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 To get Zurek’s restriction rescinded, he has appealed to the Vatican.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.

  • Warren Jewell

    It has a touch of “Nobody’s paying me that kind of attention”. Maybe the good bishop’s coffee just wasn’t hot enough that morning. Maybe he just wants Fr. Pavone to come in and plump for diocesan funding.

    Or, maybe, Priests for Life does need a full and fully independent auditing.

    Notice how such ‘scandals’ – tempests in teapots, often – bring out the skepi-cynics in us city boys? Heh-heh.

  • Anonymous

    This whole thing is just big parade of “Mabes,” innit? What struck me most was the bishop’s letter. “Pavone’s a problem child, and I have reason to believe he’s also a crook” is pretty rough, for an opening move. Did Zuzek write in those terms because he has no sense of tact? Because Pavone, knowingly or not, has stepped on his ego? Or because he knows that, if he intends to decapitate a major organization, he’d better come up with a good reason; that “Because I said so” just isn’t good enough?

    In any case, this city boy will be watching, with gimlet eyes.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/hermit/ Stephen Taylor

    I think we should all wait and see. I have learned that time brings all things, and in this case, it will also. Any organization that gets that big should have Lay Oversight, in my personal opinion because not all priests are good managers. So, let’s not bash the Bishop, or Fr. Pavone. He is a priest and he is in obedience to his Bishop and that is that.

  • Anonymous

    Nobody’s bashing anyone. So far, nobody appears to deserve it. I’m just curious to see how this will develop. Whatever facts emerge could point toward any number of problems that have, till now, gone unexamined. You pointed out one yourself: Do big, lucrative Churchorganizations nee lay oversight? Another might be: What do you do if you’re a priest who’s much more of a go-getter than suits your bishop?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/hermit/ Stephen Taylor

    I wasn’t trying to say you were. I’m sorry if it sounded like that. I have seen so much today about it that it just popped out of my head. I think your article is the most even headed I’ve seen all day. As to the questions you raised: when a priest is involved in something that large then yes, in order to avoid any appearance of “naughty hands” then there should be lay oversight, in my opinion. The priestly office does not include running international organizations unless you are part of an order and it is your job. So much work needs to be done still in this area. The church is changing and people are running like crazy in circles. We should bless God that the Holy Spirit is still with us to keep us moving. And, that there are bloggers like you, sir, to write even headed articles. :-)

  • Izywinter

    Max, I really like your angle on this. Isn’t it ironic that good faith seems to be missing/lacking between our bishops and priests, these days? My days of trusting any clergy to his own power are over. Our parish has a new priest, replacing the former one who left on a note of adulation. There seems to be a “look-and-see-if-he-can-fill-his-predecessor’s shoes” thing going on in the parish, but I’m not giving anyone a break. The only priest I would trust is the one who prays, not the one with the most erudition, eloquence, charm, funnies, etc. (although these and prayerfulness are not mutually exclusive) I’m with you on preferring someone with no ostentatious personality.

  • Kmac2166

    I love the appeal to the Holy See. Pavone is no neophyte. U

  • Anna

    Hmmm…I have no horse in this race either…but I must say, the bishop’ s letter does seem a bit over-the-top in terms of personal criticisms of Pavone. I just think that he didn’t need to include the second half of the letter, and it might even weaken it’s overall impact.

    But what do I know…

  • Anonymous

    After writing this, I learned that Pavone has only been incardinated into the Diocese of Amarillo since 2007. (Didn’t surprise me; I’d guess people named “Frank Pavone” are about as thin on the ground in the Texas panhandle as people named “Max Lindenman,” or, come to that, “Patrick Zuzek.”) I have to believe Zuzek knew Pavone’s attitude toward the diocese would be strictly pragmatic, that he’d regard Amarillo chiefly as a base of operations for a much bigger project.

  • Mike

    Pavone chose Amarillo because the previous bishop would not assign him to a parish as had been done in New York. Maybe he should have found a diocese whose bishop wasn’t so close to retirement.

  • workathomemom

    I’m just wondering why you’re speculating on what Father Frank is like in person, if you have never met him? He is not aloof, pompous or condescending in the least. Someone from the diocese gave this letter to Catholic News Service, now the whole thing is being dissected in the media, and the floodgates are open for criticism of Father Frank. You can imagine what they are saying about him on the secular sites. This is a man who is never out of his black suit, doesn’t take a salary, doesn’t drink coffee or alcohol, drives an old car and spends every waking minute (and he has more of those than the average person) consumed with the horror of abortion. “Babies are dying,” he says, often. The thing he enjoys more than anything is interacting with people — no matter who they are. He counsels abortionists, for heaven’s sake.

    And, for the record, it’s Zurek, not Zuzek. And where is he, anyway? The diocese won’t say! Meanwhile, Father Frank is in Amarillo celebrating Mass.

  • Anonymous

    Qualities like aloofness and self-importance on one hand, and rigidity and peevishness on the other, can vary in strength according to the situation. In his letter, Pavone comes across like a perfect gentleman; obviously, he didn’t strike the bishop that way. On the Anchoress’ thread, a couple of people who knew Zurek swear he’s the nicest guy in the world. That’s not the impression he gives in this letter. It’s possibly they bring out the worst in each other.

  • Kgoze1

    There’s a lot of wisdom in Madness of King George. A piece of advice for Pavone. Don’t call the bishop a “scabby bumsucker,” at least not if he has several strong men and a restraining chair on hand! That goes double if Handel’s Coronation Anthem is playing at the time!

  • Wkerwin

    I disagree. I was inclined to give Pavone the benefit of the doubt, until I came to the following:

    “Though, as a diocesan priest, I have never taken a vow of poverty, I have basically chosen to live in that fashion in solidarity with the pre-born children we are trying to protect—who are the poorest of the poor.”

    First of all, the phrase “I have basically chosen” is suspicious . . . why qualify it with the phrase “basically?” Has he lived as if by a vow or not? Secondly, the statement about living “in solidarity with the pre-born” is extremely self-serving and a transparent exploitation of the constituency he claims to serve.

  • Mckay Janet

    I met Fr. Frank one time coming out of an elevator. Although we had never met, I felt such a connection to him like he was a dear old friend. I greeted him and he responded warmly. He and a few co-workers were in the Chicago suburbs for pro-life work. He made sure I was on the Priests for Life mailing list before he let me go. I will never forget that encounter with that wonderful priest. He is a man that passionately believes in the prolife cause and completely devotes himself to combating this evil. I am so very sad that he is being persecuted and pray for him and encourage others to do so.

  • Mckay Janet

    I met Fr. Frank one time coming out of an elevator. Although we had never met, I felt such a connection to him like he was a dear old friend. I greeted him and he responded warmly. He and a few co-workers were in the Chicago suburbs for pro-life work. He made sure I was on the Priests for Life mailing list before he let me go. I will never forget that encounter with that wonderful priest. He is a man that passionately believes in the prolife cause and completely devotes himself to combating this evil. I am so very sad that he is being persecuted and pray for him and encourage others to do so.

  • http://twitter.com/JuneBug26 JUNE VENDETTI

    I have to wonder what Bishop Zurek’s motives are and why, during Pro-Life month, would he suspend all of Fr. Pavone’s engagements. I consider myself a good, practicing Catholic. I have to wonder though, why there seems to be too much politics in the Church. We’re all supposed to be working for the good of mankind, to bring charity and hope to hopeless situations. Fr. Pavone is trusting in God and His infinite mercy and love. I’m sure that Fr. Pavone is praying for his Bishop, as we all are, that he will resolve this issue just as quickly as possible, so that Fr. Pavone can get back to doing the good work of defending life in the womb.

  • http://twitter.com/JuneBug26 JUNE VENDETTI

    I have to wonder what Bishop Zurek’s motives are and why, during Pro-Life month, would he suspend all of Fr. Pavone’s engagements. I consider myself a good, practicing Catholic. I have to wonder though, why there seems to be too much politics in the Church. We’re all supposed to be working for the good of mankind, to bring charity and hope to hopeless situations. Fr. Pavone is trusting in God and His infinite mercy and love. I’m sure that Fr. Pavone is praying for his Bishop, as we all are, that he will resolve this issue just as quickly as possible, so that Fr. Pavone can get back to doing the good work of defending life in the womb.


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