Waiting For Facts


Lent began a month before Ash Wednesday. A friend pulled me aside after Mass one day and said, “Something bad is happening, but I can’t tell you what it is.” Secrets are not something I am able to handle very well; I am a nonfiction writer, after all, maybe a journalist on a good day, in any case, someone who pursues truth and fact. This, by the way, does not always make me a very good Catholic. So I politely said, “Listen, you can’t drop a bomb like that and leave me hanging.” In the back of the church, as people chatted and filed out and went on with their days, she told me: The bishop was removing our pastor and one of our priests. No explanation given. No meeting with either of them. Just telling them to go. I was to tell no one.

The Gospel of Mark has always been my least favorite Gospel. In Mark, we meet a Christ who says, over and over, “tell no one.” Good news, bad news, a Messianic secret. “Tell no one.” So my Gospel of Mark began. Only a few people were supposed to know, but she herself was suffering with the secret. So she told me. And I was to tell no one.

Reader, I blabbed. Told my husband, who knows these priests and respects them because they never try to convert him. Told a friend who’s a newly ordained priest, who has patiently listened to me whining my way around all those issues with authority that make spiritual obedience an ongoing and complicated joke for me. Told my spiritual director, a nun who’s had issues with authority figures, who’s been censured and moved around and hushed up. Told another friend who’s a religious brother on another coast; another writer whose work spurs me to be more honest in mine. Each of these people knows that this parish matters to me because it’s where I became a Catholic. In fact, without this church, I wouldn’t exist. My parents met at a Catholic student function there in 1960, and bore forth five Catholic kids, all of who were raised going to Mass at this parish, and two of whom are still Catholic. I’m one of those two. So I also told my mom. And to each of these people I said, I am suffering about this. My faith is seriously fucked up right now. And by the way: tell no one.  I crushed the impulse to do the one thing that might have helped me and other people with this sudden crisis, which is to write about it. And asking others to keep it quiet? That felt like a sin, sin in the sense that it went against my nature and my conscience, which pressed me into speech, and words. But I turned my conscience off.

I was told by a friend to “wait for facts” before I wrote, to wait because eventually, the bishop might provide an explanation. But there has been no explanation that answers actual questions asked by parishioners. The facts the bishop might want me to write about would not be the same facts I experienced as a member of the parish. So facts, depending on the narrator, will change.  All of this essay so far rests on the filter of a particular I narrator, one who kicks off her boots and throws them into my closet. That is creative nonfiction writing. It is blurred and distorted by the lens of my vision, which is far-sighted, astigmatic and increasingly near-sighted as well. There are no glasses thick enough for me to see this clearly. So, let us try and explore this like journalists.  Let us turn to provable things.

Fact: Father Bernie Campbell, the pastor being removed, himself told the congregation on February 16, “On November 7, 2013, Paulist Fathers Paul Robichaud and Larry Rice met with Bishop Michael Barber as part of the regular pattern of Paulists conducting a Paulist visitation [normal business, conducted once every three years]. Bishop Barber alerted the two Paulists that he would like to see a ‘major redirection’ of ministry at Newman. Among the changes would be Fathers Campbell [the pastor] and Edens [the campus minister] leaving to be replaced by two other Paulists. […] The details of such a ‘major redirection’ are not yet clear. Neither Bill [Edens] nor myself have had a conversation with the bishop about such redirection.” Father Bernie is both a performer and a thinker in his sermons. He’s gestural. But this day, his voice was monotone, perhaps deliberately, because people in the pews actually gasped, and in a couple of cases, shouted “No”.

After Father Bernie made the announcement, I was standing talking to a group of friends. This year, I’ve been on the team of people that helps lead RCIA—the church’s catechism program for adults, a yearlong series of weekly classes leading up to the adult’s decision to join or not to join the Catholic church, at Easter. One of the women in our group of candidates came up to me, dabbing at streaming eyes with her sweater. “Does this mean they can’t be priests anymore?” she asked; she had confused the removal of the priests from the parish with their being laicized.

Normally, I don’t like hugging people. My family is not a hugging family. Hugging people I don’t know very well always feels rather forced, rather Californian. But that’s exactly why I hugged this crying woman: because we are Californian. We’re in Berkeley. We choose this place, or maybe it chooses us. People at this parish hug a lot, during Mass, after Mass, at funerals, at weddings. We hug our partners, we hug strangers, we hug homeless people who have not bathed in months or years. “No, no, no,” I told her. “They’ll still be priests. Just not here. But these people?” I gestured around at the congregation, the boomers, the young families, the students. “We’re not going anywhere. Don’t worry, we’ll still be here.” That was a not a fact. I had no idea where any of us were going.

This semester, I am teaching an MFA workshop of creative nonfiction writers. Often we ask of a piece someone brings in: what is this? Fact-based, yes, as all of our work is. But when does it leave journalism and become literary journalism, and when does it leave literary journalism and become “personal”? This essay is, perhaps, personal journalism. Or fact-based narrative. Or, like the Gospels, a series of stories based on observations and on opinions and oral history, later filtered through edits and revisions, so layered that we have to squint through a fogged surface to see a shape that represents a man who might be a Messiah.

The next night, a meeting at the parish. Hundreds of people show up. The meeting is tightly organized: singing, prayer, reflection. There is a sense that this organization is happening so that people will not stand up and ask questions, because there are still so very few answers. A woman who’s been on the committee meeting with the priests about this change stands up and offers us some facts. Fact: the priests are being removed. Fact: the bishop has not met with the priests to explain this decision. Fact: the bishop has not replied to a letter from the parish council. Fact: the bishop wants a redirection for the church but will not say what that is. People stand up and ask questions anyway. We’re told we should write letters and are handed a list of addresses. That’s about it. Afterwards a friend asks me what I thought of the meeting. I hesitate and she fills the gap. “I wanted to talk about this, not sing,” she says.

A week later, the woman who was my confirmation sponsor six years ago emails to tell me she’s leaving the church. Leaving Catholicism? Leaving this church? She doesn’t say. She just says this is enough—knowing the Bishop feels he can reach in and interfere at any time, for any reason. That’s enough. We start talking exit strategies, paths to other churches, places where we can go without being bored or feeling judged. Maybe we would one day get a chance to preach again, as women occasionally did at Newman. Maybe there’d be an LBGTQ group, or priests who knew us and our families, or maybe there’d be a priest who took a risk on someone like me, critical of the institutional church right down to her bones, and that priest might say, “Maybe you want to help lead RCIA, or start a women’s group, or teach a course in writing spiritual autobiography,” things Newman has allowed me to do, not in spite of the person I am, but because of it. But this is the exception in Catholic churches, not the rule. It is rare. In every other scenario, one thing is clear: we go from being known to being nobody.

Catholicism has a top-down structure. Priests, unfortunately, have to deal with this. They get moved around. Sometimes that’s a good thing, both for the congregations and the priests. And sometimes it destroys congregations. People walk. A lot of them keep walking. This happened at the church I used to go to, a working-class place, a church of workers, full of Chicano and Chicana parishioners, run by a priest who rode a motorcycle to protest at the School of the Americas. He died; another social justice priest came in; and the bishop plucked that priest away for making the parishioners think their voices mattered, put in a priest no one liked, and turned the English Language Learning classroom into a gift shop. Like almost everyone else in the pews, I walked.

That walk brought me to this place, where I stayed, and have stayed, and now find myself so entrenched it is hard to imagine extrication. So I wrote something about this after the pastor’s announcement, just a note to some friends asking for help with letter-writing and advice. As soon as I posted it online, on a private page, my phone rang. Emails started arriving. You got this thing wrong and that thing wrong and this other thing wrong and nobody is supposed to know about this. But you see, it was public by then: people knew. Father Bernie had stood up and announced it. People knew. But I was told to wait for facts.  But whose facts?

Fact: Bishop Michael Barber was born in 1954 and entered the Society of Jesus, The Jesuits, in 1973. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1985. According to the Diocese of Oakland’s website, “In 1991 he became a commissioned officer in the United States Naval Reserve and achieved the rank of Captain in 2012. He has served as Group Chaplain for the Marine Aircraft Group, as Deputy Division Chaplain for the 4th Marine Division and Deputy Force Chaplain for Reserve Affairs for Marine Forces Pacific, among many other assignments.” Bishop Barber was installed as the 5th Bishop of Oakland on May 25, 2013.

Fact: The Diocese of Oakland was established by Pope John XXIII in 1962. It serves somewhere around half a million Catholics, with Masses being celebrated in fifteen different languages. At least 64 priests in the diocese have been accused of molesting children, although the former bishop, Allen Vigneron (later promoted to Archbishop of Detroit) publically acknowledged only a dozen cases of abuse. In 2005, the diocese broke ground for a new cathedral, which was completed in 2008. As of this writing, the cathedral building and the abuse cases have caused the diocese to fall $114.7 million dollars into debt.

Fact: Barber’s predecessor as Bishop of Oakland was Salvatore Cordelione, who was promoted by Pope Benedict to Archbishop of San Francisco in 2012, after only three years as the Bishop of Oakland. During Cordelione’s tenure in the East Bay, he became the head of the U.S. Bishop’s Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage, and was one of the creators of Proposition 8. Two months before Cordelione’s installation as Archbishop of San Francisco, he was arrested for driving under the influence. The arresting officer, Mark McCullough, described Cordelione as “a driver that was obviously impaired, but he was cordial and polite throughout.”

Fact: Newman Hall/Holy Spirit Parish began in the late 1800s, when a group of Catholic UC Berkeley students formed a club for the “social, intellectual, and religious benefit of its members.” In 1907, Paulist Father Thomas Vermeer Moore was appointed as the first Catholic chaplain to Berkeley students. A house in North Berkeley was also purchased in 1907, and a chapel, designed by architect Bernard Maybeck, was added to the building. Masses were held there until the larger Newman Hall was built in 1967. That building, designed by architect Mario Ciampi, with altar sculptures by Stephen DeStaebler, is where the congregation still worships today.

Fact: The Paulist Fathers were formed in 1858 under the leadership of Isaac Hecker, a convert to Catholicism who befriended Orestes Brownson and became part of the Brook Farm Movement, a Utopian community based on the principles of Transcendentalism. Hecker later became a Redemptorist priest before forming the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle. The Paulist Fathers have long placed special emphasis on evangelization via media, on Ecumenical dialogue, and on working with college students. Another fact: The third autocorrect suggestion Google offers for “Paulist Fathers” is “liberal.”

Fact: Newman Hall has long had a reputation as a socially engaged parish. A brochure from 1908 “shows lectures and discussions on a variety of contemporary ethical problems, on methods of social reform, on the criminal justice system and on ethical standards in public life.” One of the first Freedom Riders was a Newman member; in the 1960s, Newman supported Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement, and became a sanctuary for Vietnam War resistors. It has had an LGBT group for over 25 years and has long been part of the Restorative Justice Movement; it hosts a nonviolence group, and its Loaves and Fishes ministry feeds thousands of low-income and homeless people every year, in shelters, parks, and at the parish.

Fact: Bishop Barber responded to the congregation’s letters, phone calls, and attempts at personal meetings in writing on March 9. The letter was not posted online but was inserted into church bulletins. However, some writers own scanners. In the letter, Bishop Barber cites the declining attendance of UC Berkeley students as the impetus for replacing Father Campbell and Father Edens. Bishop Barber does not, however, define what the “major redirection in ministry” will be. He states that he “consulted broadly” about removing the priests; however, numerous parishioners, including students, stated at a parish meeting on February 17th that very few of them had ever had a conversation with him about the removal of the priests or anything else.  As of March 16, the two priests being removed were finally granted a meeting with the bishop, and at that meeting the bishop accepted an invitation to meet with a few parishioners. According to the church bulletin, in response to the many questions that have been asked about this situation, “The overarching answer at this time is that we still do not entirely know.”

It begs the question: are you really Catholic, when your fealty is to a parish? I believe in the people. But every day, I question the institution. In Rome, the Vatican did not move me; it made me feel ashamed. I go to this ugly grey church because I am welcomed, because there is work to do. There is a reason it is called a sanctuary. Something changes in me when I am there, a downshifting, a grounding wire running from my feet into the concrete floors. Transformation occurs, week by week, which I carry out into my work, into teaching, into writing, something I hold delicately, something I hold with the awareness that at any moment, it will break.

Some weeks later, the news hits the local media. Facts begin to arrive, but they are elliptical at best; the reporter tries to get the bishop to talk and is rebuffed. The church is beloved by many. Thousands of people are involved, and have been, for nearly a hundred years. And it wasn’t me who leaked the story, in spite of the fact that not writing about it felt like swallowing bile. I am just a minor character, after all, a lapsed Catholic who un-lapsed herself by re-discovering this parish, a walk-on part, arriving just in the moment when Catholicism seemed to be on the verge of collapse. Like a peasant in Chekhov, I play a small role.

In one of the news stories, it comes up that one of the priests is openly gay. And, like all Catholic priests (okay, like some), he is also celibate. So what is the issue? That he told people this, a few years ago, in a homily. Why did he tell people? Because some of the LGBTQ students were suffering. Because there were suicides. Because a priest is supposed to offer consolation to the suffering. But, of course, this angers people, angers trolls and bloggers and people who would rather call someone “homosexual” than “gay”, because there’s a beam in their eye, and it’s called bigotry, and that beam has wounded and skewed their vision until all they can do is scold and judge.

So that is known. But still there are more questions. Why is this occurring now? The bishop’s letter tells us it’s because we’re losing students. The bishop’s letter does not mention the widely cited statistics that younger adults are increasingly moving beyond organized religion. The bishop’s letter does not explain what, exactly, he plans to do to entice more students to attend Mass beyond replacing the priests (with, as it turns out, younger priests). The questions, it seems, will never be answered, will only lead to further questions, further silence, the occasional missive that is really spin. The bishop’s letter, basically, says nothing. It is neither fact, nor is it imagination. The bishop’s letter is the moment in the Gospels when Christ has died and the disciples are sitting in dark rooms, frightened, alone, unsure of what happens next. But in the Gospel narratives, the resurrection follows. In this narrative, what follows is silence; what follows is loss.

Kaya Oakes is the author of The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In-Between (Orbis, 2015), the memoir Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Counterpoint Press, 2012), and a social-science based exploration of independent art and culture, Slanted and Enchanted (Henry Holt, 2009). She teaches creative nonfiction, narrative journalism, expository and research writing at the University of California, Berkeley.