BEFORE BEGINNING THIS night’s writing I went and walked about the town, praying the Holy Rosary for all the sleeping workers, the sick in hospital, those in the county jail, night workers, children, passengers on the rushing night trains, people working night shifts everywhere, and especially for every priest on the face of the earth.
I walked the snow covered sidewalks, the dark alleys, deeply aware of every person, those saints unknown but to God, sinners likewise, children of the Father all, souls for whom Christ lavishly poured Himself out to the last drop, hearts to whom the Holy Spirit is seeking continually to be invited to pour Himself within, more, more, more!
The walk, the prayer, was deeply needed for I am about to write about the strangest period of my life.
I say strange, but mystery applies as well, mystery of the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, satan and the disciples of Christ.
Once this work is completed I intend, God willing, as approved by my spiritual father, to write another book. It will be on the priesthood and therein I shall try and raise a cautionary voice that we Bishops and Priests need to get past the quagmire of reducing every evil to a social justice issue or some psychological problem and face the reality of satanic activity and use the sacramental authority we have.
What follows should illustrate what happens when priests are not properly trained to deal with evil, but rather have been trained to approach things in an overly rationalistic and intellectual, a problem-to-be-solved manner.
In literature perhaps the most famous play that offers a study in the psychology of evil, and it could be argued even contains a philosophy of evil, is Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
In Act 4, Scene 1 is found this chilling exchange:
Macbeth: How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags, What is’t you do?
All the Witches: A deed without a name.
Macbeth: I conjure you by that which you profess, Howe’er you come to know it, answer me.
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches, though the yeasty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up,
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down,
Though castles topple on their warder’s heads,
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations, though the treasure
Of nature’s germens tumble all together
Even till destruction sicken, answer me
To what I ask you.
First Witch: Speak.
Second Witch: Demand.
Third Witch: We’ll answer.
First Witch: Say if thou’dst rather hear it from our mouths
Or from our masters.
Macbeth: Call’em, let me see’em.[dm]
What is telling about this passage is the reality that ordinary persons choose to dialogue with, seek the cooperation of, evil spirits. Given the era in which the play is set, the 11th Century, one could assume the women most likely would have been baptized as infants; hence it is baptized souls who have chosen the black-arts and have submitted to ‘masters’, that is, evil spirits.
Macbeth himself freely chooses to approach these witches and indeed chooses further to have them conjure up the evil spirits that he may communicate with them.
Macbeth cares not a whit that opening his being to such evil means the witches might unleash chaos through creation even so far as to unleash a ‘fight against the churches’ or to the point where the extent of chaos renders even that ‘destruction sicken’.
There are, of course, two errors, two dangers which must be avoided here.
First is to accredit to satan and his minions more power than they have, for in truth they have none more than God permits. Christ has already vanquished satan. Hence while an individual soul may surrender to satan, that is by their free will hand themselves over to him, satan can never overcome the Church, Christ’s Body on earth, for Christ has already crushed satan.
Second is to assume satan does not exist or is no longer at war against the followers of Christ.
Of the two I would suggest the latter is the more serious error and is the one most commonly found among modernist clergy and laity alike.
Modern media, while mocking the Church for her authentic teaching on the reality of sin, evil, satan, nonetheless will never hesitate to promote any book, song, tv show or movie about evil, evil spirits, or witchcraft, because such things, tragically, are money machines.
In Sacred Scripture perhaps the most familiar text on evil experienced as suffering and satan’s role therein, and the act of God permitting this, other than in the life and suffering of Christ Himself, is to be found in the Book of Job.
Job was a good and holy man, and satan challenged God that Job was good only because he was amply blessed by God.
Were he not so then he would curse God.
Job’s suffering is permitted, his experience of evil, his being attacked by satan, as a test which not only proves his goodness but enhances it.
Throughout God in His tender mercy sets a limit to what satan may do, for God will never allow us to be tested beyond our strength nor to be destroyed.
Only we can, in a sense, self-destruct through a total rejection of His mercy.
Self-destruction is, in reality, choosing eternal damnation over the salvation and eternity of love with Love Himself purchased for us by, and offered to us by Christ, through the fullness of His Incarnation, Passion, Death and Resurrection.
Perhaps the most astute teaching on this whole matter of the reality of spiritual warfare, of the struggle between good and evil, the mystery of human suffering, the reality of sin even after the death and resurrection of Christ, is found in the Apostolic Letter: SALVIFICI DOLORIS (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering) by Pope John Paul II, issued on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11, 1984.
It is not my intent here to do a dissertation on this seminal document, rather to use it as a reference point, for it was to become, after the originating experience of extreme suffering as a result of an experience of evil, a source of gradual understanding of what had happened, why it had been permitted by God and how I should respond.
Sacred Scripture is a great book about suffering. It can be said that man suffers whenever he experiences any kind of evil. In the midst of what constitutes the psychological form of suffering there is always an experience of evil, which causes the individual to suffer. While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment. Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance. [dn]
A friend asked me recently if I had finished writing this story of Divine Love and Mercy, and I said that I was about to write the final chapters and was struggling with this most difficult one.
My friend then asked if that was because this writing was affecting me more than expected.
I thought for a moment and realized yes indeed it does.
The effective affect has been increase of joy as I have come to understand the absolute truth of the statement that where sin abounds grace abounds all the more.
Having set the stage then about the reality of spiritual warfare and the mystery of suffering as grace of ultimate conversion I paraphrase the words of St. Paul which form the title to this chapter: rejoicing in suffering for the sake of others and surrendering to fulfilling in my own being that portion of Christ’s suffering He offers [Col. 1: 24-29].
So I arrived in the new parish.
Unknown to me at the time I had been sent into a situation fraught with extreme spiritual and emotional danger for me.
Indeed it would have been dangerous for any priest.
It was a situation equivalent to that faced by the patron saint of parish priests, St. John Vianney.
Unlike him, however, I was not formed, nor prepared, to handle the challenges that faced me from a perspective of an intense interior life.
Rather I immediately fell into the trap which exhausts many priests and results in many priests leaving the priesthood.
I became performance oriented.
The area I was sent to was racked with problems normally encountered in dense urban areas, but because of modern highway systems and media even remote areas have become places of occult activity, covens, satanic ritual, cults, drug abuse, violence, new age activity and the rest.
Some things should have been obvious clues to me this was going to be an extremely stressful situation, such as the church building itself which was practically devoid of all Catholic symbolism.
No statues, votive lights, the Blessed Sacrament in faded brass tabernacle set to one side. Indeed the building physically, in materials and colour, resembled a subway station more than a church.
The rectory itself was in such a state of chaos I was about to report a break-in when a woman from the parish stopped by to ask for an announcement to be placed in the bulletin and informed me the place ‘ always looks like this’!
It would be several months before the promised assistant was sent by the Bishop, nonetheless, thanks to the cooperation of the people, for it is key to any parish to have the people desirous to build a worshiping, charitable community, we began to restore the interior of the church and rectory, do much needed repairs, tackle the debt, begin home visits and programs to help people return to the sacraments, or become Catholic, re-established devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and restore devotion to Our Blessed Mother.
One of my great concerns was the amount of violence in that area.
Everything, from violent domestic situations, to work-related accidents in the area factories and forest operations, to highway carnage.
One accident scene I was called to involved so many deaths and injuries that the snow was so saturated with blood my feet were soaked. Body parts were scattered everywhere. It took days before the smell of blood left me.
Then there were the many suicides, and the desecration, sometimes by burning, of churches.
Throughout the nation in the same period more and more news reports had to do with abuse of children by priests. The Bishop warned all priests to be aware some people were taking advantage of the climate to falsely accuse priests in order to win huge lawsuits, for, tragically, the very Bishops who had failed to deal rightly with actual cases of abuse where now presuming guilt everywhere and often dismissing priests and settling lawsuits without due process.
One day an elderly man from the parish came and told me of an abandoned church which had once been a place where Holy Mass had been celebrated and of his distress about its condition and would I come with him and pray there for forgiveness of those who had destroyed the building.
I went with him and was heartbroken to find the ruins filled with satanic symbols spray painted on the ruined walls.
I left that place feeling the ominous presence of evil shadowing me.
Sometime later, through what appeared at first as ordinary circumstances, I was required to deal with members of a powerful cult, not knowing at the outset of the meeting these persons belonged to the cult.
Once I found out, from their own frank admission, they belonged to the cult I had no option but to tell them I could not fulfill what they were requesting unless they left the cult.
This infuriated them and they said, very softly, yet coldly: “We will destroy you.”
About a week later the Bishop called to inform me he had been made aware, by an anonymous source, of a whisper campaign suggesting I was not to be trusted around children.
By this point almost two years had passed since I had been first assigned as pastor in that parish and by this time I was also a full blown workaholic with the result that television had replaced contemplation, movies and beer on my day off had replaced days of recollection, novels had replaced spiritual reading.
Externally I was doing all the right priestly things, that is I preached well, celebrated Holy Mass and the other sacraments, did home visits, spent lots of time in administration, had all sorts of programs going in the parish for married couples, the elderly, youth, groups with particular devotions, such as to the Holy Rosary were encouraged and operating, the sick were visited in hospital and so forth.
Indeed it seemed to me I had, by God’s grace, come a very long way from the atheistic and hedonistic life I had led before my conversion and eventual entrance to the seminary and that since my ordination life had been good, fulfilling.
All very true.
All very human.
All very external, for as yet I did not fully appreciate the Divine Lover is jealous, that is, He desires He alone be our true love. [Ex.43:14 & Dt. 4:24]
Rather than being devoted to an intimate relationship in love with the Tremendous Lover Himself, and from that love having a passionate love in humble service of His people, I had become enamoured of what I was ‘doing’, namely I had given priority to what ‘I’ was accomplishing as a priest and forgotten whose parish it really was.
I, through my performance addiction, was cutting myself off from Him.
Cutting ourselves off from Him is to become powerless and to forget our true love [Jn. 15:5 & Rev. 3:14-22]
It is an understandable human tendency, much like flowing water, to seek the path of least resistance.
We are all called to be saints.
Yet so rare is true saintliness that when a holy person is spotted, such as Mother Theresa, they become phenomena, when in reality what should be extraordinary would be to find a Christian who is NOT holy.
The Pharisees encountered in the Gospel, and those who followed them, we not, per se, evil people. True, some of the leaders became so and warred against Christ, but most I would argue were sincere followers of the Decalogue, seeking to observe the Covenant between the Lord God and His Chosen People.
However they too fell into the performance trap and became stuck, as it were, on the external path of least resistance.
Jesus would try and shake them out of their spiritual rigidity; their forgetting God calls us to a profound interior communion of love, not just external observance: Mt. 15: 7-9.
The human precept I was ‘teaching’ as a ‘doctrine’ was that doing sacrament is the same as being sacrament.
It is not enough, for example, to celebrate Holy Mass, to participate in Holy Mass, our entire life must be permeated by the Mass, that is by communion of love: His love for us and our love for Him manifested through love of one another, love in action, and a profound interior relationship with Him, love in contemplation.
Thus being caught up in performance and increasingly neglectful of the intimate relationship with Christ I failed to be aware of reality as noted by Pope Paul VI and referred to eloquently by Rutler in his work on St. John Vianney:
The modern age, which has seen the power of evil so gigantically displayed, is also a time of disbelief in the existence of evil. In 1972, Pope Paul VI told nations reeling from hunger, violence, indolence, and nuclear threats that evil is not an absence of good: it is a ‘living, spiritual being’ who is perverted and perverts: ‘What are the greatest needs of the Church today? Do not let our answer surprise you as being over simple or superstitious and unreal: one of the greatest needs is defence from that evil which is called the devil.’ And he publicly lamented that the smoke of satan had even entered the Church. [do]
Some of the acrid cloud of that smoke centered on the sins of some priests and all priests would find themselves choking on it.
The Bishop had warned me about the whispers.
His warning had been like that any office manger might give an employee who was the subject of office gossip.
I was so busy doing the work as a priest I never gave it much thought until one day in early winter the Bishop phoned again.
This time he was more forthcoming and said the whispers were I had touched a child inappropriately and he ordered me to cooperate with the police.
No lawyer was offered and so none was present when I was interviewed.
I had done no such thing, indeed the very notion of such things sickens, but I had been ordered by the Bishop to participate in the interview.
Once it was over, stressful as it was I had to wait a bit more than a week before I was told they were satisfied it was a lie and that was, supposedly, that.
In retrospect after that it is almost unbelievable that I could have simply resumed the ordinary rounds of priestly life.
That I did not flee to the Bishop and ask him to send the official Exorcist of the diocese to come and cleanse the parish and environs is proof of the too human way I was dealing with the shock and stress of the false accusation.
For some weeks things seemed normal, though I was in a constant state of anxiety.
Then word reached me that the whispering was more intense and that someone had gone over the heads of the police to the prosecutor and that this matter was still very much alive.
A few days later there was a knock at the rectory door very early in the morning and when I opened the door uniformed police shoved me against the wall and told me I was under arrest for suspicion of child abuse.
A couple of hours later, after once again being interviewed, fingerprinted, formally charged, all without benefit of a lawyer, I was released with a court date.
I immediately phoned the Bishop and was ordered to leave town and stay with The Community.
This I did.
Eventually I got a lawyer, out of the yellow pages.
The trial took place over several weeks, a day here, a day there.
Oddly the whole point seemed to be not the accusation, which was that I had inappropriately patted a teenage male, but rather an assault on priesthood as constant reference was made to what ‘other’ priests had done around the country and even more odd, factually more satanic, the way the lie had been told my only defence would have been to violate the seal of confession which I refused to do.
On the last day in court I emptied my pockets before entering, convinced I would be declared guilty and sent to prison.
I had been in a state of shock for weeks and in a type of spiritual darkness such that I had not a shred of trust in God being greater than the evil swirling around me and so my prayer life was in shambles.
However by a special grace I was able to make an ascent to His Divine Will before entering the court that final time.
The Judge went into a long, rambling statement that I found hard to follow but the upshot was he acquitted me of what I had been accused of.
Then he said since I was a priest it was probable there was some truth to the matter and convicted me of a misdemeanour, sentenced jail time, suspended that, put me on probation with no conditions.
Informed of this turn of events the Bishop told me to remain with The Community, hire the best lawyers, launch an appeal, since I was innocent and this conviction should not be allowed to stand.
The evil one terrorizes no one as much as he is terrified himself by Christ the Victor….[dp]
The appeal process would take three long years during which I would learn that, for all the baptized as well as for the ordained, being, and being in communion of love with Him, is the essential.
Only flowing from our being in union with Him does our doing have salvific meaning.
It is a lesson I am still learning.
I had thought, sincerely, the radical conversion of external habit and lifestyle sufficed.
I had failed to continue that interior conversion where God alone is God.
My priestly service had been effective, and that too was part of the problem.
It had been too much mine, not purely His.
All is grace!
All Sacred Scripture is filled with examples, prefiguration of His ultimate act of deliverance of us through the death and resurrection of Christ, of how our Father delivers us from evil: Noah, the escape across the desert of the Chosen People, the young men in the furnace, Susanna.
Indeed ever since my own experience I have never failed to appreciate the Scripture readings at the Easter Vigil, as with all Scripture, as not merely the telling of His mercy to the collective of the human family, but of His particular mercy in the intimate communion of love with each individual.
However it would take years for me to understand why He permitted such a profound experience of evil and such protracted suffering.