I don’t regret finishing my Spanish degree at the University of Oviedo, in northern Spain.
I have good memories from those five and a half months — from January to mid-June — in 1999.
Of course, there were also some things that happened that I wish I could either undo or forget. And one of them happened in what should have been one of the safest places for me.
He was old enough to be my grandfather. Whenever I came up for communion in one of the cathedral’s side chapels, he always looked very solemn and stern, never with so much as a hint of a smile. I didn’t hold it against him, considering what he was doing.
When he stopped me after Mass one afternoon to say Hello and ask me some questions, I was surprised he was actually interested in getting to know me. At least, he seemed interested when I told him I was from the United States, studying at the University of Oviedo.
The cathedral in Oviedo was the only place within easy walking distance that had a Mass that fit nicely with my daily schedule: breakfast, homework, go to Mass, lunch, go to class, dinner, more homework, etc.
One day, after Mass, he stopped me again and asked if I wouldn’t mind joining him in the sacristy for a bit, just to chat. I didn’t see a problem with it, since he reminded me of some of the priests I’d known at the abbey where I used to work.
We talked a bit, but though the questions weren’t invasive, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. I felt as though I were trespassing in the sacristy. I wasn’t supposed to be there. The priest didn’t seem to be bothered by my presence there, though, so I told myself it was fine and not to worry about it.
Then I told him I had to get back to the apartment for lunch (mid-day meal), and he asked me for “un beso” and presented his cheek for a kiss. I gave my “Abuelita” a kiss on the cheek, and it seemed to be a common thing to do there, so I leaned over to kiss his cheek, the way I might kiss the cheek of a grandfather or great uncle.
But he turned his head just before my lips reached his cheek and planted a kiss squarely on my mouth.
For a moment, I just stood there, thinking, “Did that just happen?”
I was just on the edge of freaking out — inwardly — about it. I didn’t stand up and give him an outraged look. I just felt very awkward — even apologetic, wondering if I’d somehow made that happen myself.
He didn’t seem at all bothered by any of it. He smiled, matter-of-factly, as though it were the innocent “beso” on the cheek that he’d asked for. I thought I detected just a hint of satisfaction in the way he looked at me, and I felt sick.
Then I told him I (really!) had to go. He offered to drive me back, but I declined, saying I’d rather walk.
I didn’t go back to the cathedral the next day. I looked around and asked my Abuelita whether there were another Catholic church nearby that offered a Mass that wasn’t either too early or too late in the day.
She didn’t know of any.
So, a few days later, I went back to the cathedral for Mass, and when Mass was over, and the priest had disappeared into the sacristy, I got out of there, as quickly as I could walk.
And I made a habit of doing so — making myself inaccessible to him (and to anyone who seemed interested — for no apparent reason — in getting to know me).
Until one day — not long after that misplaced “beso,” he once again regarded me with coldness (not a hint of the smile that had started to appear on his face when he took an interest in me).
Some priests have a look of solemnity and sternness that is perfectly understandable, given the context — and, sometimes, given their personalities.
But that particular priest — the first and only one who ever tried to get too close — had something other than solemnity and a fatherly sternness in his face when he looked at me after that incident.
Ever since that incident, whenever a priest has come up to me and addressed me rather than my husband or someone else I’m with, I can’t help but remember that priest, who I thought had been genuinely interested in being a friend. And I feel myself shrinking away, wanting to be invisible.
When I tell a priest that I trust him, it means that not only do I trust his judgment; I trust him not to violate my trust by trying to get too close. I trust him not only for his counsel but also for his fatherly regard for me and my family. I get that priests have so many people to care for that they can’t be personally invested in each and every member of the parish — let alone members of other parishes. But if I trust a priest, it means that I trust him to care in the right way — and to help me by keeping a safe distance, which is good for him, too.
I don’t expect any priest to be a close friend — one to call at all hours, asking for counsel or comfort. If I call or send him a message, asking him for prayers, I have to just trust that he saw or heard the message and prayed.
It’s not an emergency, and there’s no reason for him to call or write back.
Giving good counsel is part of his job, but it has to happen in a context that is appropriate to his vocation.
Of course, there was that one time I called a priest and actually wanted him to call me back to talk about a friend of mine who went to his parish — and who’d decided to become a sedevacantist.
Yeah, that was a mistake. My friend wouldn’t have listened anyway; he’d already dismissed everything I’d said to him about the flaws in the reasoning of a sedevacantist article he’d sent to me — to give me an idea of how he was thinking, lately.
The writer of that article built his whole argument on statements he proposed as premises, as though those statements had already been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. Which they hadn’t. Not even close.
But my friend told me that I couldn’t possibly understand, since I hadn’t been alive before Vatican II.
So, what did I do? I recommended he talk to a priest who is about the same age as I am.
Good thinking, right?
I justified it in my head, thinking, “But Fr. X is way smarter, he’s much better at getting his point across, he knows more of the Church’s history, and . . . well, he’s way smarter. [My friend] will be more likely to listen to him.”
Because [my friend] was pretty well convinced that, while I was a nice girl, and I wasn’t a complete airhead, I wasn’t really qualified to talk to him about Church teaching or Church history.
Did he want to at least try to talk it over with Fr. X?
So, that was a waste of time, and I felt like a pest and an idiot for even calling Fr. X and trying to get him involved.
Maybe [my friend] would have listened to him if Fr. X had been his age, rather than mine — if he could have said, “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean! I was there, too. I know where you’re coming from. But . . .”
But he’s no longer a member of Fr. X’s parish, anyway — having decided that Fr. X and the “conciliar church’ are “part of the problem.”
And the day I told him I couldn’t go down that path with him was the day I became part of the problem, too.
I figured Fr. X would understand. Maybe he’d get a chance to talk to [my friend] and at least plant a seed in his head.
I don’t know if he ever got the chance. I hope he at least prayed about it.
He’s a good priest, so I have to believe he did that much.
Sometimes I miss my job at the abbey — preparing food for the monks and the seminarians. Many of the monks were priests, and some were my friends. One of those, who was also one of my bosses, offered to be my spiritual director when I became Catholic.
I remember wondering what a spiritual director was, and whether I should accept the offer.
I wish I’d said, “Yes, please!”
Because I need one.