Thursday, August 13, 2009

Father Brandon


(To start at the beginning of this series, click here)


The Sunflower Café and Bakery is one of those quaint, Old World-style establishments that can be found tucked away in leafy inner-city neighborhoods all over the country.

Arriving there early yesterday morning, I observed that a number of folks were already sitting at tables on the sidewalk – making the most of the warm spring sun. Inside, too, the place was quickly filling up with customers.

I must admit I was uncomfortable when Fr. Brandon suggested The Sunflower for our meeting place. It had, after all, been one of Carlos’ favorite eating spots, and I soon discovered that just being inside the familiar interior stirred up all kinds of emotions.

“Can I help you?”

The server beside me was a fresh-faced young man, probably in his early twenties.

“Oh, I’m meeting, er, a friend . . . for coffee,” I stammered.

“Well, feel free to take any available table,” he replied.

“Actually, you have a patio now, don’t you? Would it be possible to sit out there?”

He hesitated a moment before smiling – a smile that seemed as genuine and warm as the sunshine outside.


He led me to a paved courtyard, complete with a little fountain. It was quite charming. As the server turned to leave, I asked him if he’d be on the lookout for an elderly gentleman.

“He’s a priest,” I said, “He might be wearing a . . .” I gestured toward my neck. The young man smiled and nodded knowingly before turning and walking back into the noisy interior of the café.

Father Brandon appeared shortly afterward, Roman collarless and apologizing for being late. We placed our orders with the young man whose name, I’d overheard from another server, was Miles. Father Brandon and I then sat in a rather uncomfortable silence for what seemed an eternity. In all probability it was no more than thirty seconds.

“I appreciate this chance to talk with you, Father.” I said.

And so it began. We must have sat talking and sharing in that sun-dappled courtyard for almost two hours. Surprisingly, no one else came out from the café to sit at any of the tables around us. Only Miles came and went, silently bringing and removing dishes, and replenishing Fr. Brandon’s coffee and the pot of hot water for my tea.

In retrospect, Father Brandon did something that I’d not experienced with any other priest – well, any other male priest: he asked me to share my story. And the way he did it conveyed to me a trust and belief that he could learn something of value from whatever I had to say. And so I shared with him my deep disappointment with what I see happening at St. Jerome’s, my efforts to educate myself about church history and theology, my involvement with Dignity, and the questions and uncertainties that the female ordination issue have raised for me.

“James, I can see you take your faith very seriously,” Father Brandon said when I’d finished. “I commend you for asking the questions and grappling with the issues that you do. Is Karl Rahner one of the theologians you’ve been reading? No? Oh, then you should, my boy! You should! He has this wonderful expression that I can’t help but think of as I hear you speak. You, James, think with the mind and heart you actually have, and not with the mind and heart you’re supposed to have. And that’s good. That’s very good.”

“But it means I disagree with what the Church says about . . . well . . . about all sorts of things,” I replied.

“Show me a time in the history of our Church when people weren’t disagreeing about something. That’s how we figure things out. That’s how we keep learning and defining who we are and what we believe.”

Father Brandon then leaned back in his chair and looked at me intently.

“I’m curious, James, in sharing with me the things you’ve been struggling with, I noticed you didn’t mention the Church’s stance on homosexuality. My sense is that you don’t agree with this stance, and so I’m wondering what is it about the Church’s teaching on this issue that first made you doubt it, that made you not believe it?”

It was a question that, I must admit, threw me. Yet I knew that it was an important and legitimate one. As I sat pondering it I was suddenly aware that Miles was beside me. In silence I watched his hands gently and skillfully replenish our liquid refreshments. I looked up into his face and for the briefest of moments I eyes met. And then he was gone, as quietly and efficiently as he had appeared.

“Beauty,” I said, turning to Father Brandon. “Those teachings . . . they lack beauty. The way they’re written, the things they convey . . . it’s all so narrow and rigid and . . . and clumsy and ugly. I think we should express our understanding of sexuality in the form of poetry, love poetry. To talk about such things in the heady language of doctrine is, well . . . it borders on the obscene. How can it possibly capture the beauty, the complexity, the truth of what two people feel and experience and know when they're together in that special way?”

“Some of the Church’s teaching on conjugal love can be quite beautiful,” Father Brandon observed.

“Yes,” I said, “but only if you’re straight. Why can’t that beauty be extended to someone like me? Surely it isn’t defined simply by what body parts we have and where we put them. Isn’t the beauty the Church refers to more about being in a loving and giving relationship? Isn’t it about the creating of something that endures, that gives life, vitality, hope and . . . and a sense – an experience – of God’s love?”

Father Brandon smiled and nodded.

“I agree with you, James. Our Church still has a lot to learn, still has a lot of growing to do.”

Now it was my turn to lean back in my seat and grapple with how to word the question I knew I needed to ask.

“So how did you, a priest, come to be able to think like that? To say the things you’re saying?”

Father Brandon laughed quietly - almost to himself.

“I suppose I’ve been blessed with a restless spirit, a need to be open to God wherever I find Him, and not just where the Church says He can be found. I’m sure my years in Guatemala helped in this regard. And I guess I’ve always had a hard time trusting the all-too-ready answers that the institutional Church has to offer on issues – complex issues, as you say – such as sexuality. It seems all too easy to build ghettos out of such answers – ghettos within which, sadly, too many of us hide from reality. The tragic thing is it shouldn’t be – and wasn’t always – like that. Again, read Rahner. You’ll see what I mean.

“And I suppose another thing is that I’m not a diocesan priest, so I’ve been removed somewhat from the politics, bureaucracy, and . . . well, let’s face it . . . the career ladder of diocesan church life. And trust me, James, nothing takes you more quickly away from the call and meaning of the priesthood than that church career ladder. Oh, I don’t want to imply it doesn’t exist within the religious orders, but it is more obvious – and more dangerous – among diocesan clergy. Priests should not be administrators . . . or rulers; on that I’ve become quite convinced. We’re pastors - servant leaders - for goodness sake.”

Now it was my turn to chuckle.

“That all sounds rather unorthodox,” I observed wryly.

“James, I’m 83 years old, and if there’s one thing I know it’s that orthodoxy is not what it’s all about. And certainly not what being a pastor is all about. It’s about being present with and for people. It’s about being present in an informed and compassionate and listening way. I don’t for a minute think that I have all the answers. I can try, of course, to be as informed as best I can about an issue like homosexuality, and of course that means listening to what the Church says. But the Church is bigger than Rome. It includes people like yourself, and the gay couples that attend St. Aelred’s, and the folks at Dignity. And being informed also means listening to what science says – real science, not that stuff that Courage is forever trying to push.”

I asked Farther Brandon if he was aware of the Courage conference taking place at St. Jerome’s next week. He said he was, and that he had also heard about Dignity’s unsuccessful attempt to work with the chancery to have some kind of dialogue forum take place during the conference.

“The chancery sent out a letter to all the priests – encouraging us to attend and warning us against engaging in any way with the Dignity folks. Can you believe it? Followers of Christ being told not to engage with people. What are they afraid of? That’s what I’m left to wonder. They tell us the folks of Dignity are not ‘agents or entities of the diocese.’ Since when did Jesus have ‘agents and entities’?”

“They think the matter’s settle,” he said of the chancery, “when clearly it’s not. I can’t tell you how many times some conservative type has lectured me about the infallibility of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. They’re wrong, of course, but I’ve learned not to argue with such zealots. Unfortunately, it’s these zealots who are increasingly in control. And it’s something we’re seeing now in this diocese.”

“So, will you part of Dignity’s protest of the Courage conference?” I asked.

Father Brandon chuckled softly.

“I’ve learned to choose my battles, James. I made a financial donation to Dignity to help cover some printing costs related to the protest, and I’ll continue to make available supportive literature at St. Aelred’s. Some would say it’s out of line, others would say it’s not nearly enough.”

Miles returned, asking politely if there was anything else he could bring us.

“Just the check, thanks,” Father Brandon responded, before turning to me and explaining that he needed to be getting back to St. Aelred’s for a meeting.

I realized there was still something I needed to ask him – and that I’d better do so quickly.

“Father, when I met with Cathie, the female priest I was telling you about earlier, she said that our current understanding and, well, form of priesthood is on its way out, and that, in some ways, so too is a certain way of understanding church. Do you think she’s right?”

“It would seem so,” Father Brandon reflected thoughtfully. “The people in the pews aren’t happy – and many are showing it by simply leaving. Recent teachings – well, relatively recent teachings on things like contraception and homosexuality have simply not been ‘received,’ as we say, by the faithful. Fewer and fewer men are entering the seminaries. From everything I’ve read there seems to be growing support for women priests. So, yes, it would seem to me the Spirit’s trying to tell us something.

“I’m not a great one for heralding new eras," continued Father Brandon. "Yes, some things are changing and need to change, but in some ways I think it’s more about reclaiming than it is about forging something completely new. The Vatican and our local bishop can bluster all they want about their opposition to female ordination but the reality remains: there were women in the early church who were in leadership positions comparable to what we now understand as ‘priest.’ And quite frankly, even if they weren’t back then, they should be now.

“It also seems to me that there’s a movement within the Church that’s seeking to reclaim that vision of community embodied by Jesus – a vision that history shows was usurped and in many ways corrupted by the rise of what I call the imperial church and its cultic understanding of priesthood. It’s funny, don’t you think, James, that those of us drawn to the original model, to the Jesus-centered way of being church, are in fact the true traditionalists? The pope’s forever going on about relativism, about not being influenced by ‘the culture.’ And yet here we are today stuck with a model of Church based on absolute monarchy – which, of course, is a cultural phenomenon relative to a certain point in human history. If the consequences of all of this weren’t so damaging and tragic, I’d say God has one heck of a sense of humor.”

I offered to pay for our breakfast but Father Brandon would not hear of it. At the counter, as Miles counted out his change, Father Brandon thanked me for sharing my story and speaking so honestly about my journey with the Church.

“There may come a time, James, when for your own spiritual health you may find you need to leave the Roman way of being Catholic. You know that, don’t you?”

I thought of Jay, my gay friend and the former music director at St. Jerome’s, now working and worshiping at a Protestant church.

Father Brandon reached out and took my hand. “James, you’ll always be a precious child of God – a God bigger than any of our often self-serving efforts at defining and containing Him. Remember that, won’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I will remember that. And thank you, Father, for . . . for everything.”

I walked Father Brandon to his car and watched as he drove away. I felt drained yet also strangely elated – a feeling that remains with me still.

And I can’t help but think how appropriate in was that I met Father Brandon at The Sunflower Café. I mean, think about it: a sunflower moves its beautiful golden head so as to follow the sun; Father Brandon, it seems clear to me, has sought and followed God in ways that has ensured his thinking on all sorts of matters has moved. Has changed. Has grown. There’s a beauty in that, of that I’m sure. And it’s a beauty, a truth, that I long to be part of - and am part of, I know. For this I can only surrender in gratitude to God.

NEXT: Part 7 - The Note

See also the previous installments of The Journal of James Curtis:
Part One: A “Bells and Smells” Kind of Guy
Part Two: A Quiet Visit and an Exhausting Conversation
Part Three: A Journey Begins
Part Four: Carlos
Part Five: My Lunch with a “Medicine Bearer”

Image: Michael J. Bayly.


Mark Andrews said...

Unlike sunflowers, human beings have a neck.

Brian R said...

I found many wonderful wise godly people among the religious when I worked in Catholic schools. Father Brandon seems to be one of those. Sadly they do not seem to reach the top of the church career paths. Probably this is inevitable. Still they do wonderful work for God.

Anonymous said...

Dear "James Curtis,"

Thanks so much for sharing this with me. The name, the age (close), the ecclesiology sound right but the fine words of the padre are not this stutterer's. Nevertheless, I am greatly honored.

In Christ,

"Fr. Brandon"