About 10 years ago, I saw a young priest I knew at an out-of-town graduation party. I asked him how everything was going and he answered, “Terrible!” When I asked why, he said, “The people in my parish hate me.” I started laughing. I thought he was kidding. He was a good and holy priest, had a good sense of humor, and liked to joke around.
I replied, “What are you talking about? Nobody hates you.” He responded, “I’m serious. The people in my parish hate me.” He then explained that after he was transferred to a small parish of about 300 families, he gave some homilies on marriage, divorce, and contraception. He said that after the homily on contraception, “all hell broke loose.” Several of the parishioners wrote to his bishop and complained about him. Then they started stirring up trouble with the other parishioners.
I reactively responded, “You should be honored that they’re treating you that way. You’re being treated the same way our Lord was treated. He warned his apostles that they would be hated because of Him. You really should be grateful that God has allowed this to happen to you. You’re going through some of the same experiences our Lord Himself went through.”
He didn’t agree with me. He was young and inexperienced. He had never learned how to handle criticism and rejection. He told me that he was going to ask his bishop to release him so he could become a Catholic chaplain in the military. I tried to convince him not to “bail out” on his parish. My main point was that God was allowing this to happen to him to make him a better priest. He didn’t agree with me and later received the permission he needed to leave his diocese so he could become a military chaplain.
During the summer of 1994, I received a call at my office from a different young priest that I knew who was dealing with a minor rebellion among some of the parishioners in his small parish. He told me that one particular female parishioner who didn’t like him had started a rumor that he was homosexual. He said that he approached her and told her that he was not homosexual and asked her to stop spreading rumors. She responded by telling him that she wanted him removed from the parish and was going to say whatever was necessary to accomplish that purpose.
I asked the priest what he wanted me to do and he told me that he wanted to file a lawsuit against the woman for defamation of character (slander). After discussing the matter with him, I sent a letter to the woman demanding that she apologize, in writing, by a certain date or a lawsuit would be filed against her. Two days after I mailed the letter, the priest called and told me that the woman and her husband had hand-delivered a written letter of apology to him. The woman also verbally apologized and promised she would tell the other women she had talked to that she lied to them about the priest. (In hindsight, I probably should have told him that he needed to check with his bishop before I sent the letter, but I didn’t think about that at the time.)
One night over 20 years ago, after I arrived home from work, Georgette told me that Mary Ann Heinz had called to talk to her. Both of us knew Mary Ann. She was the instructor who taught us Natural Family Planning (NFP). We signed up for NFP after our third child (Maria) was born. A few hours after Maria’s birth, Georgette had a seizure and stopped breathing. By the grace of God, there was a nurse in the room who pushed the “Code Blue” alert button. Within a couple of minutes, there were two doctors and several nurses who were working on Georgette. Fortunately for the both of us (and our children), they were able to get Georgette breathing again.
It turned out that Georgette had a condition called pre-eclampsia, which caused her body to completely shut down on her. Later during some of her follow-up appointments, we were told by a couple of different doctors that it would be too risky for Georgette to have any more children. We were told that she should avoid getting pregnant in the future.
In addition to the doctors’ advice, Georgette had her hands full with our 3 young children so we decided to get serious about NFP. At that time, there was one person in the Peoria Diocese who was teaching NFP. That person was Mary Ann Heinz, a devout Catholic who wanted to make sure Catholic couples who were committed to the teachings of the Church had a way of learning about NFP.
When Mary Ann called Georgette, it had been a few years since we had seen or talked to her. She told Georgette that the Diocese of Peoria was putting together a day-long workshop for engaged couples. The workshop was going to be mandatory and consist of presentations about the nature of human sexuality and its proper use in the context of Christian marriage. The workshop was also going to include an introduction to the modern methods of Natural Family Planning.
Mary Ann was in charge of finding couples who were willing to become certified to teach NFP and then volunteer to: (1) help out with the one-day workshops; and (2) teach local couples who signed up for classes on how to practice NFP.
When Georgette told me about her conversation with Mary Ann, I made it clear to her there was no way I was going to agree to go through training and volunteer to teach and help out with the workshops. I was already overwhelmed with my law practice and my young family. I didn’t have the time or the desire to participate in the program. Georgette disagreed with me and felt that as devout Catholics we had an obligation to share our knowledge and experience with other Catholic couples. It took her several weeks, but she eventually talked me into agreeing to participate in the program.
When we showed up for our first workshop, it was as though we walked into a den of lions. The environment was hostile and antagonistic. There were over 50 couples in the room and the majority of the couples consisted of a Catholic and a non-Catholic. According to the forms they filled out prior to the workshop, several of them were already living together.
The morning session consisted of presentations concerning the theology and nature of human sexuality. The afternoon session included a presentation on the basics of NFP and witness talks by young couples who gave their personal testimony as to how they benefited from NFP. Georgette and I were scheduled to give the afternoon presentation on the basics of NFP.
Although the majority of the couples in attendance were courteous and attentive, there were about 5 or 6 individuals who were unruly and disruptive. During our presentation, three of the men in the room laid their heads on the table and appeared to be sleeping. A girlfriend of one of the men elbowed him to get him to wake up and pay attention. He became combative and they started arguing. They were not loud, but their actions were disruptive to me and Georgette, and the people who were sitting around them.
At the end of the workshop, the couples were asked to complete a survey of all of the presenters. Most of the surveys had negative comments about one or more of the presentations, something I expected because the couples were being “forced” by the diocese to attend the workshop; however, there were several surveys that had comments that were nasty and demeaning, which was a clear indication of the anger and resentment some of the attendees had toward the Catholic Church and its teachings.
There was nothing we could have said or done to satisfy the individuals who came to the workshop with their own preconceived notions about the Church. They were the troublemakers in the group who weren’t going to suffer silently. They were intent on making their views known. They were going to make others pay for their discomfort. They were what I refer to as the “wolves at the door.” They were angry, mean, and vicious and were anxious to bite into and tear-off the flesh of their perceived adversaries in the Catholic Church.
The two priests I told you about earlier learned the hard way about the destructive power of the wolves at the door – wolves that lie in wait at the doors of every church ready to pounce on any priest who dares to tell them that they are committing a grave sin by practicing contraception. The wolves know they have the power to banish a priest to some rural parish if he “acts up” or “behaves inappropriately.” These wolves can be found in every Catholic parish and make up only about 5 percent of the parishioners. They’re bold, vicious, and powerful. In a parish of 300 families, 5 percent is 15 individuals. In a parish of 1,000 families, 5 percent is 50 individuals.
Can you imagine a bishop receiving 50 calls and/or letters from parishioners complaining about their newly assigned priest? The calls and letters are only the beginning. The wolves know they have the power to severely harm (or even destroy) a priest by spreading rumors. They also know they have the ability to harm the parish by withholding their weekly contributions and convincing others to do the same.
There are devout Catholics who are upset and complain about the fact that our priests don’t talk enough (or at all) about contraception. What do you think? Should a priest subject himself to the wolves at the door by talking about contraception, or should he avoid irritating them? My answer is “yes and no.” I’ll explain it to you next week.