The front page of last Sunday’s New York Times had a picture of a man named John Shields. It was the largest front cover picture of an individual I can ever recall on the front of the paper. His face took up the entire photograph; the picture took up the entire front page—and above the fold. I imagined John Shields must be a Prime Minister or a person of great fame, although I had never heard of him. It had my curiosity, and so I began reading….for six full pages. SIX FULL PAGES! I had to wonder why the most famous newspaper in the world, whose motto is “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” would run the longest article I have ever seen about someone I had never heard of. And so, I read.
If you are easily distressed, stop reading now and turn to the back page of the bulletin and read the advertisements for electricians and attorneys. If, however, you are strong, keep reading.
As I began reading the article the answer was right in the first paragraph. John Shields was a former Catholic priest who was about to end his own life; assisted suicide of a former Catholic priest. Had John Shields been anyone else, this would not have been a six page story. Because John Shields had been a Catholic priest the story merited six full pages of coverage. Shields had been a Catholic priest for only 4 years; less time than it takes a CD to mature. The article tells us that very early in his priesthood he came to turn away from Christ’s message of redemption. He moved on to all sorts of other things. He began working with unwed pregnant women who sought abortions. The article sadly tells us “He put aside any vestiges of Catholic doctrine.” He became a “Spiritual Cosmologist” and dabbled in psychedelic drugs. In 2011, he published his memoir entitled “The Priest Who Left His Religion in Pursuit of Cosmic Spirituality.”
I found this a very sad article, but I still kept asking: Why front page? Why six pages? The answer of course is that this was a priest. A priest can never not be a priest. Catholic priesthood is eternal and irrevocable. It can never be rescinded. A man may leave active ministry, but he is forever a priest. And so, what we have is a priest who has abandoned the cross and chosen to take his own life. In his own words: “I don’t want to suffer anymore.” No one of course wants to suffer, but suffering can be redemptive and salvific.
I think of Christ on the Cross. We are told he did not accept the narcotic gall to drink when it was offered to Him. Further, and most importantly, Jesus did not come off His Cross. He remained unto the end. He dies with the words “It is accomplished.” Everything about our faith is to embrace the Cross, not run from it. The Lord tells us “Unless you pick up your cross and carry it, you are not worthy to be my disciple.” The ancient tradition of the Stations of the Cross tells us that Jesus fell three times on the way to His own death. This means he picked the cross back up three times. Jesus carried His Cross bravely to completion. Integral to being a Christian, and moreover, a priest, is the belief that we must participate in the Cross. Every priest is read the ancient instruction during the priestly ordination ritual, with the words “remember that your ordination conforms you not just to Christ, but to Christ-crucified.” On the day of this NYTimes article it is interesting that the second reading at Mass has St. Paul tell us: “Beloved: Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ.” Suffering with faith can be redemptive, purgative and can even bring about greatness and holiness.
And so, to the point: After having devoted six laudatory pages to a man who admitted “I don’t want to suffer anymore,” there was no mention in the paper of an incident that took place the same week: 29 Egyptian Christian pilgrims who were murdered for the crime of being Christians. Survivors of the attack said that those who killed the Christians did not merely open fire on the pilgrims, but each victim was asked to renounce their Christian faith. All of them—priests, and many children—refused. Each was killed with a gunshot to the head. Pope Francis has declared them martyrs “because they did not want to renounce the faith.” I would add that these young Christians were not afraid to suffer for Christ. They knew the words of Saint Paul: “Beloved: Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ.” What unshakable faith! What an inspiration. That story deserves a lot more than six pages.
– Fr. Gerard Gordon