A Resigned Priest on his Deathbed

By Frederick Heuser

(Reverend Frederick Heuser is the pastor of St. James Parish in Kenosha, Wisconson. He has a B.A. in philosophy and an M.Div. from St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee and an M.A. in speech from Marquette University. After ordination, he taught in a high school, and then became the Associate Director of the Catholic Family Life Program of Milwaukee before assuming his present position. His last article in Homiletic & Pastoral Review appeared in December 2000.)

The doctor has just left my hospital room. I saw the sadness in his eyes as he tells me the bad news. The cancer had spread through most of my body and further treatment would be useless. He said he would put my wife in contact with the hospice program to make the time I had left as comfortable as possible. “As comfortable as possible”-that phrase seems to summarize what my goal in life had been the last 35 years. But it was not always so.

As a boy I was enthralled with the lives of missionaries like St. Francis Xavier who brought the Faith to India, of St. Isaac Jogues who labored among the Indians of New York or Junipero Serra who left a comfortable home in Spain in his 50s to bring Christ to California. I pictured myself being tortured and even martyred for Christ and in my youthful enthusiasm I longed to say with the dying St. Stephen, “Lord, do not lay this sin upon them.”

I devoured books on heroic saints like the youthful Tarcisius who died bringing Holy Communion to imprisoned Christians during the Roman persecutions. And I felt God was calling me to be a priest. When I shared these aspirations with the Sister who taught me seventh grade and the young assistant pastor who had been ordained just two years they encouraged me to enter the seminary. I did just that with the blessing of my parents, two brothers and three sisters. At age 14 I enrolled as a freshman in the diocesan seminary.

My high school days were carefree and fun. I didn’t understand how algebra and geometry would make me a better priest but studying Latin made sense because the Mass and the Sacraments were said in that language and I knew our philosophy and theology classes later on would be in that ancient tongue also. Seminary rules kept us from most sexual temptations since we were forbidden to go out with girls. As a preparation for a life of celibate chastity these rules made good sense to me.

Graduation from high school meant the beginning of a study of liberal arts in college. At that time the seminary was divided into two sections, a minor seminary consisting of four years of high school and the
first two years of college and a major seminary which taught two years of philosophy and four years of theology. The years went by quickly and the camaraderie of fellow students helped us develop lifelong friendships. Along the way some students dropped out and a few were asked to leave. At the end
of my first year of theology the bishop tonsured us, a hair cutting ceremony that indicated we were no longer laymen but had become clerics. The four minor orders followed shortly: porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte. A year before priestly ordination we were ordained subdeacons which gave us the obligation of praying the Divine Office each day and embracing lifelong celibate chastity. We also had to pledge abstinence from alcohol for five years. We had been well prepared for these obligations and they were willingly embraced. Six months later we were ordained deacons and could wear the clerical collar with our black suits. How proud were my parents to see me so dressed for the first time. Finally in May of 1960, the big day
arrived. We were bused to the Cathedral where in the presence of our families and friends the Archbishop laid his hands on our heads and ordained us priests forever. We then concelebrated our first Mass with him. My childhood dreams had been fulfilled. The faces of my parents, brothers and sisters beamed with pride as they knelt for my first priestly blessing. My mother hugged me long and tenderly and whispered “Now, like Mary, I too have a son who is a priest.”

My First Solemn Mass was a beautiful ceremony. The parish choir had practiced for weeks and never sounded better. The pastor assisted me at Mass with two of my classmates serving as deacon and subdeacon while four of my nephews were the altar servers. The banquet that followed in the church hall with congratulatory speeches was the culmination of a glorious day.

A week later I received a letter from the Archbishop appointing me as second assistant to the pastor of St. Meinrad’s Parish. I thoroughly enjoyed the company of the other two priests, teaching religion in the
parish school, offering Mass, hearing confessions and having many convert instructions. It was a very happy life. Then an event took place in Rome that startled the whole Church. Pope John XXIII convened the first
Ecumenical Council to be held since Vatican I in 1870. Logically it was called Vatican II.

The papers were filled with the many changes the Church would experience. Over the years the Mass was changed and was now said in English facing the people. Lay people were brought into the sanctuary to do the readings, lead the music and distribute Holy Communion. Communion was given in people’s hands while they were standing. It seemed the priest was not so special anymore. Friday abstinence was dropped; the Communion fast shortened to one hour and fasting during Lent, Ember Days and certain vigils was
eliminated. Mixed marriages, with permission, could be witnessed by a Protestant minister in his church. Theologians were telling us that the Church would change its ban on artificial birth control. It seemed that
everything was changing: up was down, down was up and what was wrong now seemed to be right.

We were encouraged to attend workshops to update our theology, to read the new ideas put forth by theologians like Hans Küng, Karl Rahner, Charles Curran and Richard McBrien. Even the meaning of the Bible was questioned by scholars like Raymond Brown and John McKenzie. Nuns began dressing in lay clothes and priests would wear shirts and ties to better identify with the laity. As women were given new roles in the parish we priests were encouraged to work closely with them. All the caveats we had been taught about relationships with women now seemed very old fashioned. Sister Mary Agnes was appointed head of the liturgy committee of our Parish Council. She was young, attractive and fun to work with. She had decided to
discard her religious habit and wear modest lay clothing. As we worked together the titles “Sister” and “Father” seemed artificial and it was soon Agnes and Frank. Friendship blossomed into affection and affection into love. I had never felt this way about a person before. I should have recognized the danger signs but was blinded by love. Holding hands led to kisses and intimacies that violated our vows of chastity. We were both honest enough to realize we had to choose: to separate or to leave our religious vocations and marry. In the end human love prevailed over our vows. The hardest part next to announcing to the congregation that I was leaving the priesthood was telling my parents. I’ll never forget the tears in my mother’s eyes when I told her about Agnes and me. My father seemed to age about ten years. We sought dispensation from our vows and while awaiting them married in a civil ceremony. Once the break was made and our marriage was blessed my family gradually accepted Agnes.

Though we never had children we had a happy life together and I was able to get a position teaching at a local junior college. Occasionally old friends would call or drop by but after a few years those contacts stopped and we had a new circle of friends. I retired at 65 with a nice pension and life seemed very comfortable indeed. Then the back pains began and they were diagnosed as being caused by malignant tumors. Despite radiation and chemotherapy they continued to grow and spread until the doctor had to tell
me that there was nothing more he could do.

I now have about three weeks before I must stand before my Creator. I am haunted by memories now. I hear the words of Jesus “He who put his hand to the plow and looks back is not worthy of Me.” “He who loves father or mother, wife or children more than Me is not worthy of Me.” “Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchisidech.” “You have not chosen Me, I have chosen you.” “The harvest is great but the harvesters are few.” I think of the scandal I have caused by abandoning my vocation and wonder if some divorced and remarried couples had said, “If Father Frank can leave his vows and marry why can’t we?” I am tormented when I think of all the Masses I should have offered but didn’t, of all the confessions unheard because of me, of all the sick not anointed, all the children not instructed, all the
converts not taught. I think of all the parishes closing because of a lack of priests and I have been part of the cause, part of the problem. I tremble as I think of my judgment.

The priest who gave me the last rites of the Church has assured me of God’s forgiveness; but what of the people I was ordained to serve and abandoned? Can they forgive me? I know how Judas must have felt yet I have not despaired. Jesus forgave Peter who denied him three times. I know he can forgive me but will he? Will I hear him say “Receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning?” or “Depart from me you cursed into everlasting fire?” May God have mercy on my soul; may the tears of my sweet mother touch
the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Please Jesus, say again to your heavenly father, “Father forgive him he knew not what he did.”

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