Last month the Roman curia took the extraordinary step of calling a meeting of bishops in order to address the horrific sex abuse scandals that have undermined the world’s faith in the oldest and most venerable institution in the West.
Everyday, it seems, the headlines are filled with scandalous new revelations or accusations, announcements of inquisitions and depositions, and poignant pictures of parishioner abused by those placed in positions of trust and authority. One shudders to think of the words of judgment that they will receive from the lips of the Righteous Judge when the day comes where they will be held to account for their actions.
It’s a bit bizarre then to read William Mill’s book Losing My Religion in which suffering occurs to a priest at the hands of the church faithful. Now I will say that I was disappointed in how mundane the conflict Mills describes was which ultimately led to “a third of his congregation leav[ing] in a public power play.”
I was hoping for some kind of captivating power grab or a scandal involving his decision to remain true to the Nicene Creed when a parishioner was screaming for an acknowledgement of the truth of Arianism (I’m a nerd, I know); alas, the conflict involved nothing more than an aggressive deacon publicly berating Mills for an increase to his salary.
Reading the episode, I couldn’t help but think that if Mills would have stood up and calmly, yet directly confronted the antagonist, then all would have likely returned to normal. Mills, for whatever reason, remains in his seat, silent: “The more Walter talked the more I became passive,” he says. “Was this a sign that I should leave?”
One jerk rudely excoriating a pastor in front of the elders of the church is not a sign that a pastor should leave. And yet this episode truly has a massive impact on Mill’s life. One can’t help feeling sympathetic and exasperated at him in the same moment.
I felt that way often as I read the book. The story of Mills seeing his future parish and meeting the parish council is hilarious, heartbreaking, and pathetic all at the same time. There were confusing moments: “is that person just introduced his secretary, his wife, a friend? Wait, it’s his wife that he’s just named at the beginning of a chapter a third of the way through the book without even so much as a mention of her anywhere previously?”
But there were also profound moments. The true gift of Mill’s book, though, is in its normality and its simplicity. There are wonderful descriptions of Mill’s parents, his childhood priest, his childhood home and everyday life growing up in an Eastern Orthodox parish. Here’s a description of an Easter vigil gathering:
The serviced ended around one o’clock in the morning and we’d all go downstairs and Father Paul would walk around the hall blessing Easter baskets. After he was done we would sit down together and share our food. The smell was overpowering —table after table filled with smoked sausage, ham, pork roasts, homemade farmers cheese, hard boiled eggs [sic], freshly baked breads, and sweet deserts. People brought along wine, beer, and vodka to share too.
It makes you want to be a part of a community where you can experience such remarkable, ordinary moments, doesn’t it?
Losing My Religion is a book that you might read in one sleepy long afternoon; grateful that its language has slowed your pace of life down and allowed you to remember your childhood church with all of its smells and the smiles of its hardworking, warm-hearted, everyday people.
I’ll end with a quote that seems to capture Mill’s honest simplicity quite well: “I learned that my job isn’t to change people, but to encourage and inspire them, that’s all I can do.”