Friday, June 27, 2008

Bishop Mallon's Sermon

My journal notes for November 17, 1989 run to two full pages. Some days entries are larger, perhaps occasionally up to four, but most are shorter, for in the journal format I am no essayist like Thoreau, mentally polishing every sentence and paragraph before I write it down. For one thing, at journal time my brain is usually in high speed mode, loaded like a river in spring flood, so I can only catch the high points, and a good deal of that is in code, as it were, symbols of symbols of symbols, and often for future reference weeks or months of years ahead, waiting on circumstances to make plain, yet significant from at least the spiritual point of view, what was either very matter of fact or utterly, at the time, undecipherable. Only an illiterate thinks that prose can never be poetry.
The night before the 17th, for example, I'd just had a phone call from John Stark, about his hopes for filming my Leacock script, with a footnote regarding our Doukhobor film. My wife was meeting with her old high school English teacher, navy veteran John Norris, regarding a history of Nelson he was writing and the museum was publishing. I was moved to be curious about former film contacts David Puttnam and Colin Welland, thought gratefully of men with capital who knew how to use it well, and recalled that my own acting career had begun with a little boy's role in Albert College, Belleville, Ontario. And I had thoughts on acting as Marianne's agent regarding getting her poetry published in Commonweal.
Just before lunch, the phone rang.
With the rest of the diocese, we were waiting for the news of John Paul's decision regarding the new bishop of Nelson, who would be the fourth bishop for our relatively young diocese, and the successor to Wilfred Emmett Doyle, who had reigned from 1958 until the beginning of 1990.
The first and founding bishop, Martin Johnson, I had known much about, from the first days of meeting my intended. She had know him well.
All of her accounts of him were positive, as he was truly a good priest and a fine bishop. The only" negative" thing I ever knew about him was from my own personal history, because he would not use his office to place me in a teacher's post in a Catholic school in Vancouver when he was coadjutor archbishop there, and that was exactly the decision God wanted him to make because God wanted me to come to Nelson instead. I was not especially anxious to teach in Vancouver, but at that point in our brief sojourn in Vancouver in the summer of 64 my wife was far from keen on returning to Nelson and I felt bound to try every possibility in the Lower Mainland.
Every possibility in the Catholic schools, that is, because though I was on the cutting edge of so much of what is now taken for granted in the leading schools of whatever stripe, I had neither degree nor teacher's certificate and so a public school would have been all but impossible in the south west corner of the province. Only in the Outback or within the independents can they afford not to be fussy about paper credentials.
When nothing suitable turned up, after almost a month of trying, Shawn gave in to my original visions of the Kootenays, and up I came to the land of continual surprises.
Nelson's second bishop, from 55 to 58, was Thomas McCarthy, and I think he must also have been a good man because my memory of flying into the diocese, to the Creston Flats during the floods of 56, when I was a Sun reporter, is of a journey into a climate of innocence. McCarthy was moved up to St. Catherine's, Ontario, and a new residence block at the university was named after him. The first block was called St. Martin's, after Johnson, and the basement thereof later housed all that lovely live theatre I had a part in.
Wilfred Emmett Doyle, I was told at some point in our mutual careers, but not by him, was the last episcopal appointment of Pius XII, who was actually dead before Doyle assumed his bishop's chair. I've always wondered what went through the Pope's mind as he was looking over the three names the head of the congregation for bishops had presented him with. How did he decide to chose Doyle? What would my life here have been like if he had chosen someone like Johnson, or the wonderfully clear, warm, and open missionary bishop, just passing through, that preached on one of my first masses in Nelson? Or the late Archbishop Dery of Ghana, who actually came here and when I talked to him in the back of the cathedral after his sermon had all the mood and the body language of a leader wondering how he could talk me into coming and working in his country?
But Doyle, except when it was politically expedient to make it seem as if he and I were getting along, was often wondering how to get rid of me. My body language and the things I said simply following in the Lord's tradition of telling stories - in a mystic these anecdotes have the most annoying way of becoming parables - always made it plain that I could not be bought, and as most of his priests could be, he didn't like my attitude. One of priests, on the university staff, went so far as to suggest that with my zeal I would be better off in South America. I said thank you for the compliment, but I was a poet incapable of leaving his native landscape, and would remain in it.
Years later I learned that this priest was a practicing homosexual, one of those who had made it through the gate before Rome's secret circular to the bishops telling them not to ordain such men.
There you are: Twenty-six years of either feeling like a pariah for my supposed inability to get along with the local powers of the Church or else being full of confidence in everything I understood except my wonder that Rome could keep such rascals in place, although throughout it all I certainly had a ring side seat of an opportunity to see how the old maxim worked: where sin abounds, grace yet more abounds. God seemed to delight in keeping his original promises to me not through the priests and religious in so many cases, but in spite of them.
And then, finally, on the morning of the 17th of November, the telephone rang. I was the nearest - we had only one phone in those days of frugality, four now - so I answered. Just as well, it was for me anyway.
Suzie Hamilton, living in Nelson but stringing for the Vancouver Province. We had known each other well for over a year, when she had called me for background on Father John Frederick Monaghan, the first priest from our diocese arrested and jailed for predatory behaviour. I seemed to be the one member of the diocese that would talk to the press, and the word had got around.
She wanted to know my opinion on the appointment of our new bishop.
"Who is he? You're the first to tell me about it."
"Father Peter Mallon, from Vancouver. It was official yesterday."
My yell of happy triumph must have hurt her ears, and, for a bit, I kept on hollering. I was that excited. I knew that Rome had needed to listen up, but I couldn't believe, after the decades of nonsense we'd had to put up with locally, that it had listened well enough to send us not only a priest from the happily orthodox archdiocese of Vancouver, as it then was under James Carney, but that it had sent us someone that our old friend Father Desire Potanko had years ago said would be a bishop. It seemed to good to be true.
And is some senses, it was, for Mallon turned out to something of a modernist, like most bishops these days, but for the moment the world of faith was rose coloured and some months later, when we were at daily mass and Mallon was preaching, he mentioned a spiritual formula, to the effect that twenty-one, the result of multiplying the very spiritual number seven by the very spiritual number three, was a sign of wisdom.
So, as I have reached twenty-one posts, it seemed like something I should mention, even though there was no such thing as a blog at the time of that little sermon. A few years later, Mallon was kicked upstairs, being made archbishop of Regina. He died, of cancer, after a relatively short tenure, but I'm more than confident he has a much nicer view of his time here, and how he met his responsibilities, than Doyle has. Doyle never had any interest in wisdom, and Mallon at least would try to acquaint himself with it from time to time.
Peter Mallon was a graduate of Christ the King Seminary at Mission, in BC, run by the Benedictines. In order to think on him and the differences between us with mercy I am inclined to credit his professors of ascetical and mystical theology with some of the faults in his formation.
This, however, raises the question: are there any seminaries in the entire Catholic world of our time that actually know the first thing about this all important subject? Just the other day God reminded me that he sometimes has to punish because of the lack of interest in perfection.
In the entire history of the Catholic church there has never been a saint who challenged that principle. How accurate is my wondering if God is about to challenge the current widespread indifference toward it?

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