Thursday, 20 December 2007

Missing: a father

We all remember those stories of husbands and fathers who went out one day to get milk/a newspaper/ “fresh air”, and never returned.

Wives and children (I don’t remember women doing this but they may have done) first not noticing, then realising the minutes, watching the hours and finally, counting the days he is gone.

Sometimes there are police searches, hospitals are scoured, hope still thrives in the home.

But, eventually, there is certainty. He is never coming back. He has deserted them. Perhaps he never loved them at all. And the pain kicks in and lasts for many years, if not (especially for the children) a lifetime. The damage is done.

It has been, exactly like that, for me since Father Francis Mary Stone took a “leave of absence” from EWTN (the Eternal Word Television Network).

Now, everyone knows how in these ‘housebound’ years EWTN, founded by Mother Angelica a Poor Clare nun in 1981, has been my substitute, earthly, family. The fathers (priests), mother (Angelica), brothers (Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word). and sisters (Poor Clare’s of Our Lady of Angels Monastery), all based in their [Alabama, USA] monastery homes, and with me in mine 24/7. I could not have managed without them.

So, with thousands of others, it came as a great shock and huge sadness to learn of Fr. Francis’ departure.

But how I learnt was just the way it was for the family above. I didn’t know for a long time and, in a way, tried not to know – to admit what was staring me in the face: our dear, ubiquitous, brother was no longer visible.

Not celebrating Mass, no longer presenting Life on the Rock - a series primarily for young people but popular with the whole family (even this one – Tom would often watch if I taped it and especially liked Fr. Francis.) - and not there between programmes with his videos from Assisi on the life of his patron saint.

I don’t know how I missed it. I would have watched on November 1st. Maybe I was just late tuning in. But anyway, I did miss the announcement. From poor Fr. Anthony (I’ve forgotten his title but he’s now
“superior” in the friars’ monastery). And that’s when, apparently, he read out Fr Francis’ letter. And everybody (not me then of course) learnt what had happened. His family at EWTN, and his family in the viewing/listening rest of the world.

Fr. Francis Mary had been “helping” a widow and her family and found himself becoming too “involved”. He had requested, and received, time away from EWTN to “discern his vocation”. He was, heart-breakingly, sorry and realised the enormity of the impact this would have.

It was devastating.

I cannot bear to think of dear Mthr. Angelica, in her post-stroke silence, hearing this awful news. She had personally invited this brother, when still a layman, to join the Missionaries of the Eternal Word, soon after she formed the Order in 1987. She would be heartbroken.

So there, one week, was Fr. Mark Mary, alone. Gallantly going on with Life on the Rock. Presenting in his inimitable, introverted way, as well as he could. And succeeding. But we all know – because Fr. Francis often made mention of it – that this particular brother would rather have his head in books (a bit like poor Cardinal Ratzinger when they elected him Pope and he became Benedict XVI, our Holy Father). He has done as requested of him but sometimes we feel his discomfort.

One week grew into two and into three, and I wasn’t sure any more, as at first I had assumed, that Fr. Francis was on retreat. Or on holiday with his family. He couldn’t have been ill or in an accident (like poor Fr. Benedict Groeschel the other year). I wasn’t sure of anything. No one was saying anything. And I began to be cross with myself – with my MS – for not knowing. Because I knew, for certain, someone would have said something once (either that or I’d gone insane and he never existed!). I thought of ringing EWTN.

But by last Sunday I knew I wasn’t the only one who was cross. It was as though Fr. Francis had caused, or was in, trouble. Even the opening and closing film sequence of Frs. Francis, Mark and the other brothers playing basketball and mixing at events like World Youth Day were gone. There was definitely something very amiss.

While Tom did his Christmas hang-over bit in bed, I Googled the name: Father Francis Mary – EWTN. And there it was. In all its horrible glory. The whole story. I felt instantly defeated. Heavily, heavily sad. Black. Fatigued. All the exhaustion I cover with an air of optimism and oft excitement at good thoughts. Gone. A member of the family had deserted us.

“Discerning [his] vocation”?! What the heck did he mean, “discerning [his] vocation”? Didn’t he do that, back then? When he started out and then took the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience? He told us he did (quite recently again on The Journey Home with Marcus Grodi, I believe).

So, I’m cross with Father. And I guess that’s the way grieving goes. We must go through the whole process. Sooner or later I’ll cry. If not for me, then for Mother Angelica, or the other brothers, or, maybe it’ll be for Tom – and everyone like him. The youngsters who admired Fr. Francis. and followed his example. Ooh.

When Tom surfaced on Sunday and wanted to start planning an evening meal, he could tell – even on a still afternoon of the Lord’s Day – something more had gone wrong.Upset his crippled mother in the chair. Oh yes, where was Mass today? He hadn’t heard it. Why had she stopped shouting at him? What happened?

I was cross with Tom for his drinking, but this had to be said. I looked him earnestly in the eyes (they were dark!): “If there was one priest on EWTN who had the most influence on you, who would it be?” (I know he knows most of them and it could easily have been Fr. Benedict or Fr. Corapi, another “character”). He answered, without hesitation: “The basket-ball player”. Ah! You see how big this is? And I hated having to break this news to him.

But, then again, he could – and probably would – use it against, not only the Catholic Church but religion in general - and me. This truly was an horrendous state of affairs. And the Devil must be rolling about in laughter. I was beside myself: “Well, he’s left”, I said. And out it all came.

And, shock! That was it: SHOCK! Tom was utterly shocked. And sad. And I think he felt let down too. I was amazed.

And then the whole night we discussed and debated it. And re-read the letter and perused some of the many comments in blogs and on forums that had come in. A flood of emotion and mixed feelings from right across the globe.

There was a deep sense of sadness everywhere – and, not least, in our own home. It pervaded the night air.

So, what’s left? what is my final comment? Well, there isn’t one. Only prayer is left. I imagine for everybody. That’s all we can do – pray. For Fr. Francis, for the widow and her children, for everyone involved. For his fellow-religious at EWTN and all the staff there. For all the youngsters hurt and feelng betrayed. And for ourselves. That our faith won’t weaken as a result, and that our love, as always, will forgive. May God have mercy.


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