Years ago, a friend of mine who was an Episcopal priest and had been one for many seasons told me: “A priest who cannot comfort is as worthless as a bucket of warm spit.”
He talked to me of helping people with the loss of jobs, alcoholism, nasty divorces in which the kids were totally forgotten, and family tragedies — children who got sick, got addicted, committed suicide. He had a hard, hard job, and he made it harder because he felt it was his duty, above all else, to comfort.
I have a Catholic priest friend, he was my Latin teacher in high school. He helped me get through Latin, and high school. He has been a priest for more than 50 years. Next to my Dad, he is the best human being I have ever known. His name is Father Dunn, and though he is a monsignor now, I still call him father. When my mother was dying a few years ago, he drove from Logan, Ohio, to Columbus many times just to sit quietly at her side and pray. He told me once that he has trouble relating to some of the young priests of today. They seem, he said, very far from people’s suffering. Not indifferent to it. But rather unaware of it.
What people need from priests, and I would submit bishops, and ministers and rabbis, is help, compassion, comfort. They need, as Dan Rogers of the Cherry Street Mission puts it, someone to stand with them. They don’t need vague, simplistic abstractions or pie in the sky. Mr. Rogers told me that when he experienced tragedy in his family life as a young man, many people reached out to him. But the two spiritual mentors who helped him pull though didn’t talk, judge, or preach. They were simply present.
A pastor has the same challenge as a musician or a man at bat: To connect.
Why do people love Pope Francis? He calls the parents of a slain American journalist. Upon becoming Pope, he asks us to bless him, to pray for him. He calls child abuse by priests what it is: A horrifying sin for which the church has not yet done sufficient penance. He says, “Who am I to judge?”
Pope Francis’ favorite word is “mercy.”
Mercy — the flip side of comfort.
Toledo has a new Catholic leader — Bishop Daniel Thomas. He is coming to a city where there is stubborn poverty, a heroin epidemic, the recent gunning down of a young man named Tyler McIntoush while he walked his girlfriend home from work. We need comfort and mercy.
I spoke with the Rev. Jim Bacik who told me that Pope Francis has established in the Catholic mind what a bishop must do: Live simply, speak humbly, offer comfort and mercy.
He must be not so much a preacher as a witness who will stand with us in the difficulties of life. And stand with the poor, the broken, the forgotten, the abandoned. Not a prince of the Christian church but a Christian.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: email@example.com or 419-724-6266.