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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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A Tale of Two Priests

Two priests.  Two inspiring ministries.  A tale with two very different endings.  Larry is a diocesan priest assigned to one of the most impoverished parishes in Chicago.  Gun violence is epidemic in his neighborhood and the percentage of grandparents raising grandchildren in his census tract is among the highest in the country.  To visit the rectory takes you through some of the more decimated areas of the city.  Father Larry says Mass, counsels, and does all the ordinary things a priest does, and runs anti-violence programs, walks picket lines with school teachers, protests the closing of neighborhood schools, leads an organization of priests for immigration reform, and is trying to breathe life into a national organization of priests committed to the rights of workers.  Sharing his front parlor on any given morning are people in need of food and shelter, activists trying to address issues in the neighborhood, and members of his parish helping to manage a school and a congregation.

Roy was a Maryknoll priest.  He served as a missionary in Bolivia until being run out of the country under threat of death, led protests across the U.S. against our government’s military aid to right wing groups in Central America, and organized the School of the Americas Watch which seeks to close training facilities for military governments from Latin America at Fort Benning, Georgia, now euphemistically called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Roy travels around the country inspiring Catholics and others with a message of peacemaking and justice.  Roy has been imprisoned numerous times for acts of civil disobedience and public witness on behalf of poor people victimized by state sanctioned violence and torture.

Both Larry and Roy found their religious vocations as adults, Larry as an actuary, Roy as a naval officer.  Both priests ground their ministry in the church’s sacramental life and both embody in magnificent ways Catholic social teaching from the late 19th and 20th centuries. Larry’s ministry is set in the vibrancy of a local parish.  Roy’s took place on a national stage.  Neither has profited materially from his ministry and neither has climbed up the ecclesiastical ladder to receive high clerical office or rank – jut Father Larry and Father Roy. 

Here, sadly, the two tales diverge.  For Father Roy Bourgeois, unlike Father Larry, is no longer a priest. He was excommunicated, dismissed from his Order, and laicized by the church for participating in the irregular ordination of a woman to the priesthood in 2008.  The news of the decision, four years in the making, broke last week, ironically a day after the conclusion of the annual witness for peace at Fort Benning which annually gathers thousands to protest American complicity in violence in Latin America.  Official communiques from both the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and the Vatican had very little to say about his years of faithful and courageous ministry, only regret that he had declined to recant his support for the ordination of women.  To be quite direct, he was defrocked for refusing to violate his conscience and agree to remain silent in obedience to his superiors. 

Ecclesiastical disobedience, like civil disobedience, brings punitive consequences that should come as no real surprise, no matter how depressing.  But it also has a way of exposing institutions as well.  Father Roy is accused in Maryknoll’s public statement of “ignoring the sensitivities of the faithful across the country.”  Few commentators have missed the opportunity to point out how the Vatican has shielded bishops and cardinals in the US over their role in the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse, and few have ignored the fact that excommunication, dismissal, and laicization were not imposed on a bishop in Kansas, City and a high ranking cleric in Philadelphia who were both convicted of crimes this year for their role in the abuse scandal.  Whose sensitivities are being ignored?

I’ve gotten to know Father Larry as we’ve worked together on the board he chairs of a faith based organization working with low wage workers in Chicago and advocating for their right to organize for dignity in the work place.  I got to know Father Roy when he came to CTS to receive an honorary degree and deliver last year’s commencement address.  How good it was to have our graduates hear his story of extraordinary service.  And how good it would be for our students to experience Father’s Larry’s extraordinary ministry in an ordinary parish on the city’s west side.  Both remind us of what this calling can be at its best and, yes, of what it can mean to be Catholic.  Like it or not, the Church has given us both priests, and I am grateful.

It would be tempting to invite Father Roy to become and member of the United Church of Christ.  We’d no doubt honor his ordination and would be honored to have him as a member and minister, though I suspect he’d soon be exposing the log in our own eye that we fail to see for our preoccupation with the splinters in others eyes.  But I won’t, any more than I would ask Father Larry why he stays.  Both are Catholic and, therefore, inextricably tied to the Church whether we might happen to love it or hate it on any given day.  The Church needs Father Larry and it needs Roy, too, even if it doesn’t know it. 

Meanwhile, at this “very difficult and painful” time for Roy we can be grateful that he has emerged with his conscience and faith intact, gifts far more precious than any bestowed by the Church.  He’ll go on speaking out for justice for women and for the poor, just as Larry will go on working for a justice in the streets around St. Agatha’s.    Someday there will be women priests.  Someday the west side of Chicago will be a flourishing, vibrant community for all.  Larry and Roy will have been a part of that.  Two priests.  An extraordinary tale. 

John H. Thomas
November 29, 2012

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