The Ottawa Citizen
July 8, 2012 9:12 PM
By Kelly Egan, The Ottawa Citizen
A priest is a heartbeat from God. Above us.
This is what you think as a Catholic altar boy. The priest stands, in holy robes, just below the Son of God on a giant crucifix, but above the faithful, at an altar, and may preach from a raised pulpit. Above us.
At confession, you kneel in the dark, below him, and whisper. In the old days, you accepted communion, kneeling, below him. If he wears the right hat, you bend, kiss his ring. Is he not God’s agent on Earth?
But, as a man, you see the folly.
A priest is not a heartbeat from God. A priest is a heartbeat from you and me, and every other sinner on this Earth: why Father Joe, for all his talent and charm, is Ordinary Joe.
When I was kid in a Centretown parish, one of three altar boys in the family, there was a priest we held in high esteem — the pastor, of Irish heritage and Jimmy Cagney looks. To this day, there is hesitation in besmirching his name.
He was a marvellous orator, impressively learned, later to be a bishop. My mother adored him.
I still remember a snippet of a homily from 40 years ago at midnight mass. The gist of it being that the word “Bethlehem” had morphed over time and twisted tongues into “bedlam,” which said much about the birthplace of Jesus, and the mad, mad world we became.
For a summer, I was hired on to help the church caretaker, at $60 a week, so many afternoons found myself inside the church, cleaning, in the deathly quiet.
Once in a while, in Father would come and commence to rapidly walk along the outside aisles of the old church. Round and round he went, black robes flowing, holding a rosary in his hands, whooshing by the stained glass and the stations of the cross. What was he doing?
You could just barely hear him, praying, over the scrape of his soles.
On another occasion or two, I had to call the church rectory in the evening, to rearrange a work schedule. Usually staff answered, for this was not a holy man’s work. He answered once, slurring his words. Even a 12-year-old knows what some things mean.
Years later, after he was dead, he was implicated in a scandal that involved sexual misconduct with another priest, this one on trial for abusing boys.
He could not defend himself. So it was left to hang there, this ghastly accusation.
Inevitably, you connect the memories. Does a priest rush about a dark empty church, when no one is watching, quietly saying the rosary, because he is every bit as weak as the rest of us, capable of bad things, and in need of mercy?
How, after all, did priests cry out for help?
Minus the collar, the Bible, the canon law, they are our equals in this important sense: just people, capable of creating massive disappointment among those who trust them.
Years after I graduated from high school, I stepped out of a Harvey’s on Richmond Road, only to happen upon my old chemistry teacher, a much-admired priest, of strict manners. He stood there, without a collar, smoking, like an ordinary idler.
Only a minor thing but, strangely, it set me back.
By the time two of my other teachers were charged with so-called “historic” sexual abuses, the bubble was well and burst. How could they possibly admonish us mere mortals? Who should be confessing to whom?
And it all raises one of those unanswerable questions, too. If priests are just ordinary men, not nearer our God than thee, what makes them priests, what allows them to take wine and make the blood of Christ?
So, certainly, the division at Blessed Sacrament Church is understandable. Father Joe LeClair will have his followers, despite the criminal charges of theft, fraud, money laundering, breach of trust, because he is still that unassailable thing — a priest among believers.
He has done much good, no doubt. It is not for the church to throw sinners on the scrap heap, without thought of rehabilitation.
So may his life have a second act.
What do we have, after all? A Father turned Ordinary Joe with a gambling problem, who may or may not have used other people’s money to stay at the tables. It is what all the addicted do: connive, become reckless.
Down below, in the pews, it is no longer shocking news to see a fallen priest. It is the same heartbeat of everyday, ungodly lives — men and women who do good, only because they have tasted failure, if not shame.
To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896, or email email@example.com