Our guest blogger is not available this week.
We will have another free book in September. September 20,21, & 22. Keep watching. It’s a birthday surprise.
A thing I’m doing now is editing a book about leaving the priesthood. Twelve of us ex-priests are each writing a section about leaving. I act as kind of a first editor of these stories and from what I’ve read, they are pretty exciting.
Editing this book has called back to mind many principles of writing. I’ll include my section, but I really want you to make some suggestions. It’s a story of first love, of pain, and of courage. Here it is
I was just three years a priest in 1965 when I marched in Selma with Doctor Martin Luther King. It was the high point of my life as a Christian. Finally I had done something significant for my faith. However, when I returned to my suburban Cleveland parish, I discovered that people had gone to the pastor and the bishop and demanded my transfer. “Either you get rid of that nigger-lover young priest, or we’ll never give you another dime,” they told the pastor.
Instead of standing up to the racists, the bishop and the pastor complied with their wishes. I was hurt and shocked. The church that I had given my life to, did not stand behind its own proclamations. Money ruled.
I was transferred and transferred again when I got too popular with the people and with my fellow priests.
Two years after I marched in Selma, I was stationed with an alcoholic pastor, Father Lynch.
* * *
As the fall went on, I grew angrier and angrier with what I saw in the community. One day I mustered my courage and decided to go tell the bishop about the failure of the Catholic Church in the central city. I had always been told that the bishop spoke for God. At ordination I had promised him absolute obedience. This was a big step for me.
The bishop lived in a rich suburb, near the central city, but separated from it by a busy freeway. I got in my VW minibus and drove down East 105th Street toward Lake Erie. This street was one of the worst in the city. Deteriorating stores, sleazy bars and houses of prostitution lined the street. Riots and near riots often started at the big intersections. Garbage littered the street, along with abandoned cars and half-burnt buildings. The sun was just coming up on this fall day so not much was stirring on the street at this hour.
105th Street went under the freeway near the lake and the scene changed as rapidly as a movie might switch from a barrio to a luxury subdivision. Expensive homes, mansions really, lined the street. Gardeners manicured the lawns to perfection, trimmed the shrubs, and picked up any litter. As usual, a police car sat on the Bratenahl side of the underpass, I assumed to keep black people out. When they saw the Roman collar, they waved me on. I drove on and noticed that they had even changed the name of 105th Street to Bratenahl Road. In the minds of most Clevelanders, 105th Street was a slum. It wouldn’t do for the owner of a mansion to have his return address listed as 105th Street.
I turned on to Lake Shore Boulevard and drove to the Bishop’s mansion. It was right on the lake. I parked and absorbed this large, well-kept home. One old man and a few nuns lived here in luxury and just across the freeway, thousands of men, women and children lived in poverty. What had happened to the message of Jesus?
I rang the bell and a nun came to the door. “I want to see the bishop,” I said.
She looked at me like I had asked her for a handout. “This is emergency?” she asked.
“Yes.” She had an accent, but I couldn’t identify it.
She let me into atrium. “You wait,” she said and hurried into the mansion.
There was one straight-back carved wooden chair in the atrium, what I thought of as a bishop’s chair, appropriately enough. An ornate large mirror gave me a picture of myself, a young priest with cigarette ashes and a bit of breakfast on his black coat, a receding hairline and an earnest face.
On a small end table, I saw a small box of matches encased in a knitted sleeve. I laughed to myself. Who in their right mind would spend time knitting such a thing? I pocketed it – it would make a great souvenir.
Finally the bishop came down. He was a man in his sixties, a stern look about him. He sat down in the carved chair and left me standing. I caught a whiff of aftershave lotion.
“What seems to be the problem, Father? I set up these special meetings at my home for any priest who might have an emergency problem of faith or morals. Is this an emergency?”
“Is it a moral question?”
He sighed and leaned back in the chair. “What is it?” he asked.
I blinked, took a deep breath and started. “Bishop, the church is failing the inner city. People are dying, children aren’t getting proper care and what is our church doing? Nothing.”
The bishop’s resigned look turned to one of anger. His face reddened. “That’s not true young man. Our Catholic Interracial Council tries to help the inner city.”
“By making statements? Much more is needed, Bishop. Action.”
He stared at me and I boldly stared back. But what I saw was not an evil person but an old man who was tired. For a moment I felt sorry for him.
“This is not really a matter of morals, Father Griffin. We set this opportunity up for priest to come and talk about moral issues, you know, like sexual things or stealing from the church.”
“Helping the poor is not a moral issue? You build new churches far out in the suburbs and our parish has a beat up old school and no extra money to make a difference in the neighborhood. We Catholics – you, Bishop – we don’t take a strong stand on racism or on poverty. We let the Presbyterians and the Anglicans take the lead. What’s the matter with us?”
“You’re wrong, young man. We subsidize inner city parishes, including the one you’re in. And just last month I had a letter read in all the churches condemning racism. So don’t tell me we’re not doing anything.”
I paused. What would Isaiah do? Surely, he would not mince words. He would tell it like it was.
I gestured in a circle, pointing to the walls around me. “This mansion, Bishop, why don’t you sell it? Give the money to the poor.”
The bishop struggled to get up. He leaned his right arm on the ornate chair. His face was redder and his chin was locked in anger. “That’s enough, Father. I set this interview time up for emergencies. You’re wasting my time. Good day.”
He turned to leave, but at the entrance to his luxurious living room, he turned to me, the anger gone from his face. “I’m going to pray for you, Father.”
“Thank you, Bishop.”
I put my hand on the ornate doorknob. I watched him walk slowly through his house.
I left. Outside, I took a big breath of Lake Erie air. I felt terrific. I knew I hadn’t accomplished anything practical, but I had fought an important battle that every young man must fight. My own father was dead, so I had stood up to my spiritual father. I had become a man.
And what does a man do next?
He falls in love.
* * *
Her name was Rose Ann, a black woman with light skin. She often seemed embarrassed by her light skin and almost apologized for it. “Black is beautiful, Father,” she said, “and I’m black.” She had just graduated from college, and with her friend, Carmelita, she helped me with youth groups and with social action projects. All the kids I worked with were black and both women could relate to them better than I could.
Rose Ann was tough and funny, an attractive woman with a biting wit. She wanted to write a book about black women, their struggles and their glory. Carmelita was taller than Rose Ann, a professional social worker, a quiet woman who thought deeply about everything.
After our youth social action meeting the three of us would go out for drinks – and an occasional drink for me – my five-year, no-alcohol pledge for young priests had just ended. We always went to a hotel bar near Lake Erie. It wasn’t on the shore but we could see the lake from the parking lot. Sometimes we caught a whiff of Lake Erie fish, and in warmer weather there was a cool breeze off the lake.
One night we got into a discussion of what we would all be like in twenty years. Rose Ann would be a famous author and Carmelita would be in Washington in charge of Social Services. I would be a bishop.
“Okay,” I said, “now that was fun. But I want to know really what I’ll be like in twenty years. I mean, I’ve seen lots of priests who started out fine, but¾”
“Like Philip Lynch,” Rose Ann said. “He starts out great and opens a home for alcoholic sailors and then becomes one.”
“A sailor?” Carmelita asked.
We all laughed. “No, an alcoholic.”
I persisted, “Tell me. I want to know. Carmelita, what do you see in my future? In twenty years?”
She didn’t answer right away. Her smile disappeared and she said, “I’m not going to tell you.”
“Come on. I’m asking.”
“No, I won’t tell you.”
Rose Ann said, “She doesn’t know.”
But I knew Carmelita. She did know. I began to ask myself the question. Twenty more years of loneliness, of drunken pastors or of pastors who stepped on every initiative I started. Being moved from parish to parish. I had already been moved three times in five years. Two of my classmates from the seminary owned boats and one was studying in Rome, exactly the future my mother wanted for me. I was often full of ideas and plans and I wanted to share them with someone – but there was no one.
What would twenty more years of the priesthood do to me? I already had lots of doubt about church doctrine. When Pope John XXIII started the Vatican Council, he said he wanted to throw open the windows in the church. My trouble was that I couldn’t get my own windows closed.
In the seminary my best friend was a guy named Charlie. He was a big man who always fought his weight problem. In every discussion we had, he was on the left wing, liberal side and on the conservative. He said celibacy was a mis-guided idea, and I defended the church. Now in five short years I had out-Charlied my friend Charlie. We met once for coffee and I knew that I, who was way to the right of him in the seminary, was now way to the left of him. Charlie was shocked when I told him I didn’t read the breviary anymore – a supposed mortal sin for a priest. “It’s not that I don’t read the Bible, Charlie,” I said. “It’s just that I read the parts I want, not what the Church says I should read. And I don’t read a certain amount every day; that’s too artificial.”
Charlie and I were similar in one way – we were both active in civic affairs, me in civil rights and he in the community welfare organization in Akron where he was stationed.
And children – I loved children. I could see that from my parish work. Every time I visited a parishioner’s home, I ended up playing with the children. I loved it when they laughed or showed joy at a trick I taught them. I loved them clean and dirty, even the babies with stinky diapers.
No children for me? Ever?
* * *
In late October, 1967, Carmelita couldn’t come to a youth group meeting, so Rose Ann and I drove the kids home. Afterwards we went to the hotel bar. We talked about the social action meeting with the kids, I told her about the changes coming in the Church and she described the appeal the Black Muslims had in the inner city. I was very curious about them, because I had seen them in action – black men in suits passing out literature on the street, caring for children and helping teenage boys go straight. We talked and laughed for a couple of hours. As we were getting ready to leave, she said she wouldn’t make next week’s meeting because she was going to Toledo, a hundred miles west of Cleveland.
I said goodnight and drove back to the rectory. But it bothered me all the way home – why was she going to Toledo? Never in my life had I had a feeling like this – wondering who she was going to see in Toledo.
When she came back to Cleveland, Carmelita missed our next meeting as well and Rose Ann and I talked again at our late night session.
“How was Toledo?” I asked her.
“I went to see my cousins,” she replied.
“I didn’t ask that.”
She laughed. “But you were wondering, weren’t you?”
I laughed, too. Women have X-ray vision into the human heart.
“Let’s talk about it,” she said.
“You and me.”
For a second, I couldn’t breathe. Tears came to my eyes. I finally got a word out, “Yes.”
“In Toledo, I kept thinking about you. It’s crazy and impossible, but that’s the truth.”
Again, emotion choked me. “Me, too,” I said.
“It’s funny,” she said. “I talked to Carmelita about this and she and I laughed. It’s a sign that there are no good marriageable males around – me falling in love with a priest.”
“What does Carmelita think?”
“That it’s an infatuation.”
What did she mean? Was the infatuation on both our parts?
Rose Ann asked, “What are we going to do about this?”
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to do.
* * *
For the next two months I went through a torturous debate with myself – stay a priest or leave? I knew other priests who had affairs with women, even lived with them without giving up the priesthood. I couldn’t do that. For one thing, it wouldn’t be fair to the woman. And I wanted to live my life in the open. How would it feel to preach one thing and live another? What would I say in confession if someone said they were living in sin and didn’t want to give it up? How could I advise them if, according to the church, I was living in sin?
I never hugged Rose Ann or kissed her, yet she was always on my mind. My cold intellectual debates about celibacy and the priesthood left the theoretical level. I now had a practical problem, a very real one. I was in love. What was I going to do about it?
* * *
In late October I had to go to a retreat house for my annual ‘spiritual tune-up.’ Every priest in the diocese had to do this. We were supposed to spend the week listening to talks and meditating. Once there, we were not allowed to leave the grounds.
I had developed a cassock phobia, meaning that I had decided that the long, black cassock was a feminine form of dress that emasculated me. Back at St. Thomas, Father Lynch had been harping at me to wear a cassock. I refused and wore my black clerical suit with a roman collar. On this retreat there were forty-nine priests wearing cassocks. Dare I stand out? I did, with lots of comments from older priests and a direct order from the retreat director. I still refused.
On Tuesday of the retreat, I received a telephone message that was labeled Emergency. I called the number. It was the campaign manager for Carl Stokes, the first black man to run for mayor of Cleveland.
“Father, we need you to give the invocation on Thursday night. We’re planning a big rally in a white area – we need the white vote to win, Father.”
“I’m flattered,” I replied, “but you want to get a bigwig monsignor or an important pastor of a white parish, not a civil rights activist like me.”
“Ah…we’ve tried. We can’t get anyone.”
“Listen, I’ll give you a few names, you try them and if they say no, then I’ll do it. Just leave another message at this number and say it’s an emergency, but don’t say what kind of emergency. Okay?”
The man agreed and I gave him a few names. The next day I got another message labeled Emergency. I walked out of the retreat on Thursday evening and went to the rally. My invocation prayed that, “May God’s blessings come down on Carl Stokes. Like little David in the Bible, he faces a giant of a challenge in the next few days.”
My prayer went on in that manner. It was a little over-the-top, but Carl Stokes won anyway in early November.
* * *
In my hour of crisis, I sought help from two people. The first was my brother-in-law, Tom. He was a computer engineer and a believer in social justice. In the late fifties he participated in the famous lunch counter sit-ins, where students and activists occupied segregated lunch counters. I respected Tom because he moved me from a talker about racial justice to an actor, when he persuaded me to participate in my first demonstration back at the Granada Hotel.
In mid-November Tom and I took a long walk in a park outside Cleveland. The sun felt good that day after a few weeks of gloomy, stormy weather. The trees had shed their leaves, opening vistas in the park. We hiked along a ridge and we could see the creek in the valley below.
After hemming and hawing for a while, I got to the problem. “I’m in love, Tom.” I told him all about Rose Ann.
He patted me on the back. “Come on, Ed. It happens to us all. We meet a woman and for a day, a week, whatever, we can’t think of anything else but her. But that doesn’t mean we give up everything we’ve worked for. How long have you been a priest?”
“Over five years.”
“And it’s never happened before?” Tom asked.
“Well, something’s different now.”
We walked for a while in silence.
“Have an affair with her,” he said. “Maybe it’ll get the whole thing out of your system.” He thought for a minute and added, “Or it won’t.”
Again silence and then, “If you leave,” Tom asked, “what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Get a job, I guess.”
“What kind of job?”
I didn’t answer. He had me. I hadn’t thought this through.
“Here’s an idea, Ed. Go get a master’s degree in something you’re interested in. Then quit. Let the church pay for your education. Then you can move into a field you like and leave the priesthood. It’ll only take a year or so.”
Tom’s advice sounded pretty sensible, but somehow it didn’t fit me. Perhaps it’s a failing, but I’m a now person. If I have a problem, I get at it right now. If I want something, I try to get it now. I was in love and that situation had to be dealt with now.
* * *
The other person who advised me was Sister Mary, a nun whom I often met at social action groups. We talked a lot about spirituality together. She was a few years older than me and the principal of Catholic High School in an older part of Cleveland. I called her on a Sunday afternoon and asked if I could come over and talk.
“I’ll meet you at the school,” she said.
We met in the staff lounge, a quiet room with notices on the walls and a little kitchen at the back. A pizza and a bottle of soda sat on the coffee table. Mary understood a young man’s appetite.
In between bites of pizza, I laid out the problem, holding nothing back.
She munched on a single piece, sitting opposite me on a folding chair, the afternoon sun casting bars of light on her and on the wooden floor. I sat on an old couch, the coffee table between us. Visually, she was a foot or so above me, which is where I always placed her in my mind. On her quiet face you could catch glimpses of the light from another world, a spiritual world.
She had an attitude that I strived for – she did as much as I did for social justice, but there was an aura of spirituality about her. She could laugh with everyone else about the foibles of the bishop, but I knew that prayer and meditation went deep in her.
When I finished the story of Rose Ann, she didn’t say anything for a minute. “You know,” she said, “you’ve changed me a lot. I have never met anyone to whom Jesus was more present than to you. You have made him come alive for me. I’m telling you true.”
She tried to camouflage it, but tears came into her eyes. “The talks you’ve given at meetings, our conversations, Ed, I mean it, they’ve made a difference in my life. . . the way you talk about Jesus…”
I knew she wasn’t just saying this to keep me in the priesthood. Mary was a straight shooter.
“So you think I should stay.”
“You’re good at it.”
I told her what my brother-in-law had said.
“Yes, maybe it is just an infatuation and maybe it’s real. I don’t know. But I think something else is going on – you’ve fallen out of love with the church.”
“What do you mean?”
“After all you’ve been through, after all the moves from parish to parish, you’ve been hurt and the wonderful church you dedicated your life to doesn’t look so wonderful anymore.”
“You’re right there, Mary.”
“But bishops aren’t the church and neither are the drunken pastors and white racists or whatever. The church is all of us. All of us striving together to reach the kingdom.”
“I know that’s what the Vatican Council says, but…”
Mary took a few more bites of her pizza and I ate a whole piece and thought about what she had said. We were both quiet for a while. We were such good friends that we were comfortable together without speech.
Mary broke the silence. “I read about a conference in Mexico called The Priest in Crisis. The famous priest, Father Ivan Illich, who’s training priests to help the poor in South and Central America, is giving the conference. Would you like to go? Sounds like it’s what you need now.”
“Sounds great, Mary, but you know my finances. I’ve got nothing.”
“You’ve spent it all on others. I’ll give you the money.”
“No, I’ll borrow it.”
“Okay, it’s a deal.”
“It’s in Cuernavaca, Mexico, right after Christmas.”
“And remember what I said, Ed, that you’re very good at what you do.”
* * *
Christmas came and with it a bittersweet meeting. Tom and my sister, Joy, had moved in early December to Beloit, Wisconsin where Tom had a new job. Tom and Joy returned to Cleveland for the holidays and stayed with friends. I went over to see them and my sister came down the stairs with a Christmas present for me – a new set of vestments that she had hand sewn for me. Tom had kept the confidentially I insisted on and had not told her what was going through my mind.
I thanked her for her thoughtfulness and told her about my upcoming trip and the reason for it. “Have you told Mother?” she asked.
“Well, don’t,” Joy said.
“I wasn’t going to.” I fingered the beautiful work she had done. “I don’t know what to do. What if I leave the priesthood? What should I do with these?”
“Give them to the missions. What about the chalice you got at ordination?”
“I gave that to the missions a long time ago,” I replied.
* * *
I told my friend, Justin, about the conference and he told our other friend, Don. The three of us – the three troublemakers in the diocese of Cleveland – flew to Mexico City right after Christmas and spent a day sightseeing. We took a taxi over the hills to Cuernavaca, a beautiful little city nestled in the mountains to the south. We rode through this colonial city and up into the surrounding hills. Illich’s school was located in a small building in a group of simple Mexican homes that he had bought to house his students.
The conference we came for, The Priest in Crisis, never really happened. We met Illich and he gave us only one lecture. He talked with us about his work in South America and about his ideas of society. I knew him to be widely respected, but I was dealing with a crisis in my life and I didn’t want to talk about globalization or what the CIA was up to. After the talk, I went up to him and said, “Professor, I’m thinking of leaving the priesthood.”
He stared at me for a long minute and then said, “Don’t tell your mother.”
“What?” I asked. “How can I not tell my mother?”
He shrugged and walked away. A year later he himself left the priesthood and I wondered if he followed his own advice.
With the conference over the day it started, Justin and Don took off to sun themselves in Acapulco. I decided to stay in Cuernavaca and think. We agreed to meet again to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the town square.
I walked around the city for a day and tried to think, but no great insight came to me. I went back to the little Mexican house where I was staying. The house was just one big room. There was a bathroom in a corner and a ladder in the center to go up to a trap door that led to the roof. A natural gas two-burner hot plate-type stove was the only way to heat water or food, and the house for that matter. I guess home heat wasn’t needed that much in this area. The stove, however, gave off the smell of rotten eggs, not a good sign for natural gas. I didn’t care about the natural gas problem, however, because I had a bad case of traveler’s diarrhea for the next twenty-four hours.
The next night I felt well enough to go up the ladder and sit on the roof to watch the stars. No railing blocked the view and I was far enough from the city that no lights interfered with the view. The temperature was mild as it is year round in Cuernavaca.
That night it seemed that the universe opened up to me. I was one with the stars and planets over my head. I could do whatever I wanted and be whatever I wanted to be.
I stayed up there until dawn, then slept for a few hours and toured the area for a few more days until Justin and Don returned on New Year’s Eve.
We spent the last evening of 1967 in the square of the city, drinking cerveza and talking. I told them about my night under the stars. “I’m on the verge of quitting,” I said.
“Ah,” Don said, “sex in ’68.”
We all laughed, but as we headed back up to our sleeping quarters, we stopped on a hilltop overlooking the city.
Justin patted me on the back and grew serious. “I’ve been thinking about you leaving, Ed. I’m going to miss you. You’re a hell of a guy. But don’t just quit. Take a leave of absence. If things don’t work out, you can come back. You don’t burn your bridges behind you that way.”
It was good advice and I determined to do exactly that when we got back.
We finished our trip by returning to Mexico City where I went into a little men’s shop. Here I was, thirty-one years old and I didn’t own a shirt with a collar or a tie. I bought a white shirt, a blue striped tie and matching silver cufflinks and tie clasp. I was no longer Father Edward Griffin. I was man of the world, Ed Griffin, dressed in my new shirt, tie and cufflinks.
I was proud of my new clothes.
* * *
We got back to Cleveland late at night. The next morning I sat down with Father Lynch. “I’m taking a leave of absence, Father,” I said, “and it has nothing to do with you.” I was worried that he would think his drinking had scandalized me so badly that I was leaving.
“Sure, sure,” he said, “more protests, no doubt. You’ve gotten yourself into this mess, young man.”
I found out later that he had another drinking bout immediately after I left.
Next I visited the bishop in his mansion. He greeted me in the same unfriendly way he had before. “I hope this is an emergency, Father?”
“Well, I guess so,” I replied. “I think I owe it to you to let you know I’m taking a leave of absence from the priesthood. You’ll need to send another assistant priest to St. Thomas. Father Lynch isn’t doing well, nor is the dying Irish priest he took in.”
“You can’t just walk out on your priesthood, Father.”
The phrase ‘leave of absence’ had been on my mind since Justin suggested it. I wanted to say exactly that, but now the bishop was pushing me.
“I’m leaving,” I said. “I’m joining the hundreds of priests who are leaving the priesthood.”
“What? Are you leaving or just taking a leave of absence?”
“A leave of absence.”
“Well, listen Father, there is no mass movement of priests leaving. I don’t know where you got that idea.”
I didn’t reply but I knew what the facts were. I turned to go. “Anyway, Bishop, just to let you know about St. Thomas.”
I put my hand on the door.
“Father, think of your immortal soul.”
“Goodbye, Bishop,” I said and left.
After I left the priesthood, I faced the entirely new problem of dating. I was a thirty-one year old virgin who knew nothing about dating, nothing about women. When I learned to trust my own instincts, I was fine.
My relationship with Rose Ann faded away and I dated lots of women. An ex-nun I went with had far more sexual experience than I did. She ended our relationship after nine months and I’m glad she did, but it hurt at the time.
After I got my master’s degree in community organization, I applied for a job with a couple I knew in a poor area of Milwaukee. I went over to their house and we had a pleasant chat. I knew after a while that the job was not mine – we had differing opinions of the mayor of Milwaukee. I was about to leave when the woman’s sister walked down the stairs. That was forty-two years ago, two children, two countries, five careers, and fourteen different cars ago. Kathy is a retired kindergarten teacher now and I still volunteer to teach creative writing in prison.
It’s been a great life.
Most of this account came from Ed’s book, Once A Priest. He is the author of five books and writes two blogs, Writers Write Daily and Prison Uncensored. His website is www.edgriffin.net