LONDON, ONTARIO - I’ve been invited by Justin Press in Ottawa to submit an essay for a collection to come out later this year in which an assortment of writers will recount how they made their way into the Roman Catholic Church. That publisher’s first collection of Canadian Converts came out in 2009 and included essays by such worthies as Conrad Black, Douglas Farrow, Ian Hunter, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Fr. Jonathan Robinson and David Warren, so I’m thrilled to have been asked to contribute to this second gathering of such stories.
As that little project is monopolizing my attention right now, I’ve gone rooting through the tickle trunk to put up something relevant or timely for this week’s Hermaneutics post and realizing that we’re now at the midway point of Lent, I’ve pulled out this 2001 interview I did with Fr. Michael Prieur (whose The Art of the Confessor we reviewed here a couple of weeks ago) then the Professor of Moral and Sacramental Theology at St. Peter's Seminary, in which he talked about the challenges of his job and reflected on the traditions and significance of this season of repentance and renewal.
THE CHALLENGE INTERVIEW
with Father Michael Prieur
GOODDEN: You help in the training of priests and teach lay people who wish to deepen their understanding of the faith. But no priest gets away with just one hat anymore, so what else is part of your job description?
Fr PRIEUR: Well, I've been in charge of the Engaged Encounter for 15 years and I've done the Marriage Encounter for about the last six years. I pinch hit in a lot of parishes as I'm needed and do a lot of public speaking. I teach a class in bio-ethics to health-care people and am involved in ethics consultations for St. Joseph's Hospital.
GOODDEN: There's a loaded field nowadays. How do you arrive at your positions, your answers?
Fr PRIEUR: Well, the methodology is a very simple one: See, Judge, Act. Suppose they're wondering if treatment should be withdrawn in a case. We'll have a consult - this is a multidisciplinary panel because no one can do bioethics alone - so we'll have physicians, nurses, Catholic care workers, an ethicist, a moral theologian, someone from the administration, a lawyer, a patient advocate. Families can be involved but usually they're too emotional so the patient advocate sits in for them. Then you assemble all the facts and find out just what the situation is and the prognosis. So that's 'See'.
The 'Judge' part, we bring to bear the various ethical principles that we use - the dignity of the person, the principle of totality (Can you take off part to save the whole?), the idea of double effect (Say you have a cancerous womb: If you remove the womb she's going to be sterilized; if you don't, she'll die of cancer). And there's about 12 of those ethical principles that we can apply to each case. With every case, you've really got to listen to the situation and the wishes of the patient and the family. If you're addressing the question of withdrawal of treatment, then you have to consider what treatments are reasonable, and there's a whole body of literature in that area in Catholic teaching alone.
For step three, 'Act', we present those options which we feel are morally permissible. A lot of time, it could go either way - withdraw or don't withdraw.
GOODDEN: Are there any procedures that simply cannot be done at St. Joe's?
Fr PRIEUR: Direct abortion, for one. We won't do physician assisted suicide, artificial insemination. The area that's problematic is tubal ligation. We allow that under "material cooperation." There's a Church teaching on it. Because we're the one centre handling obstetrics and because of the risks involved, we tolerate something for a greater good. The greater good being the health of the woman. We're the hospital in this city which has all the services surrounding this procedure. A second greater good is to stay in the field. Infants brought to St. Joe's - we'll struggle to save them. Over at the other hospitals - they're likely to be aborted. Staying in the game allows you to look out for that greater good.
GOODDEN: It sure doesn't help with black or white decision-making, does it?
Fr PRIEUR: We live in a messy world. The alternative is, do we get out of health care completely? And maybe it's going to come to that anyway. The government keeps forcing us to merge with centres that we can't go along with. We're going to try to stay at the table just as long as we honourably can but it might not be very long until we find ourselves euchered out, where we clap our hands and walk away. There's a lot happening in health care and in education right now where I really fear we're being dispossessed, that Catholics might have to start all over on our own. There's also the prospect that they could tax us out of existence. Remember England - Henry the VIII with a stroke of the pen wiped out 10,000 monasteries and convents. Historically, it has happened time and time again, and maybe that clean break is what we really need in North America. The faith thrives under persecution. Times of compromise and comfort weaken it.
GOODDEN: What is Lent?
Fr PRIEUR: Lent is a preparation for the highlight of the Christian year - the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's a time to really call a stop - to pray more, focussed all the while on Christ, to fast, do penance, get to confession. In the Eastern tradition they emphasize the need to make up with your neighbour. There's a wonderful Russian tradition that during Lent, you've got to go out and make up with everybody you've had words with during the year. I love the readings in Lent because they focus on reaching out to the poor, sharing what you have, making extra effort to give alms, and the whole idea of fasting to purify your mind, so you'll be more tuned to what God wants you to hear. I like Lent for the sense you have of a corporate effort, that everybody's trying to be a real Christian.
GOODDEN: Why is it that to enter into that more pure, Christian effort, we have to somehow face death?
Fr PRIEUR: Death is the ultimate sign of our creaturehood. And as soon as you say, "creature," you imply "creator". It's a relational word, and when you say "creator" you've implied some kind of responsibility or accountability. Ashes are a sign of disconnectedness. What can you do with ashes or dust? They just blow all over the place. When we put on ashes, we aren't together. That's the state we're in when we're in sin. As a result of putting our act in order during Lent - through prayer, fasting, alms, reconciliation and justice - then there's form.
GOODDEN: The bit I love about the ashes is their origin from last year's Palm Sunday fronds which have been burned. Last year's accolades - "Hey you're the Top of the Pops, pal" - and not even one year later, what have you got?
Fr PRIEUR: That's right. I was reading in the Psalms today where it says, "The high and mighty are no more than a breath." However grand your life here may be, it's gone in a flash. Without faith, where are you then? Christians know that with no cross, there's no crown. With no passion and death, there can be no resurrection. That's central. And how do we get ready for that "death to the self" which our faith requires while living in a world that is so affluent and pleasure-seeking? Lent is one of the things that makes our faith so radically counter-cultural.
GOODDEN: Could you talk a little about the death of your parents?
Fr PRIEUR: I faced the death of both my parents two years ago - my Dad died on March 4 and three months later my mother died. They were wonderful parents. We'd long since talked over things so there were no things left unsaid by the end. Now, you might think this is slightly incredible but their deaths were the first two deaths I'd ever seen. As a priest I'm always getting called to sick rooms or going round after someone has died but I had never been in the room before when someone took their last breath. And I'd wanted to be. I'm not morbid or anything but this is a tremendous experience which I'd never had.
So to be with them when they died - first of all, it was a great privilege. I had the distinct feeling when I was with my father that there was nowhere else on this planet where God wanted me more than right there. The Pope himself could call me up and I could say, "Your Holiness, I'm busy. My dad's dying." And he would hang up. Absolutely nothing takes precedence.
You often find that a dying person tries to get all their homework done. They won't die if there's a son or daughter they haven't spoken to. I was in Peru on a mission when my classmate got a call that his dad was dying. We moved heaven and earth to get him from Lima back to Ontario. He got here and his dad died one hour later. And I hear stories like that again and again. Another thing is that sometimes you have to give people permission to die. Sometimes they're holding on for our sake - thinking there's something they have to do for us. Sometimes you have to tell your parent, "It's okay, Mom, we're on our own now, you've done your work." Sometimes they need to hear that.
I also felt a powerful difference in the sense that I was allowing myself to be the one grieving. Up until then, I'd been the one giving my sympathies, consoling the families. Now I was the griever. I feared the funeral. Being the priest in the family, they expect you to do the funeral. The greatest support there was my brother who said, "Who knows Dad better than you? You can do it." Coming from him, that was a great affirmation. Others said, "You'll get through it. Even if you break down, keep going." Well I got through both of them, and I was so grateful that God graced me to be able to do that.
The night before my dad died was his birthday. He wasn't conscious anymore. My brother and I were on the midnight watch and it came 12:05 and we said, "Guess what? It's Dad's birthday." So we opened his fridge and there were two cold ones in there and my brother said, "We've got to have a beer. Dad would want us to." So we cracked those open and then my brother said, "Dad should have a drink with us." So he dipped a swab in his bottle and swabbed Dad's lips with beer and we wished him a Happy Birthday.
There's a lot of humour that comes up even in the face of death, and there's nothing wrong with laughing. With strangers it would be different, but a family can laugh at such times and that's a good thing, a real blessing. My dad and my brother had fought a lot over the years. Their temperaments were awfully similar. My brother said that it was ministering to my father who was incontinent - helping to change his diapers - that brought them back together. While Dad was still lucid, they would get laughing and laughing. At the wake my brother said that was the most treasured time of his life with my dad; that a new reconciliation took place between them.
Grieving has its own life-span. You mustn't let people tell you that two years is too long to mourn, or that these are the five stages of grieving and here is the order you should go through them all. One grace which brought me a great deal of peace was a beautiful dream I had about the pair of them. It was nothing very fancy. They were both together in a room, they were both very happy, and my mother who had suffered all her life - I could see at a glance - that now she had no pain. What a grace that was.
GOODDEN: What would you say to a thoroughly secular critic who comes up to you and says, "This Ash Wednesday stuff - getting a cross traced on your forehead to remind you of your mortality - what's the point of this morbid brow-beating?
Fr PRIEUR: Well, I guess I might just look at him and say, "Who is this Caesar grown so mighty? Friend, I don't know about you, but I've got a lot of things to look at in my life and reassess and pray about, to help me see what really matters. Maybe you don't need that but I'm not at your level." I'd also suggest that he might look around and see that all cultures have something like Lent. It goes right across humanity. Could that be a hint that there's something in Lent that the human spirit needs? Are all these people stupid that are doing this? Making that cross with the ashes is only the beginning of something that's much more profound. There's joy at the end. We're going to celebrate not just death but a resurrection. For 50 days we're going to have hallelujahs and enjoy a victory. There's ultimately more good than bad around. Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death and gives us hope and is going to bring us home. And I know I can't do any of that alone. As my parents handed this on to me, I can only suggest this for others, and try to live it myself. I don't see Lent as a morbid thing at all. Ultimately, it's all about hope.