i shall always be grateful beyond words for so many years of sharing in the Grace and Ministry of the Catholic Priesthood. And i’ll never deny a bit of longing during these years of raising six children for THOSE MUCH QUIETER TIMES.
The Season of Lent, which we are in once more, is always a time of special memories in that regard, as many of the best things that happen in a priest’s life happen then.
One of the most sacred seasons of the Church year, Lent, was also – to me – one of the most comical. This page about ashes, recently sent to me, gave me a good chuckle. i can still see the faces of many, especially children, as they cringed and hoped that i’d show mercy to their foreheads. Oh, the things we do to please God, and, as so many think, to work some magic spell. Some of the saddest moments of my priesthood were when on those holier Wednesdays Catholics – otherwise UNFAMILIAR with that Church – came up on my Holy Communion line, and when i said, “This is the Body of Christ,” (this is the One Who loves you, even if no one else does) only to hear a big, “WHAT!?” “The Body of Christ,” i’d say again, to their “I Don’t Want THAT!! Where’s the ashes?” as if those ashes had some power other than to say, “HEY! You are going to DIE! Let’s live accordingly.” IF i DIDN’T LAUGH, i’d CRY!
But, by far the most wonderful and rewarding experiences of my priesthood happened in the Confessional, and though they were a year-long thing, Lent is their “High Season.” Yes, i heard confessions EVERYWHERE, in churches, prisons, convents, bars, during strolls on the beach or camp-outs on mountains. Every age, every kind…My very first customer was a bishop. Wow, here i was brand spanking new and still looking like a kid with long, hippie hair, then a knock at the door, and Holy Cow! So scared was i that i almost lied and said, “i’m Brother Mike, let me find you a priest.” When i lived in Rome, the word among priests was to “Watch Out! If the Pope, John Paul II at the time, came walking by, chances are he’ll pull you aside and ask you to forgive his sins.” TRUE STORY! i guess that’s one of the reasons he’s now called Saint John Paul. Thank God i never got the tug, though, look, i did shake hands with the Saint.
Over the 26 years since the same Pope permitted me to leave the priesthood, i can’t count how many people have marveled at the fact that i can walk around carrying a million secrets, some monster-big, but not even get weighed down or made into a hunchback. Easily i had a million do-do’s dumped on me, but i do DO BELIEVE, as i often told those sinners,that anything said to me went into my ear and my heart just like pails of ocean into a hole in the beach. As kids we tried to dump it there, but alas! whatever went in, it was gone! Every tiny drop, and every single sin, simply disappeared. And just the opposite of weighing us down, the experiences invigorated us!
And i was sworn to secrecy forever, and never would i think of repeating any sin, even if i could remember any – which by God’s Grace i never could. i would never betray anyone’s trust.
There is, however, a little dilemma of one, no – two, OUTSTANDING CONFESSIONS, which i have never been able to hold in my heart alone. And 30+ years later i believe that i am safe from lightning bolt or from excommunication by Pope Francis (WHO WOULD LOVE these true stories more than anyone!!) As long as i hold names, times and places to myself, if i am wrong, God will show me mercy. One was a woman who made a good confession and received my absolution, but minutes later i heard her voice again, repeating everything. i stopped her, “Excuse me, but weren’t you just here?” To which she then confessed with chuckles and tears, “Yes, but the Mercy felt soooooo good, I just wanted to feel it again.” My fellow priests and i were often BLOWN AWAY by that joyful gift of tears that God allowed us to share.
My other unforgettable story was that of a little boy, no older than 8, who, having the option of sitting on a comfy chair in front of me or going into “the dark side” the old-fashioned way chose the latter. So frightened, so ashamed of the absolute gravity of his sin, as if unforgivable, he hemmed and hawed, the kneeler squeaking as he shifted and shook, until finally he laid it on me. He had done the unthinkable. He had said “Alleluia” during Lent!!! “So, there it is, Father Mike.” Now i was GLAD that he’d chosen the dark side, so he couldn’t see me fighting back a laugh…as i did try and try to think how such a thought could have taken over such a sweet and sensitive soul??? He had one more thing to say, and it burst out of him like the ANGST of ALL HUMANITY. i often wonder if it was the source of my present tinnitus, as he SCREAMED in my ear, “Do you THINK God can ever forgive me?”
It is our ancient custom to make Lent a time of sorrow for sin, a time to focus on our weaknesses and faults and endless need for God (and so to refrain from that word til its crescendo on Easter.) Yes, but our ponderings and penance should never be without the GREATER SENSE, the deeper knowledge, that God is and has always been there – to hold us and lift us up NO MATTER WHAT. Lent is most of all a Season of Joy, the Joy of realizing that nothing we can ever do can make God stop loving us. The word “LENT” means, in fact, “SPRING,” and what in the world is happier than that? after a long cold gloomy winter. Down the hill from my home in Beacon, New York, the church bells of Beacon First Presbyterian ring at certain hours of the day. The hymns are already set, by computer, and they are indiscriminate of season. How Sweet It Is to hear – yes, throughout the Lenten period, this reminder that the Battle is Already WON: “Jesus Christ is Risen Today, Alleluia!”
i tried to tell this to the boy – and how he should whisper alleluias all the time, maybe even SHOUT A FEW FROM HIS ROOFTOP, yes even during Lent. i don’t recall just how i put it to him. i only remember that when he got up from the dark side and opened the door, he suddenly opened mine, came into the Light Side and gave me a hug i shall never forget. Sins i forget (and his wasn’t one), but MERCY NEVER!