A Lesson from Fr. Pavone: How to Behave on the Carpet

When I saw, on the Anchoress Blog, that Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life had been suspended from priestly ministry outside his diocese, my knee jerked right up. I’ll admit it: I thought: “Here we go again, another diva.” In my defense, the letter published by Bishop Zurek of Amarillo seems calculated, at least in part, to steer a reader toward that conclusion. Without making any specific allegations, the bishop expresses “deep concerns regarding [Pavone's] stewardship of the finances of the Priest For Life (PFL) organization.” Then he speaks more broadly about the effect of Pavone’s apostolate on his character, and on their relationship:

In his relationship to his bishop ordinaries, Father Pavone has gradually lost his need to show appropriate obedience to his Bishop. It seems that his fame has caused him to see priestly obedience as an inconvenience to his unique status and an obstacle to the possible international scope of his ministry. I would venture to say that the supreme importance that he has attributed to his PFL ministry and the reductionist attitude toward the diocesan priesthood has inflated his ego with a sense of self-importance and self-determination.

In his own statement, Pavone insists he has complied with all episcopal requests for information regarding PFL finances “including annual financial audits, quarterly reports, management documents—even entire check registers!” To get Zurek’s restriction rescinded, he has appealed to the Vatican. But, though the very act of appealing effectively suspends the restriction, Pavone assures readers “I am reporting to Amarillo this Tuesday, in hopes that I can sort this problem out with the Bishop in a mutually agreeable and amicable way.”

Toward the end of the film The Madness of King George, the king remarks to the effect that “the important thing is to seem.” He still suffers from hereditary porphyria, but his most recent attack has abated in time to prevent his son’s installation as regent. Whether he’s afflicted or not, he doesn’t look it, so he gets to go on being in charge (at least to the extent that any English kings were in those days). In the battle of appearances, Pavone has at least matched his bishop, possibly bested him. In the first place, he insists he’s been perfectly transparent. In the next, he makes clear he won’t let his decision to stand on his canon-legal rights interfere with the mending of fences. He seems — to use King George’s word — like an all-around good sport.

But Pavone’s most effect credibility enhancer is also his subtlest; in fact, it’s an omission: he never imputes any unworthy motives to Zurek, and in fact, professes “great respect” for him. Yet he manages to throw doubt on the bishop’s perceptions. In emphasizing his determination to protect “the good work done by the Priests for Life organization,” he makes it clear it’s not all about him. He may see PFL as an extension of himself; in person, he may be aloof, pompous, condescending, whatever. But by his actions, Pavone’s reduced those possibilities to intangibles, and perhaps, to unprovables.

Now, some might call it disgraceful that any such war of appearances should have to be fought. In an ideal world, they‘d be right. But we’re living in an un-ideal world where both dioceses and charitable organizations live on donations and, by extension, on good publicity. I’m not taking Pavone’s side — Bishop Zurek’s letter has left me in the dark about what the issues really are. I feel automatic sympathy for the bishop of any small diocese who has to — or feels he has to — impose his will on a priest who also happens to be the head of a nationwide organization. Nevertheless, the next time I find myself in trouble, I know I’ll be praying for Pavone’s cool head.

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