Sunday, November 08, 2009

Around the wood stove: Ashland priest was my friend and classmate

David McGrath
Duluth News Tribune

If the Wisconsin pastor suspended by his bishop last month is viewed by some as a monster (“Ashland priest suspended for hiding sordid past,” Oct. 17), then it must be as a Frankenstein, created in the church’s laboratory for producing “celibate” priests.

The Rev. Henry Willenborg has been accused of conducting two illicit sexual affairs while his superiors in the Sacred Heart Province in St. Louis, who knew of the accusations, kept him active in the ministry. Sacred Heart has been paying child support and tuition totaling $100,000 for a son Willenborg fathered with one of the women, Pat Bond, as long as she abided by a confidentiality agreement. But Bond went public after failing to obtain additional financial support from the province for Nathan’s medical care; he is now 22 and terminally ill with cancer.

Willenborg’s parishioners, however, think their pastor walks on water, which, by the way, can be seen literally behind his church, which sits on the banks of Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin.

Members of Our Lady of the Lake parish, in the old iron-mining port of Ashland, will tell you Fr. Henry has been nothing short of wonderful in his four years at a frozen Catholic outpost. A kind, wise leader, who gives brilliant sermons, they say.

As his former classmate at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Westmont, Ill., I would have to concur, adding “personable” and “serene” to their characterizations.

The disconnect between the dignified, soft-spoken student and the vilified, unapologetic adult makes perfect sense to me.

Henry and I were both exiled and segregated from society fresh out of elementary school. Certainly, no one forced us to pursue the priesthood, but a lifetime commitment made by a 14-year-old steeped in catechism and guilt over answering a religious “calling” may not be the freest nor most reasonable of decisions.

Our seminary experience was one of sacrifice, purportedly in preparation for a career of selfless devotion. The campus was closed to prevent all contact, not only with females, but with everyone outside the seminary community. All our mail was opened and read. Conversations with our fellow students were forbidden for long periods of time each day. Hours were spent in the classroom, the study hall, the dormitory, or in the chapel on unpadded kneelers. What free time we had was parceled and regulated.

I did not thrive there; I was labeled “surly” by the staff for rebelling against the suffocating constraints. On our two free half days during the week, I’d leave the soccer field or hockey rink and sneak through the woods, find the road and hike into town where I’d snatch cigarettes off dashboards of open cars and find a place to smoke and watch the “lay people” lead lives.

Henry, however, was among the exemplary seminarians: deferential to faculty, pious in church, seemingly self-controlled. He was studious but not outspoken in class.

His free time was spent in “project” work, helping Fr. Ambrose rake leaves, chop down diseased elms, and weed the large vegetable garden. The Franciscans loved him.

For me, the “calling” morphed into a syndrome. As unhappy as I was, I was reluctant to leave for fear of what lay beyond the seminary. I had concerns about salvation and being branded a quitter. But at the end of my junior year, I set myself free.

Not so with Henry. One of a small handful who stuck it out to the end, he took his vow of poverty, chastity and obedience and was ordained a Catholic priest. The next 10 years, he also set himself free, but in a manner for which he is now suspended by Bishop Peter Christensen of the Superior Diocese.

Today, seminaries screen applicants more closely and provide for more contact with the community.

But many are still recruited out of eighth grade. And the Pope remains adamant about celibacy.

A 2004 report by the U.S. Bishops’ National Review Board observed that celibacy has created problems for too many priests, leading to depression, alcoholism and eruptions of “improper sexual conduct.”

My personal recollections do not constitute an excuse for my classmate. After all, it was reported that he began his relationship with Pat Bond while officially giving her marriage counseling. And this after an alleged extended affair with a female high school student.

But without the seminary’s indoctrination and isolation, and without the imposed celibacy, the pleasant, reliable, dignified young man I had known as a teen might not be national news today.

When I visited a year ago, I was impressed by how devoted his parishioners were as they waited in a long line after Saturday evening Mass, just to have a word with their pastor.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Like any boarding school, the seminary was clique-heavy, as adolescents away from home have need of family and identity as jocks, musicians, scholars and the like. Henry, however, was immune to the petty clashes and animosities between groups. He had no agenda, nothing to prove to peers, and you could talk to him with comfort and sincerity.

His open heart and generosity would later make him a valued counselor and cherished priest, but one felled by the spartanism and celibacy embedded in the priesthood.

David McGrath of Hayward is an emeritus professor of English for the College of DuPage in Illinois.

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