WHEN I was married almost 25 years ago at St. Pius X Church in Rodgers Forge, eight priests stood on the altar - three diocesan and five Jesuits, helping my bride and me to celebrate the most joyous occasion in our lives until the births of our four children that followed.
The wedding was the beginning for me of a future in which priests would always be present, not only at ceremonies like baptisms, confirmations and graduations, but in the routine of our lives, as friends and counselors, witnesses to our family's glorious adventure.
Two years ago, after my son John was killed in an accident in Worcester, Mass., where he was a junior at the College of the Holy Cross, three dozen priests stood on the altar at his funeral Mass at St. Ignatius Church in Baltimore. They came from Baltimore, Washington, Worcester, Boston and Syracuse, N.Y., to help us get through the most tragic experience of our lives. We could not have gotten through that experience without them.
St. Ignatius is our church. The pastor there, the Rev. Bill Watters, may be the most priestly priest in Christendom. He is a truly holy man. His congregation includes some of the wealthiest in the city and the poorest, whites, blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans, archconservatives and archliberals, gays and lesbians. St. Ignatius feeds and ministers to the poor and homeless. Father Watters opened an academy at the church, where boys from some of the poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore have been given educations and gone on to some of the finest schools and colleges.
All three of my sons have served on the altar with Father Watters and deeply revered him. When John died, Father Watters was so deeply stricken it was as if he had lost a member of his own family, which he had.
Don't get me wrong. I have known priests who were bitter conservatives, some who drank too much, one or two who appeared a little too interested in creature comforts, or who seemed to have lost touch with the primary function of the priesthood. But they have all been essentially good, devoted men.
Now the lives and vocations of these good men have been shattered by the growing scandal of pedophilia and other sex abuses by priests in America and elsewhere. Day after day brings a new scandal of this sort along with revelations that the church hierarchy abetted abusive priests by allowing them to keep circulating and keep abusing youngsters. The most egregious of these is the case of the Rev. John J. Geoghan Jr., who is accused of abusing more than 130 youngsters over a period of 30 years. Then there's Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, where Geoghan was moved from parish to parish by church authorities who knew of his alleged behavior.
A friend who is a priest in Massachusetts was visiting here recently and said that every morning the radio brings a new story of scandal, and "I just want to pull the covers over my head and hide."
He is a serious young priest, a theologian, teacher and assistant at a parish in the Boston area. He is crushed by the tragedy that has befallen his church, if not altogether surprised. I sensed a note of helplessness in him, along with some indignation that the scandal enveloping his church had tarnished every priest.
Where is the hierarchy in all of this? Cardinal Law made a calamitous mistake, and most priests one talks to believe that he should resign. Even before this crisis emerged, I sensed an estrangement between the hierarchy of the church and its priests and their congregations. More and more it has seemed that the hierarchy has been preoccupied with the political struggle within the church, especially following the conservative trend of Pope John Paul II. I have known a priest who was liberal but became conservative and is now a cardinal. I have known a priest who stayed liberal and was banished to a remote part of the land.
Last week, here in Maryland, Cardinal William H. Keeler followed the example of cardinals in Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles in publicly acknowledging the scandal and promising to "do all in my power to protect our people from such abuse."
His acknowledgement followed the arrest of a fourth-grade teacher accused of abusing young girls at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Hampden. In December, a priest at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen was arrested on charges of possessing child pornography. Maryland law requires that all cases of sexual abuse be reported to the civil authorities.
Pope John Paul finally acknowledged the scandal last week in the closing paragraphs of his letter to priests around the world for Holy Thursday. He had harsh words for the errant priests "who have betrayed the grace of Ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the mysterium iniquitatis (the mystery of evil) at work in the world."