The stories in the Catholic world these days, stories of abuse, cover-ups, and promotion of predators have me profoundly sad. The word “silence” has me angry.
I want to tell a story, which is still a mystery to me, but one which I find I cannot stop thinking about these days. It is a brief story, because I don’t have all the details. But for a reason I do not understand, God wanted me to know the story. And for what it’s worth, I feel that I am to tell it now. Off the bat, I need to say that the story begins with a good and upright priest.
Seven years ago, home in Arizona, I was awakened from a sound sleep in the middle of the night. I felt almost as if I had been shaken by someone. I lay there for a moment, disoriented. Then, an interior voice with the clarity of a bell said, Find out what happened to Fr. Bruce.
Fr. Bruce? I thought for a moment. Oh yes, the principal of the school in Milwaukee I began attending in third grade, Mother of Good Counsel. He was only there that one year, when I was eight years old, and then he was gone. Funny that I should think of him now, almost 30 years later, I mused, aware that I was wide awake. Oh well, maybe I was having a dream. I rolled over, intending to go back to sleep.
But there would be no more sleep that night. Find out what happened to Fr. Bruce. The message, inaudible but interiorly urgent, pressed on me again. This is bizarre, I thought. But realizing there would be no peace until I obeyed, I tiptoed into the den and turned on the computer.
My hands poised over the keyboard, I thought, “I don’t know his last name!” Honestly, I didn’t know if I had ever known it. As a child, he was simply, “Fr. Bruce.” But then, suddenly, and with a flash of clarity from outside of me, as if someone was dictating, I knew it. I typed quickly, Fr. Bruce Brentrup.
His obituary flashed onto the screen. He had died two days before.
The obituary had been posted just moments ago. Right when I was awakened.
Goosebumps. I stared at the brief paragraph – Rev. Robert “Bruce” Brentrup, born 25 March 1932, died 8 February 2011, survived by one brother, nieces, and nephews. The funeral would be in two days.
I sat there for a moment, numb with disbelief, then slowly warming to the realization that I had been awoken in order to know this, and that I needed to know it now. I will pray for him, I decided. May he rest in peace. I thought about the fact that he had helped prepare me for my first confession, and that he had been kind to me. Yes, I need to pray for him, I determined. I will have a Mass said. I pushed back the chair, intending to try to get a little more sleep before the kids woke up.
Find out what happened to Fr. Bruce. Again, and as clear as ever. Was there more to be ‘found out’? By now I knew better than to shrug the message off. I had a sense I was supposed to find out why he had left the school. So I began to type, to search, to read. And slowly, awfully, an ugly scene unfolded.
Three priests, members of a ‘pastoral team’ had been assigned to Mother of Good Counsel the year I arrived as a new third grader. Soon there were signs that things weren’t right. Parents, teachers, and Fr. Bruce as principal began to be suspicious of goings-on in the rectory with young boys. Three teachers and Fr. Bruce attempted to do something about it with a letter, written to alert the archbishop – Rembert Weakland – who years later would leave the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in disgrace when it was reported that his own former homosexual partner had been paid $450,000 as hush money. In the end, all the teachers and Fr. Bruce were fired and threatened with libel for trying to bring the truth to light. Condemned to silence – with a hiss at the end. In the end, truth it was. One of the priests would eventually be imprisoned and defrocked.
A whole sick diocese spread out on the screen before me. I had not been entirely naive; as a child I was aware that something bad had happened with one of the priests and I knew that Archbishop Weakland had not been supportive of my father’s pro-life work. But this was like a cancer that had infected a whole city and I suddenly felt its sickness. Lawsuits, settlements, shuffling priests around, deception, denial.
I sat for a while, stunned. I wept. I wept for Fr. Bruce, taken from the school he loved, a good priest, the reason I had been sent to MGC to begin with. Friends of his would say later he was never the same, becoming a withdrawn man, beaten-down by the Archbishop’s vicious actions. I wept for me, the little girl in the third-grade classroom who was learning to write, and who even then had fallen in love with paper and pencils and scribbling stories. She would be deprived of the leadership of solid priests. I ached for my parents, who had only wanted to raise us in a holy environment and instead who found themselves in a school surrounded by filth. I wept for the boys who had been victimized, who had been shattered by selfishness and sin. I wept for Milwaukee, for its people. I hurt for the broken men who had broken vows and broken lives. I grieved for the Church.
And on some level, I wept with gratitude for the grace – for that is what it was, what it always is, a free and undeserved grace – to believe still and unhesitatingly in Jesus Christ and the Church he founded, to trust in the promises reserved to this Church and to this Church alone. I knew then and I know now that the Church is being restored even as the false edifice and hypocrisy are being revealed. I wrote this recently about marriage, but it is also true for the Church: when God restores something, he doesn’t just put it back in its original condition. In his mysterious generosity, he makes something better than it had been before it was broken.
Even before the cancer in the corners was coming to light, God had begun. He had brought good vocations to flower and orthodox convents and dioceses to burst forth with life. He had placed people to speak truth, to demand truth, to coax it out of its hiding places. He set the stage. And then he shook us awake and sent the Spirit to say, Find out what happened.
I called my father early the next day. “Did you know that Fr. Bruce died?” I asked. He paused. “No.” Another pause. “How did you know?” I took a deep breath. “You aren’t going to believe this….” And I told him the story. “The funeral is at the parish down the street from you,” I said. He was quiet and said he and my mother would go.
For years I’ve carried this weight – unknowingly, I’ve carried it almost my whole life. There is now a certain sense of relief as layers of secrets are peeled away, uncovering a side to the Church we would like to wish away; as awful as these recent revelations are, we can be sure that their surfacing now has been orchestrated by God for his purposes of purification and renewal.
It is a small story in the scope of the tsunami of scandal we are in. But a thousand small stories of truth will help to break the power of a certain kind of sinful silence.
“We’ve had enough of exhortation to be silent! Cry out with a hundred thousand tongues. I see that the world is rotten because of silence.” – St. Catherine of Siena