“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” These words of Charles Dickens could certainly have been descriptive of the 1970’s.The nation was embroiled in a war that split families apart, the cities were exploding with racial riots and the Roman Church was struggling with social and moral issues. The parish in microcosm was involved in all of these issues and we as priests walked a fine line. I never liked labels so there was no comfort in defining myself in a particular camp but in essence on most issues that mattered I was progressive. The danger in that is one could get caught up with serving only those of like mind. All of the people in the parish were my responsibility not only those who saw the world as I did.
The changes in the world had mammoth effects on the laity as well as the priests. In an effort to accommodate the need for more involvement the Diocese established parish councils and a priest’s senate. The parish council was to assist the pastor in the day to day operations of the parish. At Holy Trinity despite the fact that Monsignor Murphy was a congenial man who loved the people the council was a paper tiger. We had so many talented business people who would provide valuable council especially in the financial areas but Monsignor did not wish to relinquish the power of absolute financial freedom. Two of the most talented members of the council resigned after a few attempts to change the system.
On the priest side of the equation I was elected by my peers to the senate which was an organization that in theory was to assist the Bishop in policy and practice. The Bishop as always was kind and considerate but without open conflict ignored the senate. Naively I brought to the group three outstanding Human Resource executives to assist us in structure and practice. The meetings were phenomenal but the recommendations were totally ignored by the Bishop.
One area of the Senate that worked well was that any priest without permission could seek the counsel of any member of the structure. One evening about 8:30 I received a call from a priest who was one of the finest members of the club. He had been a priest for over twenty years and was deeply loved and respected. He asked if I could meet him without wearing a collar at a diner on route 22. I agreed and because I was not on duty changed clothes and drove to the diner. It was relatively empty and almost as soon as I sat and ordered coffee my brother priest poured forth his dilemma. For years he had been a compulsive gambler and though his parents had left him and his sister a small fortune he had lost it all. In addition his bookie had no idea that he was a priest and when he found out he was a member of the clergy allowed him one last chance to get even. This as all other bets failed and now the bookie was being pressed by those above him to collect or get heavy .I listened to him and finally asked “How much do you owe” I almost fell off the chair when he said “thirty six thousand dollars. “Regaining my composure I assured him that as a member of the Senate and the personnel board I would not divulge his secret but would arrange for him to get professional help. I also requested that he contact his bookie and set up a meeting with me to resolve the situation. Every nickel I had in this world came to a little over ten thousand dollars and there was no other way of raising the money without making his reputation vulnerable.
Two days past and my priest friend gave me a number to call. I presumed it was the number of his bookie. I called and explained who I was but there was little response. Finally a gruff voice gave me an address in Hoboken where I was to be on the following Thursday at 11 am. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was to come alone and not tell anyone about this meeting. I ignored the second part and sought the counsel of my brother an FBI agent and a Federal prosecutor who lived in the parish. Both insisted that I not attend this meeting. I was conflicted but decided that if I did not my friend might come to harm. I drove to Hoboken and with great effort finally found the address; it was a decrepit old warehouse. I parked the car and walked to the front entrance. There were two huge men at the door and they let me in and then apparently searching for a weapon frisked me. After this they led me into the open part of the warehouse where a man was sitting on a vegetable crate. He motioned for me to sit down on the crate next to him. In an angry voice he said “Do you have the money”? I hesitated and finally said “all I could raise was ten thousand dollars. There is no possibility of anything more.”He stared at me and with great anger in his voice said” I don’t give a s….t that a priest owes this money. I am going to take your ten grand but if he ever gambles again in New Jersey he is a dead man.If you report this meeting to the cops you will join him. “He said those words as if he was ordering lunch. Finally after giving me a death stare he took the envelope from my hands and never looked inside.He stood and with no emotion offered “Now get the hell out of here.”He did not need to tell me a second time. I bolted and drove back to Westfield grateful that I had survived this harrowing morning.The good part of this episode was that counseling helped and to my knowledge my friend never gambled again.
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