In the decade I’ve lived in Haverhill, Mass., I’ve seen the best and worst sides of the Catholic Church.
On the ugly side, there were priests who played a part in the sex abuse that ultimately blew up in Cardinal Law’s face. There are parishioners who get so caught up in church politics that they forget what they’re truly there for, and they make life miserable for others. There was the priest who used church funds to buy pornography.
On the other side of the spectrum was the priest who went public about his alcoholism, inspiring us all with his comeback. And, most importantly, there are all the people who have found their faith in recent years regardless of whatever ugliness is in the headlines, including me.
Now comes news of the Rev. Robert Conole, pastor of Sacred Hearts Parish, who walked away from his duties to seek help for a “personal matter,” according to my local paper and former employer, The Eagle-Tribune.
Church officials aren’t saying what exactly made him walk away. I’ve heard rumors, but I’m not going to fuel speculation that may or may not be true. All we know is that something got to him and compelled him to walk away for awhile.
We forget priests are human, prone to all the mistakes the rest of us make.
Father Conole has been under immense pressure in recent years. He took on another church in Groveland, Mass., when the Archdiocese of Boston merged a bunch of parishes four years ago. Then Dennis Nason, pastor of my parish, All Saints, passed away last fall, and Conole was given the job of administrator until Father Tim Kearney became pastor more than three months later.
In the eyes of God we all get a shot at redemption. But back in the real world, among mortals, it doesn’t always work that way. People talk and speculate, especially when they don’t know the reason for something like a priest abruptly leaving.
But I’ve also seen people do great things when a priest falls down. I think Father Nason was able to beat back his alcoholism because of the massive outpouring of support he got from the parish. People sent him cards, drawings and letters by the truckload. Gestures like that can make an enormous difference for a person who hits bottom.
When you hit bottom, you start to give serious thought to the possibility that you just might fail to make it out with your soul intact. I remember when my addictions and OCD brought me to that point. Whether it makes you suicidal or not, death starts to look a lot more attractive. But I got to hit bottom out of the public eye. I didn’t have to worry about what the headlines would say.
Since starting this blog, I’ve gotten a ton of support from people. That support makes you feel like you can overcome any obstacle. Just knowing you’re not alone is a big deal.
I think the people of Sacred Hearts should show Conole that kind of support, just like the people at All Saints did for Father Nason a decade ago.
Find out what his current address is. Send him letters, cards and whatever else might cheer a wounded soul.
Let him know you’re pulling for him.