Pray for the souls of two vastly different priests

  • December 20, 2011

Gaudete Sunday must have been rather memorable at the throne of judgment. On Dec. 11, Cardinal John Patrick Foley died at the age of 76, after a long and distinguished life of service as Christian disciple and a Catholic priest. On the same day, Fr. Karl Clemens, a priest of the archdiocese of Kingston, died after a life marked by scandal and estrangement from the Church he served so poorly.

Cardinal Foley was a pioneer in the Catholic media, going to Columbia Journalism School soon after his ordination in 1962. A priest of the archdiocese of Philadelphia, he edited their Catholic newspaper from 1970 to 1984, and then was called to Rome to be president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. It was there that he became known as the “Vatican’s voice of Christmas,” providing the commentary for some 26 years for midnight Mass, the world’s most watched religious broadcast. For those who knew him in person, rather than as a journalist, it was his kindness, humour and deep faith which made him an exemplary face of the Church.

At a vigil Mass the night before his funeral, Bishop Daniel Thomas, for whom he was both a friend and a spiritual father, spoke of Cardinal Foley as the “best of Philadelphia, the best of the priesthood, the best of the Church.”

It would not be right to say that Fr. Clemens was the worst of the priesthood and the worst of the Church, for God knows there have been many worse than he. He had a troubled priesthood here in Kingston, which came to a head in 1998 when he was assigned to the parish where I now serve as pastor, Sacred Heart of Mary on Wolfe Island, Ont. The good people of my parish did the Church a service in refusing to turn a blind eye to Fr. Clemens’ behaviour, and soon he left the parish, the island and the archdiocese. He decamped to the gay village in Toronto, where he lived until his death. He was suspended as a priest and forbidden to offer Mass publicly or administer the sacraments.

In 2005, Fr. Clemens declared on Vision TV that he was proudly a priest and a homosexual and was carrying out a gay-affirming “apostolate” in his own fashion. Although he clearly rejected the long Christian moral tradition on chastity, he declared at the time that he had always lived a celibate life. That was a most implausible claim, a stretch even for such an accomplished liar. In 2009, he entered into a same-sex “marriage,” the occasion of which prompted another round of media interviews inveighing against the Church.

Cardinal Foley’s funeral Mass was celebrated by hundreds of bishops and priests at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. It was a grand celebration of the Catholic faith lived to the full. Fr. Clemens had a shabby little ceremony in an undertaker’s chapel and went to his grave without even the decency of an obituary. Perhaps in death it was decided that it would be better to say nothing, rather than to speak the truth about his life. With Cardinal Foley, there was sadness that a great voice for the Gospel of Jesus Christ had been stilled. With Fr. Clemens, there is only relief that his voice will no longer sow confusion and obscure that same Gospel.

Both are priests — for the priesthood lasts forever, to our greater glory in heaven or our greater condemnation in hell. One prays for a merciful judgment for both men, knowing that one needs that mercy more than the other. We all do, especially priests.

Cardinal Foley was for me a wise guide and a kind mentor, full of generous encouragement and good example. Fr. Clemens was a cause of shame and embarrassment. Yet both are brothers in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. We encounter the great mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, that dwells too in the priesthood.

At my first Mass in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Kingston, Fr. Paul Holmes, a superlative preacher from Seton Hall University, celebrated the vocation of preaching, praising God that I was now able to “preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and preach that Good News to assemblies and congregations that are filled with wheat and weeds, with saints and sinners.”

Indeed, not only the congregations, but the pulpits too. We live and die as the priests that the Lord Jesus has made us. Whether we live as we should is another matter. In the priest we see, as it were, the great cosmic struggle between God’s reconciling love — the mysterium pietatis — and the mysterium iniquitatis.

Cardinal Foley would rightly ask for your prayers. But if you have to choose, pray for Fr. Clemens instead, that a life so marked by iniquity may now find mercy.

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