Two weeks ago I interviewed Fr. Phillip Owen, a newly ordained Catholic priest. I’ve heard that younger priests tend to be more conservative, so I wanted to find out where he stood on some controversial issues.
The further we got into the interview, the more I liked the young priest. He is bright, humble, articulate and sensitive.
He was also, as I had heard, much more conservative than priests from my generation. His boundaries were clear and firm. When I asked him if he would give communion to a gay person living in a committed relationship he said “No.” Would he let a Lutheran pastor preach the homily at a Lutheran/Catholic wedding in his church? Again, the answer was “No.” He is also against abortion and marriage for priests.
My generation, the Baby Boomers, was good at tearing walls down, at crossing boundaries. St. Bernardine’s members can’t remember how many times I’ve preached at one of their Masses. That was when two “old guys,” Fr. Fearon and Fr. Tucker, were the pastors. We tore down the Berlin wall. We dismantled barriers that oppressed minorities of all kinds for centuries. Many of your friends, neighbors and classmates are of different races and ethnicities, in part, because we passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
One thing my generation was not so good at was maintaining healthy boundaries. We didn’t create AIDS, but our promiscuous tendencies spread it into epidemic proportions. “If it feels good, do it.” Remember that one? Or how about, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”?
What struck me about Fr. Owen’s firm convictions was that I didn’t detect any trace of judgment in what he said.Ê He simply knew where he stood and had a clear picture of what he believed. Contrast that with many in my generation who know what they oppose, but when it comes to what they stand for, they’ll respond, “I’m for being open to all ways of believing.” There’s an old aphorism that goes, “If you don’t stand for something, you’re liable to fall for most anything.”
What’s tricky about the boundaries of convictions is finding a balance where they’re flexible enough to deal with changing situations, but also amply firm to keep one’s integrity intact.
For example, many first-class merchants moved to our section of Madison Street from Oak Park, because The Village of Oak Park has so many barriers that need to be broken down in order to start and run a business. Savvy entrepreneurs saw that Forest Park’s regulatory barriers were easier to get over and made the wise decision to travel west of Harlem Avenue.
And, the local business owners I speak with compliment the village’s firm enforcement of its regulations, which, some believe, maintain a healthy business environment.
When it comes to boundaries, the sweet spot is somewhere between rigid and porous. One Forest Park institution that gets it right is School District 91. When I walk through the schools, the halls are quiet and the students in the classroom are well behaved. That tells me that D91’s boundaries are firm enough.
When I was training to be a teacher in the ’70s, people seemed to be afraid to say, “This is right, and that is wrong.” That appears to have changed, at least at D91. Their evidence-based approach to education and discipline is not one size fits all, but they have a firm grasp on right and wrong. The Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports
(PBIS) program has reduced negative behavior by 40 percent, according to Superintendent Lou Cavallo.
When I hear students, teachers and principals greeting each other in the hall it makes me feel like some real relationships have been formed. Furthermore, most D91 teachers seem secure enough in the classroom that they can let some boundaries be crossed for the sake of connecting with kids.
As for Fr. Owen, I didn’t always agree with where he chose to draw the lines in the ecclesiastical sand, but I understood where he was coming from. I liked the guy because he knew where he stood and he was willing to talk about our differences without getting defensive.
Just imagine the tone of social and civil discourse if everyone behaved that way.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.