There is an old adage, never ask a question if you aren’t ready to hear the answer. I thought I was ready, but the answer has stuck with me now for a very long time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m okay with the answer – it was good information and I really did need to know, and I think my Bishop understands given my faith history, but as always I will second guess myself till I cry in my sleep and until I find consolation in my Lord’s arms. And so I am going to share, now, the reason for the answer. As is my style, I’m going to give my reasons before I reveal both the question and answer. You see, the reason is much more personal and deeply ingrained in my soul.
I was raised, not only Roman Catholic, but Mexican Catholic at that. We lived in a city just on the outskirts of the Federal District of Mexico City, Tlalnepantla de Baz. We walked, every morning, to the nearby church where we celebrated with the Franciscans who lived and worked at that particular monastery. I learned a great deal about how to question everything from those beloved monks – I’ll never forget the lessons they taught me about how we are all connected – even to the Earth and animals. My parents and grandparents thought they were a bit loose with their theology, but I enjoyed their free spirit and open hearts.
One day in particular, I took one of the monks aside, as I always did, and he asked me, “What have you seen today, my little priest?” I’ll never forget those words. They are etched deep into my mind and heart – he knew, somehow he knew I was going to tell him of what I saw that morning – about the man at the foot of my bed dressed in a simple long linen tunic. The man said nothing to me, at least not that I heard physically, and only smiled at me. I felt safe with him and smiled back. I rubbed my eyes to rid myself of the sleep still within, and in an instant he was gone.
My little monk smiled the same smile as the man in my room and said only: “So, today you will pray a thank you to the Lord; a thanks for him visiting you and smiling upon you.” That day was the day I knew I would one day be like my little monk – a priest living in praise of our Lord. But, that in itself would be a very long journey – or transformation, rather.
When we moved back to the United States that winter, I often felt alone and disconnected from my faith, from my country, and from my family. I had been raised mainly by my grandfather so being with my father was strange and… well… to be perfectly honest: unsafe. I often found myself, with permission of course, walking to our neighborhood church where I became part of the choir and, yes, the typical alter server/sacristan/gopher – slash everything else I could think of to immerse myself in parish life. Most of us who are servants, even the wannabe’s (more on that later), have had the typical alter server experience. I don’t think of myself as having had a particularly special connection or overly pius experience; I tried my best to remain humble and worked primarily in the shadows so as to never cause attention to myself. I liked being invisible. It gave me time to just be alone in the chapel and be with my Lord.
We would, on occasion, return home to Mexico to visit family for extended periods of time, and as in the United States, I would often find myself serving in some capacity at the little chapel with the monks in brown. It was a joy to learn all I could from them, and I did learn so very much. But the day came when I was called to enter high school in the United States. It meant so very much to my father that I should abandon private Catholic school and enter the public high school. My heart was broken because I had already been accepted into Servite High in Orange County, California. My bags were pack and I was ready to face my new life as a servant. But, my father… one feared for one’s safety always when he was around. To maintain the peace, I acquiesced. I secretly cried for weeks after, but he left me alone until one day he exploded and I left home never to return. I was fifteen when I left and I never looked back.
After a time on the streets of Los Angeles, as well as time in another place, I was given a break and made a name for myself within a few years. At 21, I owned my businesses and was having what I thought was a good life. I turned my sites to moving out of California and did so a week before the Rodney King riots. Again, I gave thanks to my Lord for giving me the direction to leave – and I thanked myself for listening to the hairs on the back of my neck. I moved to Utah, where I found myself managing a fairground. As it happened, I was only a mile or so away from – yep, talk about coincidences, St. Francis parish run by – yeppers – Franciscans.
As an aside, I did asked them about my little monk in Mexico and was told he had sadly passed away a couple years prior to my inquiry. The priest at the parish brought me into the chapel where he celebrated mass for my friend with me attending as an alter server. It was painful, but reaffirmed an old feeling inside that I needed to serve at the alter in some fashion – so I did.
It took me about five or so years, but one day one of the priests told me I should seriously consider the priesthood. By this time, the Franciscans had left the Diocese and gone back to California. The parish was now managed by diocesan priests, but they were as open and welcoming as the monks who laughed and lived in the moment. I was then in my 30’s and had no real thoughts on entering the priesthood. At every morning mass the priests would pray for vocations and look directly at me. So, one day I secretly applied to the Diocese to be a seminarian and was quickly accepted after several interviews and the usual battery of tests. I left the fairgrounds and spent the next year in service at my parish. The next fall I entered a “second career” seminary in what is now my home state, Wisconsin.
In seminary, I was miserable. If ever you want to dissuade someone of being a priest, put them in a Roman Catholic seminary. The one I attended was foul, with professors who wanted nothing to do with their priesthoods and seminarians who only wanted to visit each other’s private bedrooms. One would often hear how good grades were achieved under, sometimes literally, certain professors. The seminary I attended was even written about in a nationally published book, “Good-Bye, Good Men”. When my own bishop decided to turn a blind eye not only to the antics of the seminary, but within my own diocese, I left. It was my diaconate year. I was, again, heartbroken.
Later that same year, a dear friend of mine from my parish back in Utah, a deacon and beautiful Franciscan soul, invited me to another kind of catholic church. He had left Rome that same year due to abused he, too, had witnessed, but had found a home in a “new” kind of catholic church.
That was 20 years ago this year. I have been in ministry for over 26 years if I include my time as an alter server at my parish before entering seminary. It’s been a rough road, but I find my faith – that is to say my connection with my Lord and my service to the People of God – is deeper now than it has ever been. Not because of the Independent Movement. In fact, despite the atrocities I have experienced within it’s framework I have found my calling and thrive in service to my community, both secular and religious.
Now, you see, we are getting closer to the answer to the question mentioned far above.
Within the ISM, I have been in three other jurisdictions than the one I am in now. In my first jurisdiction I was lied to and groomed to be a patsy to the Archbishop. When I spoke up against the unethical treatment of some individuals, as well as myself, I quickly became persona non grata. But remember my deacon friend? He had seen the writing on the wall a year or two prior and started, or was it assumed, a Franciscan order originally led by a megalomaniac who to this day has reinvented himself more times than can be officially counted – everything from Old Catholic to Buddhist to Wiccan. It was he who threatened to shove the Eucharist down my throat because I was investigating him as part of the process of gathering the history on the Order that I was given leadership over. When he found out I was gathering the truth, the ugly hit with a stick larger than an old Cadillac.
After than, I needed time to heal and so was graced with a bishop who spent the entire year and a half I was with him bashing every other bishop and organization in the ISM. I was only under his protection so I looked hard to find what I hoped would be the organization in which I would die peacefully in my old age. There, too, were some heartaches and lots of drama from unkind people who spent most of the past few years spreading gossip and rumor, but ultimately, I am still in that group where I had hoped to call – home.
You see, it is because of all the abuse and drama I have encountered that I am now considered a hard-ass in the ISM movement – yes, that was the answer to the question of how I am perceived within the ISM. My bishop, and dearest friend and brother, was honest and forthright. Thank you, for doing what few others would have done! But I am what I am not to be a jerk or asshole, but to prevent the kind of abuse and drama I have encountered in the ISM for the past 20 years – and it’s working.
Yes, there are the occasional uprisings of drama and the usual crap from those whose egos are larger than their wallets, but it’s simply not allowed around me anymore. I won’t put up with abuse of any kind, nor will I allow drama to destroy or permeate the lives entrusted to me in my parish. So if I must be viewed as a hard-ass to protect the people of God, so be it, but I long for the day people will ask questions before making assumptions.
Through all things, though, one thing has remained steadfast for me – my faith. While it has greatly deepened in the past 20 years, it has always remained embedded in my very being. It has guided me in times of trouble and it has comforted me in times of bliss. The pain in my side is as real to me as is the others, but I wear them knowing that it draws me into a deeper relationship with not only my God, but also the people seeking the same thing I do – peace and an end to suffering.
Faith, to me anyway, is not a journey. It never has been. It’s been a place I have always known deep in my soul and something to which I return on a regular basis that helps me move and breath, and have my being within the presence of my God. It is a way of life, again, for me. It is, and always has been, the endpoint in this long and weary path of service.
It is both joy and sorrow depending on the moment, but it is always a part of my calling to bring not only myself, but those around me out of the depths of darkness into a truly healthy relationship with the God made manifest in all of God’s creation.
So – call me what you want, but until you have bothered to ask me who I am and spent time getting to know my path, I will have faith that my service and lifetimes worth of experiences have not been in vain.
The Rev. Father Kenneth Nelan is the pastor of the Sacred Wandering Pastoral Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. He is also the celebrant of the Sunday Mass broadcast on Facebook.