With the reports of ongoing child abuse and their cover-ups, the recent $600 million payout to child abuse victims, corruption and financial mismanagement in the Vatican, and the resignation of the Pope Benedict XVI — the first pope to resign in 600 years — it would seem the Roman Catholic Church is enduring a major crisis. But hope and faith are unrelenting for the 1.1 billion devout Catholics around the world. Father Tom Elewaut of the San Buenaventura Mission, who came to Ventura in March 2011, stands strong with his faith, though he will admit that these are some of the tougher times for the church. While some media outlets report members leaving the church in droves, the well-respected Pew Research Center in 2010 found the numbers to be relatively stable over the last century, with the highest concentration of Catholics now in South America, and that about one in four U.S. residents is Catholic.
Father Tom Elewaut spoke candidly with the VCReporter about life in the Roman Catholic Church, the church’s major upheavals and signs of a better future that have already begun to show.
VCReporter: When did you begin in the ministry?
Father Tom Elewaut: I was ordained in 1986 but began formation in 1977.
What is formation?
Being formed. You go through a process to identify with the ministry and the calling and prepare academically, spiritually, personally for that because it is a lifelong commitment. You just don’t say, “Here I am,” and OK, you go. Minimum is five years formation. Part of that is study, also academic study and that, but the church is 2,000 years old with an institution and administration of 2,000 years, so there’s a lot to it.
Why did you choose to get into the ministry?
I didn’t choose. I was called. And I mean that sincerely. I was trained to be a teacher and prepared to be a teacher with Present and Future Teachers of America in high school. In my last year of college, I felt a very strong calling and I just couldn’t understand it, but I became infatuated with it and all those human associations of something of infatuation. I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so I acquiesced and talked to a few people and priests and the doors kept opening.
And how old were you when that happened?
The calling? Oh, I must have been about 23.
As a priest, you were in education to begin with and then you came here?
I asked for a change in ministry after 30 years and came here to the Mission, a parish ministry.
I know you had dated a young lady before joining the church. At that time had you considered marriage?
I had all intents and purposes of marriage. I’m the fifth of five children, and all my brothers and sisters were married. My parents had 66 years of marriage and I couldn’t, of course, see anything else. The idea was to get married after we were finished with college.
Things went a little differently than expected.
That’s why it was such a challenge when I had that calling. I mean, I couldn’t sleep for several weeks. I would go to daily mass and just cry. I would ask, “What is going on here and why?”
That must have been very intense for you.
Yes. Yes. It was intense. … You know, I’ve taught high school … lessons … for 30 years and we talk about infatuation and marriage and things like that and even as I prepared couples for marriage I said, I don’t understand all the dynamics of marriage, obviously, from a personal encounter but I do understand infatuation. That’s why I went through a discernment process because, to determine whether this was appropriate or was some passing, fleeting thing, but as I said, the doors just kept opening and progressing.
Has your faith always been consistent or have you had doubts?
My faith in general has always been consistent. I mean, I’ve had doubts of decisions I’ve made or types of ministry or am I doing my job well or things like that. I’ve never doubted the calling and the ministry of priesthood. Sometimes I’ve had personal injuries, back injuries, and when you’re facing major surgeries and things of that nature, you kind of say, “Where is God in all this?” You read in the papers today and it’s just devastating. But I remember one night getting a call at 2 in the morning and having to respond to parents because their child was murdered in their home that night, or another call where three of my former students were in a terrible tragic auto accident. Three of them died in one night. You’re there to minister to people but just say, “How is this possible?” It’s not like God is pulling strings and causing these things, but still it’s … these are challenging things to grapple with.
A historical photo of the chapel at San Buenaventura Mission taken in 1809.
So do you feel that that’s a test sometimes for you?
What’s that final thought process to letting that conflict in your mind go?
Well, ultimately it comes down to you believe or you don’t believe. It’s OK to question God. It’s OK to be angry at God. It’s OK because God created us and He knows our human emotions and even became incarnate. I’ve worked in hospitals, and people in tragic moments get really angry at God and I understand that. That’s venting. But ultimately you either believe or you don’t believe. Either you trust or you don’t trust. And whether it’s in ministry or relationship to God or the deity or in marriage with a partner, whatever, no matter good times or bad, better or for worse, whether it’s a marriage vow or life or faith vow, you either believe or you don’t.
Do you think there’s an appropriate age for people to get married, given the divorce rate?
Well, I don’t know if I’d say, “Given the divorce rate,” because that’s a complicated issue. That’s even above my understanding and whole dynamics of it, but I do think that that’s why, at least in the Catholic Church, we have a minimum of six months’ preparation. And I would not, given how society evolves, maturity evolves, and we can see this in families and college students, I would not prepare someone for marriage unless they were in at least their early 20s.
Tell me about your experiences at the Mission so far.
Oh, my gosh. I just continue to remain very grateful for this assignment. It’s a more busy assignment than I was anticipating because the purpose of the Mission … not only as a spiritual center — primarily a spiritual center — but its connection historically with California, with Ventura County and all the tourists and then also expanding some of our ministries and outreach programs, which take time and to develop and then some of the buildings are quite old, which there’s a maintenance concern — that’s why we have hired Rick Cole as a parish administrator to assist with those things. But I just still pinch myself and, you know, they say if you want to make God laugh, plan. But my plan — and I’ve communicated this to as much as one can to my superiors — is that I hope to be here until I retire, and retire here.
What are some of your bigger hurdles that you’ve faced since you’ve been here?
Some of the greater concerns is reawakening a parish that experienced a tremendous stability under Monsignor O’Brian and then, when I arrived six years later after his death — I was the fifth administrator, and so I think people kind of lost faith in their pastoral support and leadership.
How long was Monsignor O’Brian here?
And then there was some stability/instability? For six years?
Yes. I mean, he died rather abruptly and I arrived six years later and I was the fifth one to administrate or pastor this parish in those years. [We need to] restore that faith and help people have hope again. Secondly, financially to make it all work … the economic times have been tough these past years. We are doing fine. We are just making it from week to week, payroll to payroll, but we are making improvements so we are not going back and that’s great. But it’s a challenge.
Can you petition the archdiocese for money to make repairs to the Mission?
One could in the past, but most centralized administrations of the Catholic Church don’t have the funds to do that. The aftermath of all the lawsuits from the clergy abuse….
How much was that payout?
It was … I think the dioceses paid out something like $600 million.
Photo by Matthew Hill, ©2013
This crucifix, currently displayed in the San Buenaventura Mission, originated in the Philippines more than 500 years ago. The earliest historical photographs clearly show it in the mission. It was recently restored to it’s present condition about 10 years ago.
The Mission falls under the L.A. archdiocese. We have heard a lot about Cardinal Roger Mahoney.
Because of all of the investigations. And it was under Cardinal Mahoney’s administration.
We are slipping into another area here. But the allegations of the child abuse, now that’s spread not only in Southern California, but this is a worldwide problem.
Not only a worldwide problem in the Catholic Church but in society, but the focus has been on the abuse by clergy for the most part but we are seeing it open up in other areas now.
We have the Boy Scouts as well.
And public schools and doctors. It’s sad, and even families … to say the largest percentage of abuse take place in family units.
I think the biggest frustration with the general public is that this is supposed to be a holy house, how could this happen? If we are praying to God to protect the people and our children, and these things happen in the church itself, does this make you question your faith?
I don’t question my faith. Sometimes I might question decisions that were made and how they were made and the more I understand how they were made. I have been in administration for 20 years myself and knowing what I know, would I go back and do things differently over those 20 years? Absolutely, but that is hindsight.
The church is comprised of human beings that are weak and sinful and do atrocious things. Whether they be popes, bishops or priests, all the people involved, so in that regard, my faith isn’t shaken; it is extremely disappointing and we learned a lot on how to address these issues now. For the last 10 to 12 years in the archdiocese, which we are a leader for the nation, not only for Catholic institutions but for any institution, all have been trained and educated and have to be recertified every two to four years depending on their ministry and the level of their ministry. We are all aware of the signs and [the training] has pretty much eradicated the abuse issue, certainly among the clergy. Look at the charts; since late 1980s, [clergy abuse reports] have gone down. But we are sinners and as much as we sometimes only think of the present, all you have to do is dig up the files of the church for 2000 years and you will find ebbs and flows and highs of different things happening. But we continue to go on because the message is that God is love, that God has created us, and he has called us into his own.
I know that in the Old Testament it speaks of homosexuality.
And that it is a sin. Does it speak about children and sexuality?
Not so much …. Pedophilia is a sin. And pedophilia is one form of abuse.
But you asked about homosexuality. The teachings of our church, our understanding is that going back to Genesis, creating a male and female and the two shall cling to one another and populate the earth so we see homosexuality, gay or lesbian, as a disorder that we are called to change from.
Do you think we are overpopulating the earth?
No. I mean, in certain regions, yes. How things are distributed is another issue altogether. It’s a distribution and redistribution issue.
And finite resources and our impact on the environment.
And yes, and all those things. You know, whatever sins that I have, I am called to change from them and acknowledge them. We try to help people, whatever they feel their calling is, living outside the moral teaching of the scripture and tradition and the church that we try to help them, try to help them live within it if they wish to journey.
Back to the abuse in the church. You look at the Boy Scouts. Such a situation seems like an ample opportunity for someone whose nature was to abuse children, that could be a safe harbor for them. Do you feel people join the church because they felt that they could get away with that behavior?
All I can do is speculate here, but I could see where someone is of a psychological feeling towards that, oh, that’s possible. Whether or not accurate, I wouldn’t know. I would suspect that there is some truth to that.
Do you think that abstinence plays a role in what has happened?
These are persons who had deviant behavior and succumbed to it. I’m not trying to, in any way, deflect the accountability of the church and those priests, which represent about 4 percent of the priesthood, which shouldn’t represent any percent of the priesthood, but that’s fairly minimal, but not any more than, as I said, as rampant in society. Maybe psychologically they kind of have a guise that could pull the wool over someone’s eyes.
What are your thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation?
First time in 600 years.
How does that make you feel?
Well, I was shocked and very concerned personally at first. What does this mean for the church? Not only in relationship to the papacy but in other areas of tradition. But there is no biblical law that says the pope has to stay in office, but tradition … a certain weight in our church and wondered what this means for our church. More I thought, more it made sense. Because of improved health care and that people are living longer and yet the pope is a human being like the rest of us, I think Benedict is doing us a favor and in the modern era saying, there comes a time when the pope realizes that he can no longer carry on the ministry that has been entrusted to him, and so the church doesn’t need to be in peril because he is stepping down. In the past, especially if you go back a few centuries, it was rare to live to be 65 to 70.
With his resignation, he has asked if he will have protection and immunity from prosecution if he is to stay in the Vatican.
Well, that I am not aware of.
As long as he remains in the Vatican, he won’t be prosecuted.
Because he lives in the walls of the Vatican, he has diplomatic immunity.
In other news, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been elected to be the new pope, now Pope Francis I. Have you heard of him?
I am unaware of Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I. We will all undoubtedly learn much about him in the days and weeks ahead. What impresses me is his humility and commitment to the fundamental option for the poor. I have recently heard that he forsakes his bishop’s palace and moved into an apartment. He does his own cooking and used public transportation rather than a car or limousine.
Is there any significance that he is from South America and not Europe?
There is a major significance that Pope Francis is from South America. Pope Francis is the 266th pope and the first pontiff from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium. A large number of Catholics come from Latin America (South America) and an even larger contingent of Catholics are from other Spanish-speaking countries. Now we have a pope who can personally relate to a vast number of Catholics in culture and language. To me, this is a message of hope for the faithful, and while not elevated as the Virgin Mary, resonates with the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe that God loves his people in a personal way.
Do you have any feelings one way or another about what a new pope, or specifically Pope Francis, represents to the church?
Taking the name Pope Francis harks back to one of the most venerated figures in the Roman Catholic Church, St. Francis of Assisi. The name symbolizes poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding the Catholic Church. It is the spirit of St. Francis lived in the Franciscan priests (padres) who first colonized California with the establishment of the Missions. I hope and pray that Pope Francis will lead our church in a renewed commitment to live the Gospel message to care for the poor and respond generously to the call of holiness in a deep and personal way for Catholics and all who embrace the teachings of Jesus Christ and all people of good will.