What do you call it when you decline any kind of romantic relationship? And give up any prospect of having children and grandchildren? And forgo any ambition of financial security? And relinquish the freedom to choose where you live? And cede the prerogative even to select your own wardrobe?
It’s called being a Catholic priest.
Yes, I’m humiliated to say that when a priest is bad, he is very, very bad.
But when a priest is good, he is electrifying—acting like a bolt of lightning to set on fire the people entrusted to his care.
Last weekend I took Amtrak to Pittsburgh to participate in the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the ordination of my friend, Father Phil Bumbar.
Phil and I entered the seminary when we were fourteen years old. The idea back then was to determine if a boy had the seed of a vocation to the pastoral life, and, if so, to protect and nurture it.
Of the dozen boys in our freshman class, Phil was the only one to to press on through twelve years of education and be ordained. Then, after sixteen years as a priest, he was elevated to archpriest—the Byzantine Rite equivalent of a Latin Rite monsignor.
Because I was unsure, I left the seminary to complete my studies at Fordham and New York University, and build a career founded on my writing.
So much bad has been reported about Catholic priests. The Boston Globe in 2002 uncovered the scandal not only of sexual abuse of young people by some priests, but also the protection of those priests by their bishops, lest the shameful situation reflect badly on Catholicism as a whole. The problem persists.
So I want to dedicate this blog post to Father Phil, one priest who has done only good for people throughout the past half-century.
Phil suffers from macular degeneration, so his pastoral work is limited. But he resides in Aliquippa, PA, in the rectory of the Ukrainian church there, where he continues to be available to serve parishioners.
Nowhere was his impact more evident than in the turnout for his anniversary celebration—more than 150 people from the two small parishes he served in recent years.
You can guess that I heard a still voice in my heart: “What if I had made the same decision that he did, to surrender self to other?”
I will not know in my lifetime the far-reaching outcomes of my decision.
Jo Anne would probably have married someone else.
There would be no Wendy or Julie gracing this world.
No Erik, Connor, or Andrew, each grandson undertaking a service career in healthcare—each of them already affecting people in ways beyond my imagining.
But here’s what I do know. Phil has no regrets about the life he chose. And neither do I about the life I chose.
At the ordination liturgy of a priest in the Byzantine church, just after bread has been consecrated into what we believe is, in substance, the body of Christ, the presiding bishop places a morsel onto the palm of the new priest. As he does so, the bishop admonishes: “Receive this Divine Trust, and guard it until the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, at which time He will demand It from you.”
We both were given a trust. Father Phil was entrusted to safeguard his Church and the souls of its people. I am entrusted with the fruits of my decision. We are each accountable.
The fruits of my decision.
If you enjoyed reading this, you will like my new novel, Billy of the Tulips, a sensitive boy’s grim engagement with innocence and iniquity, now available from Amazon.