As Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan have repeatedly demonstrated, it’s hard to look your best in a mug shot. Even so, I could see from the photograph in the paper that the years hadn’t been kind to the man whom I had last seen decades ago in the seminary. Now an ordained priest and pastor, he had just been arrested for stealing money from his parish. Tons of it. Enough to support an extravagant “alter-life” in a fancy big-city apartment with designer suits for himself and Ivy League tuition for his boyfriend. I remember him from seminary as bright, quiet, prayerful, and older than the rest of us. He had made quite a career for himself in the business world and left it all to begin preparation for the priesthood. He seemed so settled and sure in his decisions that I envied his certainty and confidence.
The paper reported that he told the police he had grown to hate being a priest. He said he was annoyed by his diocese, angry at receiving what he believed were the worst assignments, where he was sent to fix problems that other priests had caused. Apparently, then, he felt justified in dipping into the parish collection plate to pay for various extravagances and gifts for his lover. It was owed to him, he said.
I can feel compassion for someone who is struggling with sexual issues or living through a crisis of vocation. I even understand how someone becomes angry and frustrated with the “system.” But what galls me, and what I cannot comprehend, is the betrayal of a parish community by the same person who freely agreed to care for it. The vocation of parish priesthood, after all, revolves around service. Stealing money from parishioners (or, for that matter, stealing a parish’s trust or the innocence of its children) is tantamount to cutting oneself off from the very oxygen a priest needs to live.
For me, the most chilling parts of the police report were the comments from the parishioners. They were stunned by the accusations against their humble pastor. He had a reputation as simple and soft-spoken. Yet as it turns out, he led two wholly different lives. Which, I wonder, became the real one?
This not entirely uncommon story offers a lesson to those of us involved with the day-to-day struggles and concerns of parish leadership. No, sometimes things aren’t fair and we find ourselves doing an awful lot of mopping up and rebuilding because of what others have done or failed to do. Yes, sometimes we have to figure out ways to work with alcoholic pastors, or music directors who play more Machiavelli than Mozart, or catechists who insist on teaching texts from historic Baltimore. Sometimes the labor is exhausting for all the wrong reasons. Often the angers are longer remembered than the joys. Rarely is the paycheck a true recompense. But the minute these woes start to bring on a case of self-pity or vengeful thinking, we have to stop and remember what attracted us to parish ministry or parish leadership in the first place.
The parish community provides such an exquisite canvas over which grace can splash. It is where theology comes alive, where the mysteries of birth and death and resurrection are regularly celebrated, where sacramental moments multiply as mysteriously as the bread and fishes. It is a place where a people are slowly being nourished into an earthly image of the Body of Christ. These are the treasures that no paycheck can equal, the satisfactions that far outweigh all the mops and buckets.
My seminary classmate forgot all this, fell out of love with all this, and then maybe tried to find it again at some other altar. I hope he remembers—I hope he knows—that grace is forever available.
Related: Bad Housekeeping, by the Editors