A priest who’s too busy to focus on the sacraments is either a priest who’s squandering his vocation, or a priest whose vocation is being squandered.
I’ve been interviewing pastors around the state for Parable, the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester, for a series called “Have You Ever Thought of Being a Priest?” This article was originally published in Parable. It is reprinted here in extended form.
Fr. Alan Tremblay grew up in the small, heavily French Canadian town of Biddeford, ME, the third of four children. His family was Catholic, but no one ever talked to him about becoming a priest, and so he never even considered it until he was 19 or 20 years old. Now at 41, six years after his ordination, he’s the pastor of the Parish of the Holy Spirit and Mary, Queen of Peace, which includes churches in Keene, Troy, Winchester, and Hinsdale.
In his rare free time, Fr. Alan likes to take in a baseball game, or, true to his rural upbringing, he will occasionally go hiking, kayaking or skiing. He recently travelled to Northern Quebec to go fly fishing for brook trout with his father and nephew, and he loves to have dinner or a cookout with family or friends. I asked him:
What would be your ideal meal?
I love lamb and lobster. Lamb is definitely a favorite when it’s done well. I cook. I do Blue Apron. I just finished cooking and eating chicken tandoori with cucumber yogurt, with potatoes with poblano peppers.
Who was your hero, when you were growing up?
John Paul II and Mother Teresa were huge in my life when they were alive. I had comic books of both of them. I miss them. I look back with fondness and wish they were still around.
What attracted you to them?
It was their visibility. You could see them, hear them, watch them, get a sense of their holiness. That’s why I fell in love with them. It’s not more deep than that.
When did you first hear the call to become a priest? How did you get from there to here?
I was 19 or 20, and had never thought about it before then. I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 18. I struggled through high school, not academically but motivationally. I didn’t want to be there. I was kind of shy, and wanted to get out. College was not something hot on my list right after high school.
I moved in with my best friend, and that lifestyle was leaving me not just unsatisfied, but kind of unhappy. I never questioned the Church, but I was not as faithful as I wanted to be. This contributed to depression and unhappiness and unease with my place in life.
I was watching Mother Angelica one night, and she was talking about how I was feeling. She said, “It sound like you have to go to confession!” So I made an appointment with the parish priest. He was talking about the Life In the Spirit seminar. I had never heard of it. It was charismatic, which took some getting used to. But I was open to it. I went through the seminar, and by the end I kept hearing this question in my mind and heart: “Do you think you’re supposed to be a priest?”
It wasn’t earth-shattering; it was just a question, like Elijah and the whisper. I put it away for a while. I went to college, was in a relationship for a while. I started working, and found myself working at Catholic Medical Center [in Manchester, NH]. By then it was seven years later, and the question was still there.
I was loving my faith and practicing, wanting to serve God. The question was stronger than ever, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I applied in April, went to seminary in August. Doors flew open once I turned and looked at it seriously.
How did people respond when you told them you were entering the seminary?
It’s a funny story: I hid it from my coworkers. I was relatively new there, and it would have meant leaving. I went through months without knowing if was accepted [to the seminary] yet. Everyone thought I was looking for a new job or had an illness, because I kept missing work to do interviews.
Then there was a computer glitch to print out my bio for the diocese, and I came back to work, and it had printed while I was away. My coworkers read it and found out. They were floored. It was foreign to them, but they were supportive.
How about your family?
My mother’s old school French Canadian. She would never have asked that of God. She couldn’t imagine something like that happening. It was overwhelming in a good way.
Did anyone respond negatively?
Only a couple of people, both Catholic, both dissenters. One was a woman I worked with who had a crush on me. She said, “What a waste.” That made me angry. The other one was an older woman who had a chip on her shoulder. She said, “Why would you want to do that?” This was post-2005.
What was the most challenging thing you faced as a priest?
Probably something that isn’t unique to the priesthood: Self doubt and insecurity. Am I up to the task? What will people think? These are temptations you have to face. There’s strength and grace that comes through walking through that. Each time, it’s like the cross, and then there’s a resurrection, life after death. It gives me strength to pray through those interior places, when I have to look to God for help.
What is the most rewarding? What’s your favorite part of being a priest?
When someone who has been hungry or longed for something for a long time breaks open and you’re there to offer that to them, or walk with them through it. People melting, and finally receiving. It’s always happening in one form or another. You walk through it with lots of people, counsel them, direct them. I’m always walking with someone, always looking for it.
When’s the last time something about the priesthood really surprised you?
Every day. People are predictable and surprising at the same time. About my priesthood: I’m noting, especially within the last couple of years, losing myself in it more and more, and finding myself. It’s so who I am, but there’s still so much to discover. It’s a mystery. The closer we get to Christ, the greater the awareness of that mystery.
What advice do you have for those contemplating the priesthood today?
Talk to people about it. Find someone you trust, and talk about it. Because it seems so strange and foreign, we don’t necessarily see ourselves that way. There’s the obvious answers, like prayer, but I think I went through it alone a lot; and no on in my life, no priest, no family member, no one ever approached me and told me they thought I should do this. It wasn’t until I came forward.
What advice do you have for their family and friends?
It’s about being supportive without expectations. Let the person figure it out on their own, but let them know you’re there with them.
This article was originally published in Parable, the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester. It is reprinted here in extended form.
Let’s just let women be priests.
Right? These damn men can’t keep their hands to themselves, whether they’re straight or gay or pedophiles or ephebophiles or married or allegedly celibate, so the hell with them. Let’s just let women have some power for once, and put a screeching halt to all the abuse, all the lies, all the cover-ups.
I keep hearing this argument, and now I’m going to respond.
First, one more time, with feeling: female Catholic priests are an ontological impossibility, and the Church could not ordain women even if it wanted to, any more than it could ordain butterfly as dragonflies. We like butterflies. But they are not dragonflies, and dragonflies are not butterflies. So it’s not going to happen. The Church is not going to start ordaining women priests.
But if somehow it were possible to do — or if, say, the pope decided to appoint women cardinals, which is theoretically possible — would the presence and influence and oversight of women be the clean sweep we’re looking for? Just clean out all that nasty male sexual aggression, perversion, and abuse and replace it with clean, honest, feminine integrity?
I’ve asked myself this sincerely, and I keep coming back to two words: Dottie Sandusky.
Dottie Sandusky has been married to her husband Jerry for over 50 years, and she still stands by her man. She had no idea what was going on in the basement of her own home, in the shower, in the bedroom, in the locker room, in that marriage, in that man’s heart, for decade after decade after decade, as she shared a life with him. She could have blown the whistle any time, but she didn’t. She says she didn’t know.
But if she didn’t know, it’s because she dedicated her life to not knowing. And so have countless other women who’ve come into contact with countless Jerry Sanduskys, in sports, in education, in medicine, and in the Church. He couldn’t have done what he did if she wasn’t willing to do what she did, which was nothing.
We need to stop indulging in the kind of magical thinking that says, “Women just being women will fix everything.” Let’s look at a few non-magical facts:
Women do abuse. When women do have authority over people with less power, they do abuse them. Sexual abuse by women, whether against men, against other women, or against children, is far more widespread than most people realize. Men and boys are less likely than women and girls to report being sexually abused; and pop culture still halfway thinks it’s funny or kinky when, for instance, a female teacher has a sexual “relationship” with a male student. But it’s still statutory rape even when the adult is female, and it’s still predatory; and it does happen in the Church, when women do have power over vulnerable people.
Women are just as capable of cruelty and abuse as men. They are perhaps less inclined to use sex, specifically, as a weapon, but they do wield what weapons they have. If women were priests and bishops and cardinals and seminary rectors and had the respect, authority, and invulnerability that goes along with those roles, the kind of abuse might look different, but there’s no evidence to suggest there would be less abuse. If women had the power that bishops have, women would abuse that power, because women are human.
Rape and sexual abuse of children have nothing to do with sexual orientation or sexual gratification. The goal is not sex, the goal is power, control and to destroy another human being.
Hunger for power and control, and the desire to destroy. Those are not male desires; those are human desires.
But the second part of the answer is: Whoever the perpetrator is, abuse doesn’t flourish in a vacuum. The decades or centuries of abuse that we’re continuing to uncover today could never have happened without the silence and complicity of women.
There were women everywhere — everywhere –who knew what Larry Nasser was doing to all those girls. He could not have gotten away with his abuse for all those years without the complicity and silence of dozens or maybe hundreds of women who chose not to say anything, who put pressure on girls to doubt themselves and blame themselves for what happened to them.
You might say that women do report abuse, and are less likely to be believed, because they are women. Maybe? But there were also a good number of men blowing the whistle on abusive priests, and they went just as unheard. Meanwhile, the savagery with which women turn on other female whistleblowers is breathtaking. I have seen it myself.
Why do women allow abuse to happen? Same reasons as men do:
They can’t think beyond the false dichotomy of “likable person who does a lot of good” and “ravening monster.” Sometimes an abuser is both. Sometimes a man runs charities, helps people, is kind, and is a true friend and support to many . . . and also rapes people. This phenomenon is magnified a hundredfold if the abuser is a priest, and his accomplishments have some spiritual weight. The congregation can point to how he’s invigorated the parish, how well he understands scripture, how reverent his liturgy is, how stirring his sermons, how well the school is doing, how many babies he baptizes every year, and tell themselves, “If he were truly a bad man, would he be doing all these good and holy things?” We aren’t comfortable with acknowledging that the same person can do some very good things and also some very bad things. It disrupts our understanding of how well we know people and how well we can know ourselves, so we reject the possibility of contradictions, and instead opt for blind loyalty.
They know about it, but they blame the victim. For a variety of reasons, they don’t want to acknowledge that the abuser is an abuser, so they shift the blame to the victim. We saw this with Fr. Groschel; we saw this with . . . lord, you know where we saw it. Everywhere. My friend who was raped at gunpoint heard two women wondering what she had been wearing at the time. It makes us feel less vulnerable if we can figure out some way the victims brought it on themselves.
They know about it, but they keep quiet because they love the Church. They think it would hurt the Church if it went public even more than it hurts the victim to be abused. You know what I think about that.
And sometimes, they just don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to put their own jobs at stake. They don’t want to disrupt the familiar. They don’t want to interrupt the flow of goodies that come their way, so they learn to live with the status quo. They don’t want to threaten their own security, and so they tell themselves whatever they need to tell themselves. They slowly and steadily put more and more of their conscience to death, until they simply don’t care about other people.
When I first started to realize the depth of corruption in the Church, I told myself that I needed to be willing to follow the story wherever it goes. As a faithful Catholic female advocate for victims of sexual aggression, I cannot be content to give the easy answers. I want to say, “It’s the traddies’ fault!” or “It’s the fault of the sexual revolution!” or, most enticingly, “It’s men’s fault!” Those frigging men. Right?
But that doesn’t answer it. It’s just another red herring. It’s not the evil of maleness that is the problem. It’s the evilness of humanity. It’s the weakness and corruptibility of human nature. We don’t need more women on the inside. We need more clear-thinking, courageous women and men on the outside, willing and able to see clearly and speak loudly, and, most importantly, capable of bringing the guilty to justice.
Thrusting more women into existing power structures won’t disrupt anything. It’ll just give more women the opportunity to become complicit.
Tonight I’m mustering the courage to start reading through the comprehensive grand jury report on sexual abuse and its coverup by the Church in Pennsylvania. And I’m looking up my local bulletin online, trying to find out when Mass is tomorrow. It’s a holy day of obligation, and my family will be in the pew.
Since the first news stories came out, I’ve had my head in my hands. There is nothing else to do. I read about a boy who was so violently raped by a priest, his spine was injured. The victim’s pain was treated with opioids, he became addicted and then overdosed, and now he is dead. I don’t know if the priest is also dead. I don’t even know what to pray for. Mercy on us all.
Mercy on our priests, who must be feeling this atrocity so keenly.
To you parish priests: please, you must speak to your flock about what is happening. Don’t let another Mass go by without saying something. I am begging you. Some of the parishioners somehow don’t know what is going on, and they must know. And many of us have been following the news with dread, and we must know that you understand how nearly unbearable this is. We can’t stand the silence anymore.
We need to know that you are as struck with horror as we are. We need to know that you would be on our side if we were the ones calling the police. We need to know that you care for us more than you care about falling afoul of some toothless pastoral directive from above. We need someone to be with us in this free fall of horror.
I know there are children in the pews, and you don’t want to frighten them; and you don’t want to test the faith of anyone who’s on the brink. But in the pews are also Catholics who have been abused before, and once again, no one is speaking up for them. There are converts who gave up family and happiness to join the Church because they believed the promise of something new and beautiful. They haven’t left yet, but they’re not hearing any Catholic talk about how badly we’ve failed. There are lifelong faithful who feel sick, bewildered, duped, and lost, and we don’t know what to do with this anger and misery, and too many of our bishops are still, still minimizing, complaining, obfusticating, justifying. Or saying nothing at all, hoping that will make it all go away one more time, like it’s gone away so many times before.
I am begging you to say something. Find a way to let us know that you, at least, haven’t turned your back on the victims of the Church. Tell us you’re bringing all that suffering to the altar. We need to hear it.
Dear, faithful priests, we love you and we are praying for you. You’re the one who moves between us and Christ; and you’re also the one who must put himself between us and every one of those wretched thousands of your brother priests who treated the bodies of the faithful like so much kindling, to be tossed into the furnace, consumed, turned to ash, forgotten.
I am begging you to say something. It is a holy day of obligation, and we will be there, listening. You don’t have to have answers for us. Just say something, because the silence of the Church is too hard to bear.
When she went looking for help from the church, she was still susceptible to the idea that everything was her fault. One priest said it was a shame she was suffering, but all she could do was offer it up. Another told her she had a demon in her.
But a third priest listened to her story . . .
This is one of the most important pieces I’ve ever written, and I’m very grateful to the courageous and honest women who shared their stories with me.
Photo by George Hodan (Creative Commons)
Last week, a priest responded to the article “Five Rules for a Royal Bride” with a humble request: “I wish Catholics in the pews would write us new pastors and new ordained priests advices like these! Y’all help us to be men of God, men for others, and men that have joy in their lives! Send me your five advices before I become pastor . . .”
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.
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.
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.
Image: By Aravind Sivaraj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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.
Image by U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Ashley Tank via Mountain Home Air Force Base