REFLECTION ON THE ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF FR. CHRISTOPHER SENK’S ADMINISTRATIVE LEAVE
Time is a most interesting feature of human life. We can do nothing to stop it. Appointments arrive and are completed while time continues to march. Differences in ages are fixed. Age gaps between people are fixed. In some sense, time is a conveyor belt that moves along with those on the belt unable to change positions along the belt. Death occurs when someone falls off the side of the belt. Even then, gaps remain. We do not diminish gaps in age with those who have died. We remember them as they were in relation to us. Time moves ahead, and we must make the most of it. We cannot reach backward hundreds of years to those who came before, although we see them through the eyes of history. Neither can we see forward hundreds of years and conform our actions to the wills of those who will follow us. The conveyor belt of time holds us in relative place, and we are to use our place for the good of those whose space we share.
Some individuals on the belt have a more visible impact than others. We can think of despots, humanitarians, and leaders who have had broad and documented impact. We can also remember teachers, parents, friends, chance encounters, fleeting moments when someone happened to say the word we needed to hear, to boost us up, to keep us on the conveyor belt with an attitude of hope. Without these individuals, the private and meaningful moments we have experienced, our lives would be dramatically different. We see people whose lives spin out of control because they encounter only fame, fortune, and adulation. Their lives seem rich, but they are impoverished by the absence of those subtle encounters that enrich time on the conveyor belt.
One year ago, Bishop Frank Dewane consigned Fr. Christopher Senk to an edge of the conveyor belt where he cannot interact with others. The reason he did this is simply because he could. Frank Dewane came to the Diocese of Venice proclaiming that he was just passing through on his way to bigger things. He has spent his time in the diocese bullying people, and conforming his world to what he wants it to be. He has sneaked around, showing up at times without notice just to say he has been out and around. He has yelled at the children in Catholic schools, told people who disagree with him that they are hateful, fired and suspended people who might challenge his agenda, and surrounded himself with those willing to feather their nests by agreeing with him. He puffs himself up, pretending to be interested in others, while only being interested in himself.
In the meantime, Fr. Christopher Senk has had to go to bed each night and rise each morning for 365 days distressed about the lies propagated about him, devastated that he cannot function as a priest in the vocation he has embraced for more than 40 years. He is consigned to the edge of the conveyor belt, still alive, still moving along, but unable to have those precious interactions that would sustain him and sustain those who have had moments with him over the years.
Furthermore, the people of St. Isabel and of Sanibel are deprived of moments of grace by the Bishop’s disdain. Sorrow at the death of St. Isabel parishioners and family members is clung to because there is no priest present to dissipate the sadness and draw people together. Funeral receptions have been essentially banned or made impossibly difficult. Fear as a hurricane approached and joy as it passed were not opportunities for communal strength and support as St. Isabel merely posted a sign, “Church closed.” Parishioners and visitors have been deprived of the moments at Mass that might touch them and transform their lives in a personal, almost private, way because Fr. Senk’s voice has been silenced. The people of Sanibel have missed the opportunity to learn of the Catholic perspective on human events because Fr. Senk has been banned from penning his occasional article in the local paper, banned from delivering his powerful homilies in defense of life. Parish activities and organizations with missions to serve and support the poor and marginalized of the area have been forced to look for paths forward without facilities or encouragement. And the people who join those organizations, denied moments of insight through interactions with their pastor, are forced to endure moments where they are castigated from the altar, told to join other churches, discouraged from praying, and publicly labeled as “crazies” by minions who kowtow to the Bishop for their own welfare.
For the last year, Bishop Frank Dewane has damaged people traveling with him on the conveyor belt because he can. He has harmed St. Isabel because he can. He has harmed Sanibel because he can. He has harmed the Diocese of Venice in Florida because he can. He has harmed the church at large because he can. He has harmed Fr. Christopher Senk because he can. The situation demands resolution, demands that those who have fostered the environment of hatred and lies under the guise of Christianity be revealed for what they are. The situation demands that Fr. Senk be exonerated, apologized to, restored, and renewed. The situation demands that the people whose faith has been attacked by their Bishop have that faith restored.
Christianity is not proffered as an easy path. It is only possible when based on love of God and love of neighbor. When a member of the hierarchy builds his strength on love of self and hatred of neighbor, Christianity cannot flourish.
This has been a difficult year on the conveyor belt of life for so many people. It would be wonderful if we could stop the belt, turn it back for a year, and redo. However, time only goes forward. The last year of havoc can only be tempered by compassion, love, and justice in the years going forward. The past cannot be changed; the present provides the opportunity to act. The time is now for Bishop Dewane sincerely to start the process of healing for all impacted by his actions. Bishop Dewane must take a first bold step. He must become the bishop that Pope Francis calls each bishop to be: not a person in a position of prestige, not a careerist after power and honor, but a person who comes not to be served but to serve.
May the light of faith shine brightly in the darkness such that the dark may never overcome it.