Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pentecost in the Year of the Priest

Spirit of Truth, Wisdom, and Understanding

Colonel Lovelace wrote a poem called "To Althea from Prison".  Its final verse is as follows:
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty. 
 I thought of this poem as I read the words of Father Gordon MacRae on his blog These Stone Walls.  It is a type of tragedy that Father MacRae sits in prison for crimes that he undoubtedly did not commit, as the true evidence indicates, and as I hope will one day get a chance to see the light of day.  

It remains a tragedy that children were in fact sexually abused by priests and religious, even if it is in smaller proportions than in the general population.  We should be able to expect a higher calling from those we are taught to trust as alter Christi.  Scapegoating a priest who could not have been where he was claimed to be when he was claimed to be there is unlikely to have a salutary effect.

Yet, Father MacRae has found a ministry and it is a blessing that he is able to write from prison, though it is no easy task for him.  I have copied his entire posting with links for you to read here, though I urge you to go to his own blog and read more about his situation, and his ministering in spite of his incarceration.
As the Year of the Priest comes to a close, Pentecost recalls a time when all divisions ceased, and the hearts of believers were laid bare.

These Stone Walls has some newer readers who might not know that I have never actually even seen my own blog. For the uninitiated, prisoners here have no computer access at all. I type my weekly posts on an old Smith-Corona typewriter while sitting on a five-gallon plastic bucket in a prison cell in Concord, New Hampshire. I don’t even have any “white-out” to correct my mistakes – and yes, I do make some!

I don’t think there’s another blog in existence that has the same challenges we face to publish. I wrote awhile back “To the Readers of These Stone Walls” that I snail-mail my typed posts to Charlene in Indianapolis. She scans and e-mails them to Suzanne in Australia who posts them on TSW each Wednesday. Comments are then read to me by telephone or printed and mailed to me which is why I usually can’t respond right away.

It’s a lot to go to go through for a weekly post, and sometimes I sit on my bucket – ummm, the plastic one – wondering what to write. There’s a lot that goes on in prison day to day that would sound bleak and dismal to most of you. I try not to write too much about prison life, but there is a side of it you have seen on TSW, and it’s a hopeful side.

Amid the chaos and calamity of broken lives and criminal dispositions are some real moments of grace. You read of some of those moments in posts like “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden,” and “Fifty-Seven Times Around the Sun.” My post a few weeks ago, “In Honor of Saint Maximilian Kolbe,” described a conversion that seems miraculous – a sort of prelude to Pentecost.

A prisoner asked me this week why Catholic feast days like Easter and Pentecost are on different dates each year. I let him read a printed copy of my post, “February Tales” which explained how many of the Church’s feasts are linked to Jewish feasts which were tied to life in an agrarian culture. Sowing and reaping are central terms in both the Torah and the Gospel.

The prisoner was surprised to learn that since the Council of Nicea in 325 AD – the source of the Nicean Creed which we pray at Mass – the date of Easter has been calculated to fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. I explained that the term “equinox” means “equal night” in Latin, and is one of two times in the year when the Sun crosses the celestial equator marking spring (sowing) and fall (reaping). I demonstrated it with a racquetball.

“Wow,” the prisoner said; “I thought Easter was just forty days after Ash Wednesday.” I explained that Ash Wednesday is then calculated by counting backwards forty days, excluding Sundays, from the date of Easter. The Orthodox Churches of the East celebrate a different date for Easter, but only because they use the Julian Calendar instead of the Gregorian Calendar, and it presents a different date for the vernal equinox.
Pentecost – meaning “fifty days” – is fifty days forward from Easter. Thus the period from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost is three full moons. The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar tied to the cycles of the Moon which is understood as a symbol of both nature’s renewal and Israel’s redemption. Catholics inherited the Moon’s influence on our feasts from our spiritual ancestors, the Jews.

The Jewish Pentecost is fifty days after Passover, and is also known as Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. It’s one of three “pilgrimage” festivals described in Deuteronomy 16:16. They are the Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, the Feast of Booths which is the Jewish festival marking the harvest of wheat. Sukkot was the setting for the Gospel account of the Transfiguration of Christ (e.g., see Mark 9:2-13).

Shavuot, fifty days after Passover, originally marked the end of barley season and the beginning of wheat season. The first-fruits of barley were brought to Jerusalem to be offered as described in Deuteronomy 26:1-11. In Rabbinic times, Pentecost also marked the date of the Sinai Covenant, the Torah given to Moses at Mount Sinai in Deuteronomy 5:6-27.


This coming Sunday, the Church celebrates Pentecost which in the Christian tradition is fifty days after Easter. It is very much linked to the Jewish festival of Shavuot which was the reason the Apostles were in Jerusalem. In Acts of the Apostles, (Chapter two) the city was filled with pilgrims speaking multiple languages when:
“suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, 
and it filled the house where [the Apostles] were sitting. There appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit …”  (Acts 2:2-4)
It was here that the Church began because “men of every race and tongue, of every people and nation” could at that very moment understand one another and understand the witness of the Apostles. For that moment in human history, God made His Spirit known, and all divisions ceased.

It was a year ago this week that Suzanne Sadler first asked me to write a guest post at Pentecost for her blog, Priests in Crisis. Up to that point, I had no idea of a blog’s potential. They didn’t exist when I came to prison nearly sixteen years ago. I read about them, and heard them mentioned on the news, but I had no idea how blogs worked.

I remember sitting in my cell last May, knowing that I made a commitment with a deadline, but I had no idea what to write.  I thought of my first night in prison, of that maddening, foot stomping chant that went on for hours.  So I wrote “Kill the Priest,” my first venture into cyberspace.  As I typed “Kill the Priest“, I also relived the experience of hearing that chant. I wondered then how I would ever survive in such a hostile, alien place.

It’s an awful thing to go to prison. It’s an awful thing to go to prison for something claimed to have happened a long, long time ago. But to go to prison for something that never happened at all is a nightmare – an indescribable nightmare that has a beginning, a long middle, but no end in sight.

I wrote “Kill the Priest‘” in an hour and wondered if I would dare to send it. I had some misgivings about venturing into the public square. I’ve been there before, after all, and things got rough. I became a stranger and alien in my Church, a nightmare described in my Ash Wednesday post, “Forty Days and Forty Nights.” I was living what Father Richard John Neuhaus called “The Long Lent.” (see “Scandal Time“)

If you’ve read the TSW “About” page, and my January post, “First Things,” then you know TSW is dedicated to the memory of Cardinal Avery Dulles and Father Neuhaus who became my friends and frequent correspondents. Cardinal Dulles, especially, wanted me to write, but Father Neuhaus had misgivings at first.


I began corresponding with Father Neuhaus in late 1997 after reading a commentary by him entitled “Sin and Risk Aversion” (First Things, The Public Square, November 1997). Father Neuhaus responded to my first letter right away, and his response was chilling:
“Being accused and in prison – however unjustly – for the very same issues in the current debate makes you ineligible to comment publicly on them. I know that seems unfair, and it is, but the point of view of a priest in prison could be dismissed as self-serving.”
I responded to that letter, and Father Neuhaus decided to go ahead and published my response in the February, 1998 issue of First Things. My response was entitled “A Catholic Rush to Judgment,” and what follows is an excerpt:
“Fr. Neuhaus’ article presupposed that some would view the correspondence he has received as self-serving. Perhaps, at some level, it is. I stand to gain nothing, however, from writing of my experience in the justice system and the Church. I will not gain freedom. I will not be believed by most, and I will not regain respect, acceptance, trust, support, or even a letter or prison visit from my brother priests or diocesan authorities. The Corporal Works of Mercy should not, in any case, be exercised because an institution has been embarrassed into doing so. I know that anything I write leaves me open to further ridicule, judgment, and a presumption of guilt. Writing about this feels much more frightening to me than it does self-serving.”
There was a great blessing that came with the letter. Father Clarence Murphy, whose death was described in my post two weeks ago, came to see me and began a decade of friendship. But I was also attacked repeatedly by priests and prominent lay Catholics alike. I was in the role of the condemned, and there was much resistance to my stepping out of it.

So when Suzanne asked me to write last year, I didn’t embrace the chance to be heard again. I also had no idea at the time that “Kill the Priest” would lead to the creation of These Stone Walls. I could never have envisioned this, but here we are, and it’s a bit scary.

What makes TSW scary is this: I think most of you have concluded from reading my posts that there is a building effort to revisit my trial and criminal conviction. You might certainly be expecting this based on Ryan A. MacDonald’s recent essay published on TSW, “Should the Case Against Father Gordon MacRae be Reviewed?“  You can correctly infer from that essay that there is in fact a legal review underway and we are actively seeking resources to further it along.


The bottom line is this: If I remain silent and hide in the shadows of prison, I’m really just left alone. There’s no more foot-stomping and chanting from prisoners. None of them still want to kill me, and the few who still hate me hate me because I’m a Catholic priest, not because of anything I’m suspected to have done thirty years ago. The irony is, they would hate me a lot less if I abandoned the Church and priesthood. Some insist that I am a fool for my loyalty.
I have made a lot of mistakes in life that were foolish, but loyalty isn’t one of them. Still, it isn’t prisoners who are chanting for my demise these days. It is Catholics with an agenda who insist I must be prevented from stemming the tide that has raged against priests and the priesthood. “Keep the Faith – Change the Church” is a mantra that could reflect true Spirit-driven reform, but it doesn’t. It reflects an anti-clericalism that has driven the sex abuse scandal and driven many in the Church to deny basic due process to accused priests. It is driven by a spirit of division and disloyalty, and a disdain for magisterial authority.
Some of my detractors present themselves as devoted Catholics. Even as I write this, I received a letter from a prominent Catholic in the public square who has openly supported my effort for justice. Here’s part of the letter:
“This won’t surprise you, but I was recently contacted by a respectable Catholic of some stature seeking to turn me against you. I thanked him for his concerns but let it be known that I am persuaded by reason, logic and evidence.”
It troubles me that the writer has heard from this detractor while I have not. Yes, it is a fact that there is evidence that has emerged, and it is being carefully examined. Some of the evidence is shocking, but I won’t be goaded into revealing it prematurely and having it undermined or destroyed. One woman who was recently interviewed described being physically threatened with harm if she told the truth.

It is the oddest thing that if I was in fact guilty of abuse, and said so, I would be left in peace. But by insisting I am not guilty, I come under constant attack. What angers me – and I hope it also angers you – is that there are people out there who won’t wait for even the possibility of evidence of fraud in this case. They demand transparency from the Church while keeping their own motives hidden in shadow. They go to back doors, make phone calls in secret, erode support and suppress the truth. They manipulate information to keep a certain momentum going in the attack on priests because of their own agenda. And believe me, that agenda has no lofty motive.

My recent post, “Breaking News:  I Got Stoned with the Pope!” detailed a similar attempt to undermine support and dissuade anyone from digging deeper. What are people so afraid of?  As Ryan MacDonald asked, “Why is the effort to revisit this case such an affront?”

Pentecost does not reflect a spirit of division, of the erosion of trust, of character assassination by furtive conversations, secret phone calls, and stoning by innuendo.

A month after Pentecost, the Church will conclude the Year of the Priest. I assume you’ve all noticed that the attacks on priests and the priesthood have been relentless as this Church year comes to a close.

Pentecost reflects a time when all hearts and souls and motives became transparent, when all divisions ceased. The Church was called into being by the Spirit of Truth, of wisdom and Understanding, a Spirit of Justice. The Year of the Priest must not conclude with a betrayal of basic due process for priests.
“For the Spirit of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the divisions of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before Him, no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)

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