Monday, May 26, 2014

A thorn in the flesh

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy

Two fine priests were buried last May 17.

Fr. John Schumacher was laid to rest in the Jesuit Novitiate, Novaliches. He lies near his mentor in Philippine history studies, Fr. Horacio dela Costa, and the gathered bones of the Spanish Jesuits who had actually known Jose Rizal and his contemporaries.

Vincentian Fr. Norberto “Bebot” Carcellar was buried in the lovely cemetery of the Daughters of Charity along the South Super Highway. The choir of the Payatas children sang at the funeral Mass. Father Bebot began his work in Payatas.

Father John helped us understand Church-State matters in Manila in the decades immediately before and after the death of Jose Rizal and the Revolution against Spain. Father Bebot taught us the value of people’s savings in development work, not only as a way of gathering funds, but also as a means of organizing people and instilling pride and self-confidence in them.

We can imagine the two priests outside the gates of heaven later that day. They are a funny pair. Father John is 6’4,” Father Bebot 5’7” or 5’8.” They wear the clothes they had worn regularly in the last years of their lives and not the vestments they were buried in. Father John wears his pajamas since he had been in the Jesuit infirmary at Ateneo for years; Father Bebot is in the plaid shirt, black windbreaker and denim pants he wore to construction sites, meetings and celebrations.

Father Bebot peeks through the gates and sees the poor have housing as good as anyone else, so he’s happy. Father John looks for Rizal, Bonifacio, Mabini and the other people he has written about. An angel knows what Father John is after. “Most of the people you are looking for are with the Filipino group here, but some are still appealing their sentences. We don’t have many Filipino lawyers, so the process is slow,” the angel says. Then he sees Father John’s jaw drop and adds, “It’s only a joke, Father John. They got this far, so they’ll be all right. Just some small matters of belief.”

We talk of our priests, but we know very little about their fears and sorrows. They suffer of course as any person does, but in addition the priesthood has its own sufferings. There is in every priest, I believe, what St. Paul called a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12: 7-9). He describes it: “It was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.” Scholars disagree on what the thorn was. They think it might be anything from a physical pain to a very obnoxious individual. St. Paul asked God three times to remove the thorn, but God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

Loneliness and depression are such thorns.

Jesuit friends tell me they have heard older Jesuits weeping because of loneliness. It’s disturbing to think of the old priests who should, we would judge, enjoy a peaceful old age, wracked with loneliness and depression instead. And there is no consolation. Such pain has driven younger priests to drink, or to seek love elsewhere. Loneliness can take the heart of flesh out of a priest.

In some places in the United States priests are ashamed to wear the Roman collar which identifies them as Catholic priests. So badly has the image of the priest fallen due to the pedophilia crisis in the Church that people now look on the priest with suspicion and even hostility.

In the Philippines, bishops have taken money from politicians, and even specified the exact type of gifts they want. This troubles a good priest. He can wonder about the soundness of his Church. Is it all hype and propaganda like so many other institutions, or is it truly the One, Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of Jesus? A group of bishops acting so cravenly can erode a priest’s respect for the Church’s fidelity and bravery.

Many priests today are saddened by the reluctance of the Church hierarchy to be more intensely involved in work for the poor, and the narrowing of income between rich and poor, and in the very straightforward struggle to save poor children from life in the slums.

If we appreciate the effort these priests must make just to hold together the tensions in their lives, we will all the more be amazed at their accomplishments. This country has had great priests from the first days of Spain down through the centuries, men of all nationalities who faithfully tried to serve the people that were given into their care. There have been rascals, but no group has done nearly as much as they have done for the good of the country.

Priests are not all easy to deal with. I offer these tips from my own experience:

• Compliment them on their sermons and talks, even if you can’t remember what they actually said.
• Be patient with your priests. It’s not a normal life they have chosen to live.
• Give them a thoughtful gift—a good novel or historical book, a bottle of good wine.
• Get together with other parishioners and buy him a good TV. The Cubao Diocese used to have norms on the sort of TV a parish council should provide its priest.
• Pray for him.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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