For a few weeks I've been dragging my feet about writing an update for our donors. Joe has been asking me, over and over, to write what I have in mind so we could send out our summer newsletter, and I keep sitting to start it, and then I stop. Why? Well, normally I fashion my thoughts pretty completely in my head, I know what I want to say, and then I write the actual words when I come to the computer (or believe it or not, I still occasionally write in ink!). I could not understand what was stopping me this time. Why this hesitation...or more specifically, this procrastination?
I think I have it figured out. Sometimes, when we write things down they seem more real somehow. After all, there it is in black and white! I didn't want what I was considering to be real. It's that simple. If I didn't write this, then just maybe I could deny some things a bit longer. Well, finally, tonight I am biting the bullet, and, in truth, asking God's help to write this.
There is a story involved. Two stories, really. The first is closer to my heart because I've known the story and the
individuals involved for more than 20 years. I love them. It is a Good Tidings story for certain--and has the fleeting joys, the enduring hope, and love, and the pain that most of Good Tiding stories have. It is the story of two people who have become very dear to Joe and me and our daughter, and the priest is a man I came to think of as a brother over the many years.
I will call him Father Sean. Many years ago, 1988 or 89 I believe, Sean discovered Good Tidings through another priest whose lady-friend (now common-law wife of over 20 years) had been in touch with me. Sean told his lover, Pia, about Good Tidings, and she then contacted me directly. The normal initial exchanges via letters (postal letters long before e-mail), and lengthy telephone conversations began, and as it turned out they were only a few hours away from Joe and me, and they finally decided to come to talk with us in person. I remember being very impressed with Sean's giving our contact info to Pia, and his agreement to meet us here in our home and talk together which he knew would be a conversation about their personal relationship.
The day came, and they visited. I remember liking him immediately. He was very quiet, reserved. I saw him listening closely, evaluating us. He was nervous of course. Pia was more outgoing, and did most of the talking on "their" part. I remember they stayed here late into the evening, after sharing a dinner with us. That was to be repeated many, many times over the next 20+ years, creating dear memories full of laughter and friendship.
Pia was not happy. She and Sean clearly cared deeply for each other. They had known one another for many years--long before he was ordained. Yet, she knew something was missing in what they shared. They both met others in Good Tidings here at our house on weekends when we hosted those "marathon open-house" gatherings and women traveled from as far as California throughout the East coast to meet one another here and talk, and support one another. Sean and Pia never stayed for the weekend, but participated in our days and evenings with the others. Many of the women became friends, and some with really serious issues (such as needing child support from a priest) helped one another from their experiences in the courts around the country combatting religious orders or diocesan legal hot shots hired to humiliate and beat a woman down. Sean and Pia were not in that situation. They were often both angry about the women being treated this way, and the beautiful infants or older children denied their rights.
Sean and Pia were not content, however. Both knew the other suffered within this relationship, this long-term friendship that turned into a love affair. I remember having little to no patience with Sean's remaining in the relationship knowing Pia hoped for marriage. After all, being here among our friends also meant meeting other women who actually married priests, after those priests left canonical
ministry. Pia hoped for marriage, hoped Sean would eventually have the "courage" to leave and marry her. Sean and Pia lived their individual lives as far as careers went, he a Roman Catholic priest "in good standing," pastor of one, then another, then two parishes simultaneously as more and more priests left to marry. Then when the work day was done, they retired to their homes. They shared their nightly phone calls, their days off, holidays and vacations. As the years passed, they both settled into a lifestyle where those looking in from the outside would see them individually living their public lives, or, if one was “an insider,” see a married couple, with him being the "adopted father" to Pia's children from her first marriage, and later being the "adopted Pop-Pop" to the grandchildren that eventually filled their lives. Only once was Sean reprimanded and "punished" for being reported by a parishioner to the bishop for having Pia around. The bishop transferred him a few minutes farther away and told him to be more careful. Sean, after all, was a treasure to keep--both to the bishop and to Pia! How many Seans were left, young and healthy enough to carry the ecclesiastical workload he was carrying? One needs to treat such a treasure well, carefully. There are bishops who realize what is going on, and they know without the Seans among them there will be far fewer pastors.
Sean and Pia were here often. We had great times together, because what happened with them is the "Good Tidings" reason for visiting us faded away as we became friends and we realized this was how it was always going to be. Many visits, holidays, summers, snowy day visits... So much laughter. I remember one visit when Sean and I were talking privately. He told me then and there why he would not leave and marry Pia. He said "I see how you and Joe live, how you struggle financially, and live hand-to-mouth. I could never live with that worry. I can't risk it..." He said much more, but that hit me hard. There before me was a man who was split in half. He wanted to marry. He also truly wanted to be a priest. He was the rope in the game of "tug-of-war" and he was stretching more and more to survive spiritually and emotionally. He wanted a normal life with a wife, but as a priest--without the financial insecurity we often had. In fact, his parishioners loved him--except that one who was the watchdog and went to the bishop. Sean was always more careful after that--he was clearly NOT going to be forced into a situation of having to choose between Pia and the priesthood, not ever.
I also remember the exact day Pia and I talked when it all finally had become very clear to her that Sean was NEVER going to marry her. We were in my kitchen talking as we prepared a meal together. I saw it in her face. She changed overnight. She became more distant emotionally, even with us. Oh, we all remained friends, yet I could sense her broken heart. But she was a
survivor, and she was NOT going to let this reality break her. She'd invested many years into the life she built with Sean, even though it was a life of semi-hiding. She was going to "settle" and make the best of it. She did. Yet we could hear in her tone of voice, and, in her words themselves--an emotional backing off, self-defense building so she wouldn't feel this "rejection", this choice of priesthood over her as keenly as she felt it when it all first became clear to her.
Personally, I still don't know what to think. I get angry at Sean, and all the Seans out there doing this, yet I've also come to recognize that there are more Seans out there than I ever thought originally when we began Good Tidings. There are also more Pias because fewer women are complaining! More are settling. I don't think this is a healthy or honest thing. There is a reality within the priesthood I never wanted to recognize, and that is that celibacy is observed in the breech, as they say, not only in Africa and South America, but here as well. Richard Sipe tells us clearly about it... Sean and so many others tell us themselves.
The day I was ordained Sean was there. He and Pia were like family after so many years. My old mother loved him and treated him like a son, and he treated her like a mother and eventually called her "Mom" when he visited. Sean was there to support me in my ordination to priesthood, and when I returned home from the Church and the reception we had, there was Sean in our living room with a huge box in the middle of the floor. It could have held a washing machine! He smiled broadly and pushed it toward me, and I opened it. It was filled with vestments of every liturgical color, prayer books, and Celtic music! My first vestments given to me by my "adopted" brother, a Roman Catholic priest, who could not risk living the life Joe and I lived--beyond the pale. He always made me wonder.
Over the past couple of years our visits became more seldom. Sean developed cancer, that hated disease. Unable to care for himself, he moved into Pia’s home. Pia, although truly feeling the sense of loss in her life, in their shared life, cared for him, she and her family cared for him. His parish knew. His bishop knew. Sure didn't the world know by now? Pia was his faithful friend--right to the last breath. Pia, the unrecognized widow! Pia, the angry. Pia the broken-hearted. Yet, as I told her when we talked a few days after Sean died, true love lasts beyond the feelings, the butterflies, the physical intimacies, and even life itself. Pia the loving! She gave Sean what no other human gave him--fidelity to the end of his life.
Yeah, I know all the "abuse" issues this raises. I also know the difference between an abuser and a frightened human. I'm a victim of abuse, and I can smell it from a distance. I had the distinct honor of knowing Sean, and coming to love him as a friend, and yes, feeling it as a sister to a brother. When my own brothers both died young, I kind of felt I still had a brother in Sean... I know Sean did not have an intentionally abusive bone in his body. I know he was truly afraid of life outside of what he knew and loved in the priesthood. He was afraid of insecurity.
Life just isn't as black and white as some might want this story to be. The real culprit is something else...it's this mandatory celibacy thing. This monster that entraps so many who are afraid to risk breaking free of it. So they make believe. It can be mandated, but it simply is not enforceable! Some freely opt to live it, some make believe they live it, and some just don't even think another thought about it and do what they want. It is not enforceable.
Truth is, the only security we all have in life is in God, and in our Faith in God--in that will to love and live only for love. Money doesn't make us secure, it only pays bills. Love is what fulfills us as creatures. Sean tried to cling to that...while fearing the loss of his lifestyle.
I will miss Sean. I already do. I pray for his peace in Christ's love, in God's infinite Love. Oh, and I pray for Pia, who now lives with all this in her heart, alone. She will throw herself more and more into her family and grandchildren, and God will ease her heart with their love. One day Sean will come and meet her again, and they will finally live happily ever after.
And, now I am crying because this really is a sad story. See, I knew writing it in black and white would make it more real! The second story will have to wait for another time.
Love here and now--while you can. Don't wait. Don't hesitate.
God bless you.
PS Today, as I was re-reading this story an e-mail came in to me from “Pia.” I asked her if I might share it with this story… Here are her words:
It is nice to hear from you. I understand your feelings about not wanting to make it real. It is hard for me to at times comprehend that [Sean] is dead. For so many years till he came to stay, I would only see him on Sunday afternoon and Monday after work. At times when the phone rings around 9:00pm or so my automatic thought is it is [Sean] calling, as he did for 20 years, to say good night. I think I can understand that [Sean’s] peace is somehow tied to me, I hope at some point in time I can come to a place of peace with all that has transpired over the years. Another friend of ours called a local psychic and inquired about [Sean]. He told her that he is around and if you smell flowers he is near. That is funny as the night or so after he died I woke up to an overpowering scent of lilacs (trees he bought me and were planted in the yard). I thought it had something to do with my mother. Weird. He also told her that it would take me 13 months or so to get past this and find some sort of end. I don't know what I feel exactly, I know anger but not directed all at [Sean] although there is I think a healthy portion for him. And at times an overwhelming sense of sadness, and disbelief that it ended this way, although not surprised.
Towards the last he had said he wanted to tell his family about the situation but I did not want him to, I felt it had been kept locked away for so long that there was little sense in going public with it at this late date. He died and was buried as a priest, with all due from the church and that is how he wanted it. I don't know where else to go with that. Again anger, I think as I have to pretend to all that he was just a good friend, which of course was the truth but there was more.
So that’s what I think I struggle with, and I hope that standing by [Sean] and taking care of him till the end was enough for him and for me. I so miss him.