Priests as father figures

A few years ago, I gave myself an Easter present. I went to Rome for Holy Week, an unforgettable experience. 

Planning to return home on the Tuesday after Easter, I decided to visit one of Italy’s oldest Benedictine monasteries on Monday. 

The warmth of the monastery’s welcome did not surprise me, since hospitality is very important for the Benedictines. I was not surprised to be invited to lunch, during which I was seated between the abbot and the retired abbot. 

The abbot, probably then in his 50s, had attended school in Britain and spoke English fluently. The elderly retired abbot, clearly a gentle man who had seen much in his many years, knew no English. As a result, we did not converse, but I caught his name. 

As I was leaving the monastery, the abbot gave me a book detailing the history of the monastery. On the train returning to Rome, I began to read the book. There, I learned that the retired abbot was quite a man. 

When he was a young monk, a young priest, World War II was raging. The German army occupied this part of Italy. It was a very bad time. Tense about an anticipated Allied invasion, probably sick of war and overloaded with stories of German superiority, the troops could be quite offensive. 

One evening, two soldiers saw three local girls walking home from the fields. They began to chase the girls. The soldiers’ intentions were not altogether noble, if you know what I mean. Terrified, the girls ran to the monastery and frantically pounded on the door. A young priest — later the retired abbot whom I met — opened the door, but before he could hide the girls, the soldiers thundered onto the scene. 

The soldiers demanded the girls. The priest stood in front of the girls and told the soldiers to leave. The soldiers persisted. The priest stood firm. Finally, one soldier pointed his gun at the priest. “Step aside!” 

Calmly, but clearly meaning business, the young priest refused. He told the soldiers that to touch the girls, they would have to step over his dead body. After a standoff, the soldiers left. The young monk then escorted the girls to their homes. 

What a hero was the kindly, quiet old priest with whom I had had lunch! How I wished that I had known the story earlier and could have spoken Italian well enough to express my admiration. 

The clergy sex abuse scandal overlooks priests such as this monk. Many things are being said, such as the charge that priestly celibacy contributes to the abuse, at least to indifference about abusing children. 

It should be the other way around. Recently, I heard a bishop say that celibacy is very freeing. Even Catholics rarely, if ever, see it this way, regarding celibacy as denial and repression. Ideally, it is the opening of self more perfectly to do God’s work on earth. 

Much more than excluding marriage and sex, celibacy frees the priest to be what this Italian Benedictine was, a father not just of children whom he might beget, but of all children. 

Priests aspire, or should aspire, to imitate Jesus in every way. Loving children is part of the priestly vocation. Christ, as the Gospel recalls, loved children. It was part of a pattern. The Lord loved all people. 

So, stories like this, about this Benedictine monk, thrill priests. I know very many priests, young and old. Everyone of them is furious that some priests have abused youth. Of course, the Church’s image is damaged, people have lost trust, but young people have been injured! 

Priests who abuse children betray celibacy, but hardly just in sexual terms. Such priests fail to love children as if all children were their own flesh and blood. They fail as fathers. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.