On the main drag of Saint Clair there used to be a hardware store. Unlike your Home Depot and Lowe's, this wasn't much of a place to browse around, but you could get what you needed. Once I brought a key to have duplicated. As the owner practiced his keycraft, he shared, "People come to me to fix the mistakes they get up at the mall."
I sometimes feel that way about what we priests end up doing in the course of our ministry: attempting to repair the mistakes others have made before us. A couple times a week I meet people in the hospital who share war stories. Now I recognize with no small amount of gratitude that--hey, people are taking that opportunity to disclose themselves to me! They don't have to. They can send me away (and some do). But those who let me stay, must need to be cleansed, and I hope I give them a fair hearing.
People don't come to the hospital expressly intending to meet a priest with whom they can share their hurts. They want to get their knees or hips replaced; they want their gallbladder out; they want to be able to breathe more clearly. But in the course of their visit they meet this priest who invites them (explicitly or not) to submit themselves to another sort of treatment being aimed at a deeper, more insidious cancer. "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more. I shall you whom to fear. Be afraid of the one who after killing has the power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one" (Lk 12:4-5).
"Father Yesteryear yelled at me for wearing a hat/chewing gum/playing Angry Birds in church." On the level of harms, this is among the lowest. It betrays the depth of ego deflation that needs to take place in our hearts.
"Father yelled at me in confession." This is higher on the harm scale. Maybe I come from an enlightened era, but I can't think of a reason why--scratch that. I admit that it is hard to accompany some people who seem to agonize over trifles, or who act as a sort of mirror to me with a particular quirk or fault they can't let go of.
"They closed my parish. I got all my sacraments there. My grandparents built that church." I empathize to some degree, and am not afraid to share my experience with the parochially displaced. The parish of my youth merged with the others in town seven years ago. Although my church didn't close for another five years, I still couldn't offer my "First" Mass of Thanksgiving there, because it wouldn't comfortably hold all the clergy and lay guests. As sad as that last fact was, it was more important to me that everyone was together. That many of these people hardly bothered to give the new parish in town a try, or even go to another parish if it was closer to them--that's another matter.
I usually engage the patients with reason, knowing all the while that a hospital visit scarcely furnishes any real clarity; or, if they "see my point," still more emotional repair [ego deflation] awaits. I don't have to be the one to make all that happen in that visit, or even in subsequent ones. God is bigger than me. He has the total picture of a person's life. But I don't want to cower from challenges because I might hurt a person's feelings. "Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don't say it mean."
The other day Pope Francis gave priests a one-two punch, when he told compassionless priests to find another job instead of spreading their misery to unsuspecting "patients," penitents who already approach the sacrament with guilt and remorse. Now the Pope exhorted all the faithful to compassion in that morning homily, but his words to priests were especially salient. I could hear a bevy of disgruntled folks ganging up on a presbyterate assembled for their Chrism Mass, taunting, "Yeah--yeah!!" And they'd be right.
Nowadays it's not often the confessional where people see the darker, human side of priests, since people don't go to confession like they used to. Now they see us that way in the rectory, the parish school, the vestibule, the funeral home, or other places they may happen upon us...like the hospital.
They may have wanted or at least expected to see us around the parish campus or in liturgical settings, but not necessarily in the hospital. It is something of a luxury that our diocese is still able to "afford" a couple of diocesan priests in full-time hospital ministry. Maybe we can't afford not to have some in hospitals, as they are such a fertile ground for a meaningful encounter.
Author Eve Tushnet is gathering ideas to write a book about people who have been hurt by the Church. That's a great idea, because people who pick up that book might hear someone telling their story. Hopefully they might also find how at least some of those people found their way back to the Catholic Church, or never left her, despite the flaws of her priests...or despite their own flaws, which might have been the major catalyst, or at least a factor, in the original incident.