A long time ago, in June 1949, I visited the Trappist monastery of New Mellary in Iowa, which had been named after the Irish abbey at Mellary that gets glancing mention in James Joyce’s story “The Dead.” In the fall I would enter the major seminary, but I was still vacillating as to what my vocation was. Father Joachim was the guest master and thus allowed to talk, and I had many edifying conversations with him. There was another guest there at the time, a man who kept to himself and could often be seen walking about, head down, seemingly studying the yellowish shoes he wore. I asked Father Joachim who he was.
The answer came in the whisper that topic required in those distant days. The man in the yellow shoes was a priest who had misbehaved, and he would stay in the monastery until his bishop summoned him. That tragic figure both fascinated and sent tremors of dread through me. I had read a book by Boyd Barrett, Shepherds in the Mist, which spoke of his own and others’ desertion of the priesthood. It was the book of a penitent, as that solitary figure roaming around the monastery grounds was a penitent.
The number of those who deserted the priesthood was minuscule then, and few Catholics were aware of their existence. So unthinkable was their deed that a cloak of silence fell over them. The practicing Catholic, aware enough of his own sins, was unlikely to think that the priest to whom he confessed was subject to temptation, let alone that he would actually desert his post. For a young man thinking of becoming a priest, such desertions were a sobering reminder that ordination did not grant immunity to sin. The paradigm of such defectors was of course Judas Iscariot.
Any sin can be forgiven, thank God, but the priest who left and married created a dilemma for himself impossible of solution. But, as in the case of Boyd Barrett, forgiveness was available, although restitution to the active priesthood was often out of the question. One’s sense of dread was balanced by a sense of the infinite mercy of God.
Well, all that was long ago. In the wake of Vatican II, men left the priesthood in droves, some by applying for and receiving laicization. Others simply went over the wall. One of the most dramatic instances of the latter was James Patrick Shannon, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul. A few years ago, he published an autobiography called Reluctant Dissident, an exculpating account of what he had done. When he married a woman who had been twice divorced, he listed his occupation as salesman. Most of us who had known him were devastated by his defection.
In the summer of 1949, I had just graduated from the preparatory seminary of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Nazareth Hall. In my final year, I was editor of the monthly literary magazine and the then–Father Shannon served as faculty moderator. He was a gifted and personable man, busy with many things—teaching, assisting at the cathedral, pursuing graduate studies at the University of Minnesota. Under his tutelage, the magazine I edited took on a professional éclat it had never had before, changing from a mimeographed, stapled publication to one that was offset and bound. After a visit to Oxford, Father Shannon brought back a gift for me, the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a book I still possess.
After he deserted his post, Shannon acquired a law degree and then returned to the Twin Cities where he became a functionary in various foundations. For years he contributed a weekly column to the local paper equivocally called The Pilgrim Church.
James Shannon died on August 28, the feast of St. Augustine. The headline in the diocesan paper read, “Former Bishop Spent Final Years in ‘Full Communion’ with Church.” This unexplained reconciliation had never before been made public. There was never any indication that Shannon acknowledged the enormity of what he had done. His memorial card lists his birth, his ordination date, the date he became bishop, the date he was married, and the day he died. It bears a photograph of the mustached bishop, in a baby-blue suit and yellow tie. Conspicuous on his right hand is his episcopal ring. The mind boggles. In any case, may he rest in peace. Lucky Jim indeed. After so public a departure and so long a public estrangement to return like Nicodemus in the night, eschewing the spotlight at last.