Fortunately the film "Sleepers" is now thirteen years old; as a result, it can be purchased for under $10! That's good news considering how many times I've lent out the flic without it returning back to the shelf at home. So I've purchased any number of copies over the years, both watching it and sending it out on loan with great regularity. When you consider Robert DeNiro starring as "Father Bobby," a parish priest in New York's Hell's Kitchen, one might wonder, "Can life get any better than that?"
Well in my mind, being the pastor of a college parish, the chaplain for an NFL football team and a sacramental minister at a maximum security prison comes pretty close to the issues Father Bobby confronts on the streets of inner-city New York on a consistent basis. While life in DePere is much more calm and relaxed on any number of levels, wherever we deal with the human race, there are upsets and losses, failures and tragedies that are woven within our mortal life. Father Bobby's sanctuary extended far beyond the limits of the sacristies and communion rail -- it flowed into the crime-infested streets of New York as well as the state's houses of correction.
Many of you are aware that I can regularly be found at the Green Bay Correctional Institution on many Thursday mornings, presiding over the Sunday-Mass-of-extraordinary-anticipation. For the most part, this consists solely of presiding and preaching at the following Sunday's Mass. Yet often times inmates will fill out a "kite" which is a request for me to stay longer after Mass -- this is usually requested so an inmate can take part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or be engaged in some sort of spiritual direction. As I find at parishes, sometimes the issues that are raised are not necessarily sinful in nature, but simply it is an opportunity to raise an important issue that a person has a need to talk about. Sometimes it's simply a matter of finding someone who will listen to another's story. Normally I will arrange for a pastoral visit in order to engage in such a discussion. * This will either take place in the family visiting center at GBCI, or for non-inmates, it takes place in my office at Saint Norbert College; these encounters, while often still in 'internal forum,' are not sacramental in nature. And during these encounters it's not out of the ordinary that an important request will be made: asking for me to serve as a character reference in the court system.
These requests have come from inmates, parishioners, professional athletes, high school and college students alike. Like Father Bobby, I, too, often feel torn as to how to respond. Yet I've never said "no" to such a request. Often times it's a request to simply be present in the courtroom -- for moral support -- near a person's side; sometimes it's simply sitting quietly in the larger assembly.
At other times it's a bit more involved, with the request to speak on a person's behalf. I often wonder how I can best articulate a balance between affirmation and challenge; between comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable. Speaking up on one's behalf requires a stand to be taken -- in more ways than one. Like Father Bobby in Sleepers, it is difficult to determine how to best speak the truth in a spirit of honesty and integrity in the midst of the complexity and messiness of life. When do you open your mouth, and when do you keep it closed? Sleepers illustrates so beautifully and painfully how difficult these moments can be.
I often wonder if I could survive as a pastor in parish life if Father Bobby and I were asked to switch pulpits for just a year's duration -- finding myself placing my hand on a Bible while offering my solemn oath to the degree I currently place my hand over people and objects in a gesture of grace and blessing. Moreover, would the faithful's needs be met in such an arrangement? I often toy with the idea of throwing the thought past my Norbertine superiors, yet any number of fears keep me pretty silent. In the meantime, while the ministries in which I engage certainly do not expand my sanctuary into the streets of a major inner-city, I am sometimes amazed at how often I experience the wide variety of pastoral dilemmas in all sorts of venues while ministering to the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the imprisoned and the free -- right here in Northeastern Wisconsin. Such ministry is extended not just to the individuals involved in specific crimes or misdemeanors, but to their families and victims as well.
Sometimes the issues Father Bobby confronted in Hell's Kitchen even take place right here in our neck of the woods. But for some reason, in this family-centered community which is grounded in so much goodness and charity, it's sometimes easier to ignore, avoid or deny some of the situations that really are going on right here in Titletown. Walk into the Brown County Court House. Visit an area high school. Read the police bloggers. "God's flock is in our midst!" Remaining grounded right here, right now, I am challenged and inspired by the words of Willard Jabusch's hauntingly beautiful song which I shared with you two years ago. In his "When we Think how Jesus Suffered," I believe Jabusch challenges us to broaden the boundaries of our sanctuaries and give the folks we find there "a shepherd's care:"
When we leave the cross so lonely on that sad and sacred ground,
we must seek and find our Jesus where today he may be found:
in the clinic, in the prison, near at home or 'cross the sea,
or wherever in deep sadness people wait to be made free.
-- Willard F. Jabusch
* I will say more about these gatherings in a future posting.