The next talk was by two priests on faculty at the NAC. Each spoke of their own understanding of spiritual fatherhood in light of their own ministry. The first, Msgr. Gruss, spoke of a particular story that touched all of us. Before coming to the NAC, he served for a number of years in the chancery of his diocese and specifically worked with sexual abuse complaints and lawsuits. He would have to sit down with the victim, the victim's lawyer, and the diocese's own lawyer to try and reach settlements. He found himself tested in his love as a father by meeting with these people and hearing their stories. He was angered at the abuse at the hands of priests, in sorrow that people wanted money but not any help, and frustrated that attorneys were willing to bankrupt the diocese to get what they wanted.
He told us one story of a man who came into a mediation meeting with real anger in his eyes. He would not even make eye contact. Each person, lawyers, victim, and Msgr. Gruss had a chance to make some opening remarks. Msgr. Gruss mentioned his sorrow over the abuse that took place and his own desire to help in anyway. After two hours of mediation and such, the man looked Msgr. Gruss in the eye and said that before he came into that meeting, he had no desire to settle and was ready to go to court. But his words had changed everything. Later on he would call Msgr. Gruss and they would have coffee and continue to keep in touch. A couple weeks ago he received a letter that said "Dear Father Gruss". He had never called any priests father after his abuse. The letter continued saying if you wonder why I call you father, it's because in my eyes you earned it.
This story is just so powerful. Coming in during the end of the sexual abuse crisis myself, I never heard these stories. I obviously knew that people had been hurt and that the Church was being sued. I knew reform was taking place at different levels. I never heard of the hope that could be restored and the heroism of priests willing to face the darkness and evil of sexual abuse and bring light and hope. For us seminarians it was such a powerful example of spiritual fatherhood that is so ready to bridge any gap and love despite every hurtful glance, word, or act.
It also reminds me of the pope's own visit with sexual abuse victims in the U.S. One of those there, Olan Horne, said that "I've been hopeful; I've been hopeful for eight years. I have struggled in my spirituality. But hope has been my faith, and my hope was restored today. From what I heard, and I believe we received a promise today, and I believe not only myself but a lot of people received a promise today."
Another priest also mentioned his own story of a couple who were seeking a divorce. He challenged them and said, "I won't let you divorce until you start to pray" or something like that. And they tried it. And they've been together ever since. This heroism of these priests inspires me. It inspires me to want to be a good and holy father. It inspires me forward even as I struggle and persevere in prayer, formation, academics, and seminary life. It inspires me.
After these two speakers I realized one of the greatest blessings about being at the North American College. The priests sent here to be on faculty are some of the best priests in the U.S. They've served as pastors, as fathers, and they know what it means to be a priest. And they prepare us by giving us that same heart of Jesus Christ, who yearns to bring the Gospel to his people and to bring them home to his heavenly Father.
One more less I forget. We had a small question and answer session where this little sister from Florida stood up. Mother Adela, founder of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary, gave us some words glowing with grace. She called us to be who we are as men and as fathers. She said in her mind, the holy family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph can also be seen in priests who act as fathers and sisters who act as mothers for the whole Church, their children. It is only when priests and sisters fail to live their vocations that that the children are exposed to the enemy. It was so powerful for myself. Knowing my own love for religious sisters, I realized that seeing them and spending time with them, reaffirm my vocation. They show me the other side opposite the priesthood in their consecration to God. Their prayerfulness, their charity, their chastity, and their life of obedience draw me into that mystery of the family where I too desire to offer myself at the service of God and care for the children of the Church (By the way, the use of the word children to refer to the Body of Christ was discussed and seen not as a way to in anyway bring down the maturity of the faithful but rather to point out that before the Father, we are all children who yearn to return home).