In view of the sexual abuse scandal that has shaken the Catholic Church, I think it is only fair to give an example of how most Catholic priests relate to the young. About 45 years ago, my son Michael was trying my patience, talking back, sassing his teachers and coming home bloodied from fist fights more times than I care to recall. At the age of about 12, Michael seemed to be running wild, making me love him and want to strangle him in equal proportions. After Mass one Sunday, Father John came out to our farm for a surprise visit. Apparently fed up with Michael’s behavior during Mass, Father John gave Michael a bag of nails and told him that for every time he lost his “cool” during the day, he should hammer a nail into the rail fence that protected my flowers from the cows. Michael laughed but agreed to do it. I had my doubts.
Before going to bed that night, though, I moseyed outside to the fence and counted a number of nails in one of the rails. For the next two weeks or so, I walked out and counted nails, finding fewer and fewer new nails in my fence. Apparently Michael was finding it easier to hold his temper than hammer nails. Finally the night arrived when I didn’t find any new nails.
The following Sunday, I told Father John. After Mass, he cornered Michael and now told him also to pull out a nail at the end of every day he had been able to keep his cool the whole day. Michael shrugged but said he would do it.
Night after night, I counted nails, sometimes finding more, sometimes finding fewer. Eventually, about a month later, I found no nails at all in my fence.
On a morning shortly thereafter, Father John paid us another visit. After lunch, the three of us walked out to the fence. Father John looked at me and grinned, then scowled at Michael. “Just look at that fence,” he said. “It’s full of holes.” Michael stepped back. “That’s what you are doing to yourself,” the priest went on. “That fence will never again be the same, and neither will you.”
“But...” Michael started.
“No buts, Michael. When you lose your cool, people might be willing to forgive, but they will never forget. And that includes your mother. You leave scars, Michael, just as you scarred that fence.”
Without another word, and without waiting for Michael to respond, Father John walked off, heading for his car. Michael just stood there for a minute, then reached out for my hand. Hand in hand, my son and I strolled quietly back to the house.
I’m not sure that is why Michael changed. But I do know that from then on he was changed. He never again talked back to me, and while he did come home bloodied from a few more fist fights, I never again had to go to the schoolhouse because he had sassed his teachers.
Today, Michael is married with two grown sons of his own. He is a lawyer and lives in Washington D.C., but whenever he comes home for a visit, I make it a point to walk him out to the fence around my garden. It is a mostly new fence, of course, but it still has that one old, faded rail full of holes.
Thank you, Father John.