I Just Want to Be Loved

Originally published by CHURCH Magazine, Summer 2009
– PDF version – Online version –

Witnessing the marriages of couples who ground their love in service and community challenges a priest to hear the universal longing for love.

I am still learning how to love. I discover every day the fragility of my own commitment as an ordained priest and vowed member of a religious community. The setting that has begun to open my heart from my self-preoccupation and even self-loathing is living and praying among our culture’s fragile and neglected people. Here, in our urban parish in downtown Portland, Oregon, people show me their raw belief in God. Life in this paradoxical setting strips me of pretense and reveals my obvious fear of relationships. Ministry here teaches me to live the love that is locked up behind my own breakable heart.

Every day I hear people screaming out to be accepted despite their tortuous history of mental illness or their latest relapse into using drugs. Some people cry out in pain because no one has ever stopped to listen to their history of being sexually abused. Others cry out because they were thrown out of their homes as teens for using heroin. The daily battle on the streets has scared many of them from intimacy and distanced most of them from society’s care or concern. However, underneath all the external hardness of sleeping outside or the effects of alcohol or methamphetamines, there is a common ache, a screeching cry from people to be heard, forgiven, and loved.

I literally heard a stranger crying out one cold, rainy morning as I walked across one of the bridges downtown. I spotted a man carrying an umbrella and briefcase and wearing a gray trench coat. I followed him across the river, blinded by the sharp rain. Out of the darkness, a young man straddling the railing of the bridge yelled out to the hurried businessman, “I’m going to jump!” The preoccupied gentleman ignored him. As I walked closer to the unknown voice, the young man shouted out even louder to me, “I’m going to jump!”

His voice pierced the new day, sharp and penetrating. With raw instinct I bent over the drenched youth, grabbed his arm and pulled him off the railing. He pretended to struggle and fight me. He stabilized his body on the earth. His large, dark brown eyes looked right through me and he screamed in my face, “I just want to be loved.”

We walked to safety, and the police told me he had jumped off a bridge a few weeks earlier. He wanted more than just someone’s attention. They also told me he was not sick enough to be admitted to a hospital for more than a couple of days. I left him sitting in a squad car, but his scream still haunts me.

This cry for help resonates deeply within me. I believe that our relationship with God begins with this sacred cry, the ache of the human heart that begs to be nurtured. I hear and absorb this holy scream because society’s poor are more honest about their needs in the world. The hallowed shriek, the deep passion for acceptance, is not an isolated event or one moment of despair. Desiring to be loved and accepted in our culture is a daily occurrence among our sisters and brothers living isolated, fretful, and anguished lives. This cry of the poor does not end among those who fall among the margins of society.

I carry this scream with me in all areas of my ministry, even in contexts where it may seem to some to be unrelated. I remember the cry of the poor especially when a couple approaches me to be married in the church. I am powerless to fix people’s pain and suffering, but I must always educate people about other people who suffer. I begin discussions with those who come seeking marriage in the church with the fact that all people are seeking love. I remind couples of their responsibility to offer their lives not only to each other, but to the world around them. Then I begin to speak about how even the wedding ceremony can speak of their commitment to their families, the disenfranchised, and the turbulent world around them.

I begin with the human desire to be loved because I so often encounter obstacles in the wedding ceremony itself to the real meaning of marriage. Weddings must not be contained in overspending and selfish overindulgence. The authentic ritual is often lost behind the silk foliage and the ideas of a perfect wedding day. Even family relationships are often stretched to their limits and feelings are hurt when customs and expectations get in the way of the tradition of authentic love.

I realize some weddings in many of our parishes are short-circuited by decreasing numbers of clergy, the rules of the local tribunal, and even local parish requirements for hall rentals and floral arrangements. So often the wedding planner replaces the preacher; the etiquette guides speak louder than the gospel; and arguments over bridesmaids’ dresses overshadow relationships with family and friends.

Years of ministry, however, have given me multiple opportunities to celebrate weddings that celebrate the connection and dignity of all people. These rituals have given the couples and their families a new window into living the Christian life. These weddings continue to show me that love is not bound to family only, but that weddings become the sacrament of vocation and service in the world.

Our present culture faces critical times. We live our vocations in days of economic hardships and job loss. Together we face loving in times of war, forgiving in moments of blame, and unity in days of global transition. Our world and culture depend on us as Christians even more to put love into real action.

I was deeply touched when a graduate school classmate and his fiancée asked me to preside at their wedding. Joe (all names are changed) lived and worked among the poor and met his future wife in a soup kitchen. Their commitment toward the poor formed their love for each other. They wanted the church filled with people from the streets. Their desire was that the rituals speak loudly about the reality of their commitment of service.

On the day of their June wedding people flocked to the church. People who had lined up for soup and bread now lined up around the inside of the church because of the overflow crowd. They were there to witness the love of Joe and Mary and celebrate with others in the parish hall afterward. Some family members arrived with fresh manicures and silk gowns; other guests had not showered for weeks. Some people radiated designer perfume, others reeked of stale alcohol breath.

After reading Matthew 25: 31-46, I walked down into the assembly to begin the homily. My eyes fell on the shy poor and the excited family members. I paused and then asked everyone present to take off their right shoe. Without hesitation people reached for their stilettos or sneakers, the shoe that matched the dress or the worn boot found in the shelter.

I then asked them to exchange their shoe with person next to them. I led them through a reflection of walking in other people’s shoes because God came among us and walked in our shoes. I reminded them that this wedding was a celebration of God’s covenant with us as we learn how to love others.

As the vibrant couple came forward to profess their marriage vows, they sat down on the altar step and slowly took off their shoes. They lovingly, patiently washed each other’s feet. The silent echoes of this generous gesture echoed throughout the room, in every heart and mind. The rich symbol and unexpected washing reminded us all of the humility and risk of love, to put others first in the command of Jesus.

This ritual gesture inserted into the rite of marriage nearly stopped my heart. The reconciling foot care showed me that the couple was serious about living the gospel far beyond the celebration in that church. They staked their marriage on that liturgical gesture, and indicated that their vows would include loving those on the fringe of our culture. Washing feet was not a cute ceremonial addition to their wedding, but a statement of commitment far into the future. I witnessed at that moment my own selfishness, the limits I put on my own young vocation. Their naked, wet feet exposed my longing to serve the people who were sitting in those pews. Their vulnerability connected human concerns and authentic prayer and social justice. Their fairy-tale wedding exposed dirty feet, gathered hungry people, and challenged us all to serve beyond our comfort.

Joe and Mary have worked all these years speaking out on behalf of the poor and raising their daughters with radical compassion, simplicity of life, and prophetic teachings. Even though I have not yet met their children, I want someday to tell them how much their parents have educated me, challenged my own ministry, and taught me to remain humble in front of dirty feet.

Steve and Lori hesitated to speak with me about their wedding preparations. They grappled with their wedding liturgy because they did not have money to pay for many of the cultural and family expectations. They both were invested in parish activities and also wanted members of the parish present during their commitment. Together we decided to celebrate their wedding during the regularly scheduled Saturday Vigil mass.

After the homily, I stood at the sanctuary step and said, “Let those who will be married please come forward.” I could hear all the whispers of questions floating among the congregation. From the middle section of the pews, a young couple stood up and moved out of the seats and came forward. The congregation gasped with surprise and anticipation. When I saw Steve and Lori’s faces as they approached the sanctuary, I started to cry. I saw in them the raw commitment to the people of God who formed them in gospel service and justice. They professed their marriage vows with delicate voices. However, the sound of their promises radiated throughout the church. The congregation fell completely silent with only the sounds of tears.

Steve and Lori’s ceremony seared my memory with fondness and the real meaning of weddings. The couple caught the entire congregation off guard with the unexpected celebration. There was no long-term planning or external fuss or frenzy. However, that moment has remained with me because they professed their vows with clarity of intent, with deep faith and authentic passion for the people they served every week.

Steve and Lori’s simple wedding stands out to me amid all the expensive and chaotic weddings I have celebrated. Their understated presence pierced through all the cultural accessories. The action of the ritual revealed their love to me and their willingness to commit themselves to the community. Their unencumbered ceremony still teaches me that love is stronger than money, expectations, and fantasy. Even in our present days of building smaller homes, making every penny count, and caring for more people without health care, sacraments need to be celebrated with more honesty and intentionality.

A young couple married in our small urban chapel asked their guests to bring to their wedding ceremony white socks, different sizes of men’s underwear, and warm blankets. On the day of the wedding the sanctuary was overflowing with large green garbage bags stuffed with everyday needs for our daily hospitality center. This wedding ceremony gives me hope that the cry of love and justice can be heard in the center of the wedding ritual and into the lives of the newlyweds.

In another parish, Dan and Beth were dedicated to serving many in the community. They wanted to make sure people in the parish had a role during the actual wedding ceremony. We based the entrance rite on the rite of welcome from the rite of Christian initiation of adults. The liturgical ministers, attendants, the couple, and I all stood within the threshold of the church. I welcomed them through the main doors and spoke with affection of their love for each other and their special bonds of service within the community. I then turned to the congregation, who faced the church’s entrance, and asked them for their oral support. I asked them if they approved of this bond, if they would support them today and in the future, and if they would pray for them and their desire for children. I also asked the community if they would support them in living out the ministry of the gospel to serve the poor and disenfranchised. The procession music began, we all processed down the long aisle, and the community exploded with applause and shouts of joy.

Dan and Beth’s wedding remains an icon of community participation. The voices of the poor raised the roof with approval and hope. Their ritual opened the possibilities that marriage is also for the Christian community, it can be a source of hope for people who believe they will never find love for themselves. I hear the scream of wanting to be loved every day. I also hear young couples committing their lives to work with the unemployed, the mentally ill, and former prisoners. Marriage is created in community and must speak to the marginalized and neglected.

I recently met a couple volunteering on a Friday evening in our parish soup line. Every week people from other parishes and students from various high schools and colleges gather to make soup and create an evening of hospitality for our low-income neighbors and our homeless friends. The couple told me they were getting married. They shyly whispered that they were to be married in another parish the following day. I immediately spoke up and said I had never met anyone who would volunteer in a soup line the evening before their wedding. They quickly replied, “Well, Father, this is what we want to build our marriage upon. This kind of service and simplicity is the meaning of our marriage.”

The poor teach me to extend my own vocation beyond my pristine prayer, my selfish use of my time, or my limited understanding of community. The former prisoner teaches me to live a generative life beyond the confines of my own doubt. The mentally anguished addict shows me I cannot put off love until the world is perfect. Young couples who connect their love for one another to service among the poor expand my notions that God’s covenant with us is real, vital, and full of hope in this generation.

Every time I sit down with an engaged couple for the first time, I tell the story of my early morning encounter across the bridge. I tell stories of how married love is lived in our community. We plan and prepare, we discuss and reminisce, and we fill out forms and write down schedules. We prepare for the wedding and the marriage; we explore how their married love will grow beyond their own home. On their wedding day, I stabilize my body on the earth witnessing the couple, listening to their sacred vows, and feeling the depths of us all longing to be loved.

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.