Oven-Baked Fears and Homemade Dreams

Originally published by CHURCH Magazine, Summer 2008
– PDF version – Online version –

At the 25-year mark, the author is finding profound meaning in priestly ministry.

I dreaded taking time to dine with the bishop. I scurried around with last-minute details of lost luggage at the airport, calming elderly relatives, and handling requests for different hotel arrangements just four days before my priesthood ordination. The bishop’s invitation to the four of us who were to be ordained that weekend raised in me much anxiety about why we were summoned to his simple, former-convent apartment to discuss the ceremony that had been planned for months. My classmates and I carpooled across town to meet the Ordinary of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, William McManus.

He was better known to us as “Billy Mac” for his approachable style and his vision of a servant church. I felt anxious about this meeting on his soil because I feared a last-minute oral exam, which always induces dry mouth and a baked brain on my part. We pulled up to a parking space just outside his apartment and I tried to persuade my brothers that it was not too late to change our minds about this evening’s plans.

Bishop McManus quickly opened his outside door wearing a kindly, gentle smile. He held a small glass of scotch above his head and said, “Welcome guys, I am so glad you joined me. Come in.”

He explained to us that he was recuperating from heart surgery, witnessed by his weight loss, and which explained the simple menu of oven-baked chicken, a plate of white rice, and steamed broccoli. He invited us to his kitchen table like a proud parent, and prayed reverently in thanksgiving for the food and for our decisions to become servants of God’s table.

Bill quickly spurted out commands for ordination day, details and items he needed to ordain us presbyters. Then he shifted gears. He put his fork and knife on his Melmac plate, leaned back into his chair, looked us in the eyes, and said, “I have two questions for you. What are your fears? And what are your dreams?”

I felt both the chicken and the fears lodge in my throat. My brain started to bake. Nearly twenty-five years later, I have no idea what I said that night and I have no memory of how my three brothers replied to his startling, acid-producing questions. After going around the table, each of us sputtering out answers, Bishop McManus then spoke. He started to cry. His words, perhaps lubricated by the scotch, sounded a note of disbelief as he reminisced that forty-four years had passed since his ordination day. He admitted that his dreams of an inclusive church never came to life as he imagined. The bishop told stories of his faltering dreams of working toward peace, providing comfort for young women carrying their children to full term, feeding the growing numbers of hungry people, and of his grief over the fact that Vatican II had never really been tried. He encouraged us to live the real dreams of the church. He invited us to take over where he left off; to go to bed tired; to live selflessly, because others starve for food, shelter, and a sense of belonging in the world and in the church. The tired, elderly man reminded us our commitments would produce great costs. Bill whispered to us how lonely he was being a bishop. In his first year in South Bend, Indiana, no one had invited him to dinner. He advised us to care for each other, to honor our religious community, and to be not afraid.

For twenty-five years I have held the memory of that meal in my heart. It is only now in my jubilee year that I understand the wisdom of his words and the passing on of his dreams. I reflect on the iconic meal with Bill McManus because in these past six and a half years I have finally found a home in the church. I hopscotched around the country, tried out various careers, interests, parishes, and leadership positions. None of those careers in ministry opened me up or healed me, gave me my real voice, or evoked courage within me. None of that happened until I found myself living and working among our society’s marginalized.

I work among so many of the people Billy Mac told us not to forget. In a small urban parish in Old Town in Portland, Oregon, I minister among the fragile, those living outside, and people suffering from unimaginable mental illness. Every day I pray among the fraught who simply need clean underwear, a warm blanket, or a place where they feel they belong.

I landed here not on my own power, but with a thud from the Spirit. I arrived broken and discouraged from years of trying to sort out my place in the larger institution. I showed up at this place because the successor to Bishop McManus stripped me of my priestly faculties in that same diocese because I had hired a massage therapist to work in the retreat center where I was director. That was the most fear-producing moment of my priesthood. Praying through all the issues of that trauma, I created some new decisions about my life and my relationship with the church. Finally, after all those years of fear-clenching, I pried open my priesthood and offered back my entire life to God. It is in this setting where I finally let go of so much of my personal fear, my insecure feelings that I am the outcast of the church. At last, I am not in control of what God wants of me or where he leads.

I arrived at the Downtown Chapel after driving cross-country with few physical possessions. I carried with me my spiritual emptiness, tangible anger, and questions about whether I would survive everyday work among the poor. Walking in the building that first afternoon, the odor overwhelmed me. The stench of men not showered, lingering foul alcohol-breath, stale cigarettes, and wet garments packed in small backpacks stopped my breathing, yet welcomed me to my new home.

Along with my luggage, I unpacked my intense defensiveness about living in a place where I was not sure I wanted to be. As I slowly sorted out the contents of my suitcase, the stench of my sense of entitlement and the vile odors of my own resentments overwhelmed me. I stashed away in time the obnoxious fear that my circumstances were somehow more alienating and hurtful than anyone else’s. I made the decision to finally move beyond my own hurt. I chose to learn this time from the real suffering of other people.

My teachers presented themselves quickly, quiet reminders of what it means to be most human, honest, and sincere in their suffering. Patrick, a year older than I, immediately started calling me “Ronnie the Kid.” Even with his unstable mental illness, Patrick reads people and understands when others are hurting. I watched him in prayer. I listened to his public prayers for the plumber to fix his toilet, for doing his laundry and grocery shopping. He asked us to pray for him because he feared his inability to unscrew the cap off the shampoo bottle during his weekly shower. I realized in all my years of life and of priesthood, I was never that honest in my relationship with God. I wanted what he had. What he has is the faith to make his real life his prayer, without pretense and without lying. I began to feel a new sacrament inside of me, a real presence where fear started to loosen. We became friends. Patrick teases out of me the crippling effects of my own insecurity every day with his presence at the Eucharist.

I woke up one night with a most unexpected teacher, gunfire under my bedroom window. I heard five shots. After running downstairs, I spoke up to the police as if I had some vital information to share. An officer told me that I had slept through the first four shots. Nine bullets killed eighteen-year-old Daniel outside our church door. I had been sleeping—in so many ways. That night I was confronted with real violence and my own blindness. I could not control the suffering around me, nor could I contain answers to all of these questions in the tidy confines of a church building. I started to connect our work of prayer within our sanctuary to the terror of our streets. We now expose our common prayer on street corners when violence hits us again and again. We process into the streets after celebrating Sunday Eucharist to pray for peace on all corners, for families experiencing loss, and for the church to become an instrument of justice. Between the gunshots that night I started to find my home here. I care for these people and I do not have answers to solve their problems. I am a caretaker of our reliance on grace and I must offer myself to God in ways that this community needs to be healed.

Bruce cornered me one day in our lobby after Mass. His eyes pierced the awkward silence, his tobacco-stained fingers confessed his struggles. He whispered his longing to be baptized, to join in our search to discover the truth of the church. This community had already marked his impression with acceptance. Bruce admitted his years of heroin addiction and his newfound recovery of almost two months. I felt fear tighten around my body. I was not sure what I could offer him, unsteady as I was about my own ability to trust this community.

Trying Each Day

His fierce fight to find God still leads me to heartache as well as great joy. Bruce battles demons beyond my imagining. He prays, some days he wants to pray, other moments he wants to want to pray, anything to shield himself from gut-wrenching desires to use drugs. Just a week before his baptism he relapsed. He tries to find God’s love, but his addictions tell him he can live without God and our community. Today, he tries again.

Bruce’s zealous search for God mirrors many stories in our community and in some ways my own story as well. I listen to him with an ear that hears my own fears. His blind spots and hardness remain so obvious to me. He stands behind a wall of fear that may never be bulldozed by any community’s love or anything human at all.

So he keeps coming back in search of what only God can do, heal him. I stand with him, with others like him, and they all teach me to come to God as I am, with self-stripping honesty. Bruce teaches me there is no other place to go.

Christine started to join us for daily Eucharist with shy hesitation. She tested the waters of her belonging in our parish each day. Months passed before she revealed to me that she suffers from multiple personality disorder. She never felt loved growing up with unspeakable family abuse. She never felt a sense of belonging because she dissociated her childhood from reality. Today she teaches me to sort out my own life, to trust its broken pieces and to see the whole picture. I listen to her shed the protective shells of her fear, the clinging rage, and her overwhelming reluctance to trust people.

During a parish retreat I shared with Christine a few frustrations about my own life. The following day she stopped me and said, “Thank you for sharing your life with us. We do not want a priest in a box.” Those words opened me up. They gave me permission to creep out of my own shyness, a place toward being myself. She invited me deeper into my own fear, where I find a home in my honesty.

My friends here teach me every day that faith is about people. I learn to create community by naming real suffering, exposing the harmful labels of mental illness, addictions, and homelessness. People connect through admitting these differences because we need everyone to survive. I discover integrity about my own priesthood, my leadership, and my very life in this new frankness. I never learned this kind of honesty in the seminary or in my graduate studies or in any catechism. I study it here because I have no cure for people’s doubt, no solution to cumulative years of their depression, no antidotes to keep people from using drugs or alcohol. Here I discover how to reach out beyond my fear, to rely on the person of Jesus.

Our parish staff grapples every day with how to serve beyond our expertise. We find our answers not in cut-and-dried solutions, nor perfect rubrics, nor in assumed authority, but in gathering the fragments of people lost along the margins of society. We build up people by touching their inconsolable suffering. We admit we do not have answers, we listen, we console, and we hold on to mystery itself. People do not always get what they want; most of life for the poor does not work out. We try to expose the healing power of Christ so we celebrate the anointing of the sick weekly at a daily Mass. We gather people living with depression for retreats every other month. We open our doors to prostitutes on Saturday evenings and offer a “School of Prayer” after Mass on Sunday. Every volunteer in our daily hospitality center reflects on the Sunday gospel so as to realize our reliance on strength beyond our own. I speak weekly now on a local radio station to connect the Sunday gospel to the human stories that continue to convert me, people who show me that I must rely on God in order to live.

Now I relish the experiences of my past fears, at least most days. I live today grateful that finally my own scars allow a new openness in me to accept the pain, grief, and incompleteness of others. I would have fallen on my face had I come here hiding behind my previous life of self-protecting power, dark denial, and inauthentic behavior. This parish community remains simple, unencumbered, and remarkably full of lessons I still need to learn. This place compels me to discover each one that comes my way. I experience here how facing my personal fears forces open the process to really dream about what is most important—people’s lives.

I celebrate now twenty-five years of public ministry, growing into the fears and dreams Bishop McManus initiated us into with oven-baked chicken and his warm hospitality. I make plenty of hurtful mistakes, and many dreams pass me by. Finally after all these years, I learn I can offer nothing without being intimate with God. Now, I see for myself that no amount of money can hide suffering or build authentic dreams. I cannot fix people’s misery, solve their questions, or control their opinions.

At last I get it: we all need God on earth to survive, and this need turns our hearts toward desire. I desire Jesus. I celebrate this jubilee year lovingly with people arriving from around the country, rearranging flight schedules, retrieving lost luggage, and changing last-minute hotel reservations. This time I stand comfortably at the feast of Eucharist, tears in my eyes, age spots and thinning hair, grateful for the oven-baked fears of my life and the homemade dreams for all of us gathered here.

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