RIP Fr. Stan Piwowar, a priest forever

After 57 years as a priest, Fr. Stan Piwowar has died. He was 92 years old.

He confirmed me, officiated at our wedding, baptized two of our children, and served his parish and his savior faithfully, day in and day out, as the pastor of St. Joseph’s parish in Claremont, NH from 1965 to 2008.

I never met someone who cared less what people thought of him. In the summer (before he had air conditioning installed installed) he could celebrate Mass wearing his lightest vestments and a white terrycloth sweatband around his head.

You have to imagine a short, stout, Hobbit-like man, with bowed legs, thick glasses, and fantastically bushy eyebrows, with a permanent, benevolent smile on his lips and in his eyes. So every June or so, he would come stumping out of the sacristy with this terrycloth sweatband on his bald head.

“I’m not trying to look mod,” he would carefully explain every year. He just didn’t want the sweat from his head to get in his eyes. Then he would make the sign of the cross, and then we would know summer had officially started.

He had other quirks, acquired over decades and decades of saying the same things over and over again. The “Hail Mary” always came out “Blessed art thou th’amongst women,” for some reason; and the phrase “And now, my dear friends, we’re on page [whatever number]” made its way into the Mass so often, it felt like an established part of the liturgy. He wanted to make sure no one got left behind, so he always told his dear friends what page to go to.

He used to wink and wave and nod and grin at babies and children who made noise during the Mass. He could be reading the most bloody, heart-wrenching passage from Job or Jeremiah, and it was still time for a mid-sentence wink and a little wave from the pulpit.

As fairly new Catholics, my family was a tiny bit scandalized by this jolly informality. Surely he could wait until after Mass was over. Then we heard that, years ago, someone in his congregation had given a young mother a hard time about her fussy baby, and the woman left the church and didn’t come back. Fr. Stan then gave one of his almost unheard-of fire and brimstone sermons and charged his congregation never to let such a thing happen ever again. And to my knowledge, it never did.

If anything ever surprised him, he never showed it. I once turned up at the rectory in the middle of the night, hysterical with some teenage problem or other. I had been out walking in the dark, feeling worse and worse, and I found myself passing by the rose bushes that surrounded his front porch. There was a light on, so I pounded on the door and he let me in right away. Put me in a rocking chair, gave me some tissues, heard my confession, and gave me a “Footprints in the Sand” plaque.

And Tootsie Rolls. He handed them out to babies and grandmothers, mourners and wedding guests, in and out of season, through Lent, on the street, anywhere, any time. I used to think Fr. Stan got his Tootsie Rolls from the post office, where there was always a ready supply for customers. Turns out (or so I heard) that it was the other way around: They got their Tootsie Rolls from Father Stan. If someone told me that all the Tootsie Rolls in the world originally came from Fr. Stan, I’d believe it.

It was impossible to insult him. His parish was alway seemed to be running a financial surplus, because no one knew how to say no to him. He would hold annual appreciation banquets for volunteers. If you didn’t want to go, no problem; he’d present you with a gift certificate for a restaurant, so you could go have dinner on your own. And some more Tootsie Rolls.

It was impossible to correct him. He was so intensely loyal, and so intensely stubborn, as only a Pole can be, it was absolutely no use to tell him anything. Even the bishop left him alone, and he did what he liked. What he liked was serving the Church and serving Christ, but he did what he liked.

His sermons were usually basic catechesis. Sometimes, apparently suddenly realizing he had a captive audience, he would expand more than anyone was bargaining for. I remember one warm Sunday, he had already preached for about ten minutes, and then casually mentioned, “And now, my dear friends, we’ll just go through a brief synopsis of the Ten Commandments . . . ” And so he did, one by one. And we sat there, staring up at the dusty Polish crystal chandelier, squinting our eyes at heavily crowned statues and the faded mural of the death of St. Joseph, who, dying as he was, could see the light at the end of the tunnel, unlike us. But at least there would be Tootsie Rolls.

After Mass, he’d transition seamlessly into Benediction with Eucharistic adoration. He knew people would be less likely to slink away if he didn’t give them a chance, and he really wanted us to have a blessing, and so he’d say, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace AND NOW MY DEAR FRIENDS, we’ll have benediction, it’ll take only about five minutes!” and then he’d start briskly spooning incense into the censer.

He treated everyone exactly the same, with the same sincere geniality, the same implacable good will. It’s impossible to imagine him sucking up to anyone, talking down to anyone, trying to drive anyone away, or giving anyone special treatment.  He was utterly tireless, utterly reliable, always moving, always serving, always turning up where he was needed, nobody’s fool, always smiling and giving out blessings. And Tootsie Rolls.

Once, we accidentally called him “Uncle Stan.” But he was a Father to the core.

There was a banner on the wall in the sanctuary of St. Joseph’s. When I was little, I craned my neck to read it, wondering why it was hung in such an awkward spot. Finally I realized it wasn’t for the congregation: It was for the priest to see, as he made his way to the altar. It said, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

God rest the soul of Fr. Stan, a good and faithful servant, a happy man, a priest forever.

When is parish shopping fair game?

There’s such a thing as deciding to get over yourself, and remembering that the Mass is not about you. But we can also understand our own limitations, and work with them. You could make the case that it’s all right to leave one parish and find one that suits you better, even if you don’t have impressionable children.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

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Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

On fly ashes and flexibility

The Church doesn’t say, “Oh, well, no one should have to swallow a bug, so let’s just say that, if there’s a fly in there, it’s not really Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity. Do what you like.” No. But neither does she say, “If you really, truly believe in the sacrament, then you have no other choice. Down the hatch, or you’re out.” She makes allowances for our humanity without denying Christ’s divinity. She is, in short, incarnational all the way down.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

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Image:  By Aravind Sivaraj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We want more priests. Have we tried asking?

The one thing all these priests had in common: Someone had made the idea of being a priest seem reasonable. Someone had said, “Have you ever considered being a priest?” or “Wow, you sure look like you want to be a priest!” or “Face it. You’re gonna be a priest.” Someone had asked the question.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

Image by U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Ashley Tank via Mountain Home Air Force Base

Dear priests: This is how to survive mother’s day

Dear Father,

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve said, “Quit telling priests what to do.” You guys are super busy and already working harder than anyone could reasonably expect.

But today I’ll give one of those imaginary dollars back, because today I’m going to tell you what to do this Sunday. Trust me, it’s for your own good.

This Sunday is, as you no doubt know, Mother’s Day, and a lot of your parishioners are going to expect you to acknowledge it. Also, a lot of your parishioners are going to be mad if you acknowledge it.

A good portion of your congregation feels that the world despises motherhood, and they look to the Church to be the one place where they are appreciated for their sacrifices and their hard work.

Another good portion of your congregation feels that the world only cares about women if they are mothers, and they look to the Church to be the one place where no one despises them for not being mothers.

Some of your parishioners are pregnant, and they’re miserable about it. Some of them desperately wish they were pregnant, and are working hard not to hate their fertile sisters. Some of them look pregnant, but are just fat, and if one more well-meaning priest blesses their unoccupied abdomens, they’re going to sock him in the jaw.

Some of them look pregnant, but they’re the only one who knows that the baby they’re carrying is already dead.

Some of your parishioners are the mothers of children who are already buried, or children whose bodies went straight into the hospital’s incinerator while their mothers wept and bled. Some of your parishioners paid to have their children put there.

Some of your parishioners have been wretched mothers, and they know it. Some of them have been excellent mothers of wretched children, and everyone assumes that wretchedness must be the mother’s fault.

Some of your parishioners hated their mothers. Some of them just lost their beloved mothers yesterday. Some of them never knew their mothers at all.

Some of your parishioners are excellent mothers who pour their heart, soul, mind, and strength into caring for their families, and as soon as they get home from Mass, everyone expects them to get right back to cooking and cleaning and making life easy for everyone else, the same as every other day.

And then, of course, you will have the people who are mad that you mentioned a secular holiday during Mass. And the people who remember how much better it was when Fr. Aloysius was in charge, oh yes, it was much better then. It’s a shame.

So, what’s your plan, Father? Gonna make all the mothers stand up and be acknowledged? You’ll be forcing a lot of women to make a statement they may not want to make. Gonna pass out carnations? Same problem. Gonna make us extend our hands over mothers in blessing? Well, you’re the priest, aren’t you. We would rather keep our hands to ourselves.

The real answer would be for Americans to just calm the hell down about motherhood, and not to expect the Church to cater to their every emotional need. But that’s not where we are right now. It’s a mess, and you’re right in the middle of it. Sorry! But I really do think you can thread the Mother’s Day needle without getting poked if you offer something like the following blessing before the end of Mass:

On this Mother’s Day in May, which is Mary’s month, we remember that our Blessed Mother was honored above every other human being besides Jesus Himself when she was asked by God to bear His Son. We ask God’s blessing on all women, because all women, no matter what their state in life, are specially privileged to bring Christ into the world. Mary is our model in joy and in suffering, in trust and in sorrow. We ask Mary to intercede for our earthly mothers and for all the women who cared for us, and we ask the Holy Spirit to increase our love so that we will always honor the women in our lives. We ask this through Christ Our Lord. 
Amen.

Then scoot out the side door before anyone can yell at you.
Amen.

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Photo of woman who is disappointed in you via Pixabay
This post originally ran at Aleteia in 2016.

6 sermons I could do without

I have endless tolerance for boring sermons, weird sermons, silly sermons, scary sermons, tiresome sermons, corny sermons, uninspired sermons, irrelevant sermons, rambling sermons, goofy sermons, and sermons that make me wonder which will come first, the end of the homily or sweet, sweet death.

But I don’t complain! Most of the time. I do, however, have a short list of things I could do without, which I offer out of sheer, self-giving generosity, as your respectful daughter in the Faith.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

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Image: By BPL (originally posted to Flickr as Preaching) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It was a beautiful confession

On Saturday, we went to confession. Mine was a pretty standard operation: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It has been two months since my last confession. I did that thing I always do, and that other thing I always do. I also did that other thing I always do, except more so than usual. And I stopped doing that thing I usually do, but then I started again.  And I was mean on the internet. For these and all my sins, I am truly sorry.”

And the priest said what this particular priest always says: “Thank you for that beautiful confession.” He says this when I have a long and sordid list, or a short and sordid list, or when he can barely understand me because my nose is running from the sordidness of it all. The point is, I am not aware of ever having made a confession that any normal human being would consider “beautiful.”

But the confessional is not a normal place. It’s the one place that no one would ever go for normal, worldly reasons. No penitent goes to confession to get ahead in life, or to make money, or to get a full belly, or to impress anyone; and no priest goes to confession to be amused or entertained. It’s where we go to unload our miseries, to show our wounds and our infections, to take off the disguises that make us appear palatable to each other.

So, not beautiful. No, not especially.

Or is it? If the ugliness, the squalor, the sordidness, and the running nose were all that happened inside a confessional, then it really would be an ugly place — just a latrine, a ditch, a sewer. But of course, the part where we lay out our sins is only the first part.

What happens afterward is more obviously beautiful. The priest reaches out and picks up the ugly little load you’ve laid in front of him. And right then and there, he pours the living water over it until the parts that are worth saving are healthy and whole again, and the parts that cannot be salvaged have been washed away entirely. What is useless is gone; what was dead is alive again.

This is beautiful!

And the beauty of absolution does one of those neat Catholic tricks where eternal things reach back in time and impart beauty wherever they want, regardless of chronology. The beauty of absolution makes the confession itself beautiful. Even though my sins are ugly, the very fact that I’m bringing them into the confessional has something beautiful in it: the beauty of trust that I will be forgiven; the beauty of believing that something real and life-changing will happen; the beauty of being willing to accept forgiveness even though I know that I don’t deserve it; and the beauty of knowing that, whoever’s turn it is to sit behind the screen, it is really Christ who is waiting to meet me.

If that isn’t beautiful, then nothing is.

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This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2014.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann Replaces Finn, Signalling Change in Missouri Diocese

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Finn may not have been aware of Ratigan’s actions, but he should have been. There is no excuse for a bishop to ignore even the hint of sexual abuse in the Church; and whether or not his critics have ulterior motives for wanting him gone, his resignation was necessary. Even Finn’s defenders must agree that the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is hurting badly, and Bishop Finn’s presence as leader was only prolonging the pain. He could not effectively lead the diocese, and the Vatican must make it clear that real change is afoot.

Read the rest at the Register.

Supreme Court will not hear confession confidentiality petition

confessional

By Ib Rasmussen (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Not good: U.S. Supreme Court will not hear Baton Rouge Catholic confession case.

Backstory: A young woman is going to testify in a civil suit against the Diocese of Baton Rouge. She says that, when she was a girl, she revealed during confession that a member of the parish (who has since died) was molesting her, and that the priest told her she should hush it up.

Every priest who hears something during confession is morally obligated not to reveal what he heard during that confession. So if this woman testifies that he told her not to speak about her abuse, he may neither confirm nor deny that she said what she claims she said, or that he responded the way she says he did; and he may go to jail for refusing to testify.

So the diocese asked the federal Supreme Court to consider their petition to prevent her from testifying about what was said during the confession, and to prevent the priest from being compelled to respond to her testimony. Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the diocese’s petition.

I previously didn’t understand why it was dangerous for the woman to be allowed to testify about her confession, because I erroneously believed that a penitent may release a confessor from the seal of confession. I thought that she would simply have to give her permission for him to testify, and that he would then be free to confirm or deny what she said in the confession; but this is not so:

Can.  983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.

If a penitent wishes to discuss something he or she revealed during confession, he or she must have the conversation again, restating the issue outside of the sacrament. That is the only way that a confessor may morally discuss the topic that was confessed: if he hears the information outside of the seal of confession.

The young woman is, of course, still free to have a second conversation with the priest, and the priest would then be free to testify about that second conversation; but what is at issue is what happened in the original conversation, years ago.

Please note that there is no reason to believe that the young woman is lying about what she told the priest or about what he told her. The diocese is not trying to impugn her reputation, and we should not assume that its goal is to protect a guilty priest. The point is that the seal of confession is there to protect both the priest and the penitent. If the seal of confession may be legally violated, it would prove disastrous both for priests and for penitents, who have both always understood that what they say in the confessional is known only to themselves and to God. Jen Fitz explains, with her usual clarity and concision, why the seal of confession is vital for the safety of both the priest and the penitent.

If the woman’s testimony is allowed, then priests will constantly be in danger of having to remain silent in the face of accusations against them. I could make up any dreadful story about what happened inside a confessional, and a priest would not be able to defend himself. They would have to choose between going to jail and endangering their own souls by betraying their vows.

A well-trained confessor can find a way to get help for someone who has been victimized. It is not necessary for anyone’s safety to destroy the long-standing legal respect for the seal of confession.

They keep telling me to look at the fruits of the Legion of Christ.

Well, the harvest keeps rolling in. Here’s the latest installment:

An Irish-born Chilean priest convicted of sexually abusing a minor while chaplain at a school in Santiago was sentenced to four years of probation Tuesday.

A court in the Chilean capital also banned the Rev. John O’Reilly from any job near children and ordered that his genetic data be added to a registry for abusers.

O’Reilly, who has denied any wrongdoing, was not present during the sentencing. Prosecutors had asked for a 10-year prison sentence.

The court found O’Reilly guilty last month, saying he abused a young girl while he was the spiritual guide at the Cumbres school in the affluent neighborhood of Las Condes.

Relatives had accused the priest of molesting two pre-teen girls between 2010 and 2012. The court absolved him in one case.

O’Reilly arrived in Chile in the mid-1980s and was granted Chilean citizenship in 2008.He is a member of the Legion of Christ, the once-respected conservative order that fell into scandal after it was revealed that its founder had fathered a child and had sexually abused seminarians.

Shut it down. Shut it down. Shut it down, salt the earth, give the victims of LC and RC support, and beg their forgiveness . And remember that the victims include not only the thousands who were sexually, emotionally, and spiritually abused, but also the good men and women who had the bad fortune to get their religious formation from Maciel’s fundamentally perverse and corrupt design. They are victims too, and should be given a way to escape the nightmare world that Maciel built when he designed the Legion specifically to facilitate predators like himself.

There is nothing that LC and RC did or can do that cannot be done by some other order. Shut. It. Down.