and the "bad people"- and of course place ourselves in the former category. The truth is that we are instead a fallen world, wherein a person who has done great evil can still do good, and where someone who has done great good can lapse into horrendous evil.

And even in this tragedy, God is present. Many of us gathered this past evening in the basement to talk about Father Mike's resignation and our feelings. Unanimously, we expressed how much we loved and supported him, even and especially now. We talked about the role that he played in our faith, in our lives, in our community. It was a powerful evening, and we left closer than we arrived. We know that it's going to be difficult on campus these next few days and weeks– the Maroon comes out with its own reporting tomorrow, so all of the non-Catholics will know some version of the story. It may be a cross to bear, but we will support each other.

And I ask you to pray for us, to pray for the University at large, to pray for Father Mike, and to pray for the former seminarian he hurt. This is all so painful, but with God's grace we will find the right path.

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