Courtesy / St. Mary's University
The report released in January by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which listed dozens of clergy who abused their ministry upon children, deeply disturbs me. It also doesn’t surprise me, knowing what history reveals about people – primarily men – who wield power.
The report strikes a dissonant chord once you add up all the criminal priests who have been accused after their death or who have since disappeared, i.e. fled. And the fact that zero incidents were reported in the last decade is suspicious at best.
What does this report mean for the Catholic Church? While it’s certainly a step in the right direction in terms of accountability, the Catholic Church, like many religious organizations in the United States, is continuing to hemorrhage members, especially millennials. As is the case in other industries, the bad news is likely to eclipse the good work being done locally and daily – at least for a little while. It may widen the chasm for those of increasingly diminished faith who desperately want to hang on.
On this Ash Wednesday, my thoughts are all over the place – some good, some bad. But as a self-proclaimed “bad” Catholic who doesn’t regularly attend mass, I want to share a story. A good one, because we need to tell and hear the good stories as well.
My story involves a professed Marianist brother named Joe Barrett, who died at age 93 in August.
I first met Brother Joe in early 2016 after being assigned to write a profile on him for the Marianist publication, Alive Magazine. At the time, Brother Joe had made more than 20,000 phone calls to donors of the Society of Mary, simply to thank them. While the volume of calls he made took a physical toll on his right hand, he was happy to perform what he labeled his “ministry of gratitude.”
Over dinner, Brother Joe told me about his life, about his upbringing in Detroit during the Great Depression. He possessed a good sense of humor, weaving in jokes all throughout our interview. He spoke endearingly of his parents. He dedicated his life to teaching in secondary education, and his final stop was at the Marianist Residence on the St. Mary’s University campus– essentially a nursing home for retired Marianist brothers and priests.
Judging from the pictures plastered on every wall in Brother Joe’s room, many of them taken at St. Mary’s, it was clear to me he was adored by many.
Our initial meeting led to several more dinners, during which we built a deeper friendship. I’d get off work and meet him in the Marianist Residence, joining him and other Marianists at a dinner table for their daily 5:30 p.m. supper. Afterward, Brother Joe and I would retreat to his room, where we’d talk for another couple hours.
As a graduate and employee of St. Mary’s, I realized during and after my chats with Brother Joe just how closely my alma mater’s identity was linked with religious men and women like Brother Joe, many of whom devoted their careers to education and to inspiring young people simply by being approachable.
It’s important to note that during my time with Brother Joe, he never once tried to recruit me into his religious order. He wasn’t a proselytizer, he was a joke-teller. He laughed out loud at my bad dad jokes – and believe me, they were bad. In my experience, Brother Joe was an inherently good guy.
In the few years I knew him, after every single one of our chats, I’d walk back to my car feeling exponentially lighter. Despite the worst days at work and outside of it, a dinner with Brother Joe would positively affect me more than any mass I’d ever attended. Through his hospitality, he made me want to be a better believer in Christ. He made me want to be a “good” Catholic.
The day before he died, I visited Brother Joe. Upon seeing my face, he said, “Is that the world-famous writer?” That was always his quip. But he really meant it.
Looking back, our last conversation that day was different. Brother Joe asked me more personal questions than usual – how had it been working at a college, and was I happy being Catholic? I answered his questions honestly, and he simply listened and nodded his head. After a while, I asked him if he was happy as a Marianist. After a few seconds of silence, he answered, “I have been truly blessed by God. If I had to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat.”
I told him I’d be back to see him next week. He said, “You betcha.”
Looking back, that was our goodbye that day, without us knowing it.
The next morning, he was gone. I carried with me the knowledge that I was his very last visitor – of the hundreds or thousands who knew him for much, much longer.
Brother Joe, for me, is a timestamp – a portal to a place and feeling that was sacred and filled with light, even when my mind wasn’t.
In the wake of abuse in the Catholic Church, abuse that will surely continue as long as humans are at the helm, the worst thing both “bad” and “good” Catholics can do is turn our backs on our faith. Hopping off the sinking ship is the easy thing to do.
The hard but worthwhile thing to do is to make it better. Fix it. Inspire people with good action. Hold on tight to our faith because no, not all is lost. We should take a page out of Brother Joe’s book regarding our faith and let it shine.