The Corner

Man Is a Mystery to Himself . . .


. . . and that’s why it’s so important that he is an object of God’s care. This is the lesson of the sad story of a Catholic priest who was arrested in Florida on Tuesday. Here’s the story, on the website of the local Fox affiliate:


The sheriff’s office says it happened on a stretch of beach known as a meeting place for gay men looking to have sex. A spokeswoman says there are even web sites that promote the southern end of Caspersen Beach in Venice for such activity.


What happened there yesterday afternoon led to the arrest of Father Bernard Chojnacki, a 36-year-old vicar at the St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church and school in Port Charlotte.


After recent complaints, sheriff’s detectives say they were doing a sting when an undercover officer encountered Father Chojnacki.


“In this case, the suspect approached the deputy who was walking behind him. And after making small talk about the beautiful beach is when he engaged in inappropriate activity,” stated sheriff’s office spokeswoman Wendy Rose. “He grabbed the detective and then proceeded to expose himself and offered to perform a sexual act.”


Father Chojnacki was charged with battery — for allegedly grabbing the detective’s genitals — and indecent exposure. He posted bond last night and got out of jail.


My first instinct on reading this story was to defend the priest. As a citizen, I am concerned at the idea of devoting public funds to this sort of sting operation, especially at a time of great fiscal retrenchment. Did the detective encourage the priest in some way, and make him believe his advances would be welcome — and thus create a crime for him to commit? But on looking at some other news stories about the beach, I have come to believe that this was probably a legitimate example of “broken windows” policing — in this case, an attempt to make a particular beach more welcoming to people who do not want to endure unwanted sexual advances. (Here’s a story of some earlier arrests.) Unwanted sexual grabbing is a crime, and rightly so.


So now we turn to the man in question. What surprised me most was that Father Chojnacki is only 36: I mentioned to a colleague that it’s a standard trope among conservative Catholic op-ed writers that forbidden sexual behavior among priests is the result of the Sexual Revolution of the Big Bad Sixties, but this young fellow was still in kindergarten when John Paul II was elected, and John Paul II and Benedict XVI are the only popes he has known. And one Internet commenter jumped to the obvious, if wrong, conclusion: “Abstinence makes the church grow fondlers.” (Sociological research says this isn’t so, but, man, is that an irresistible line. Kudos.) My colleague was curious as to where Father Chojnacki’s priestly training had taken place, and I endeavored to find out — and thus ran across this incredibly moving account of his ordination:

Fathers Bernard Chojnacki, Paul D’Angelo and Cory Mayer joined the presbyterate of the Diocese of Venice in Florida during an Oct. 24 ordination celebration at Epiphany Cathedral. . . .

The men were then vested as priests for the first time. Bishop Dewane then called them forward to be anointed on the palms of their hands with Holy Chrism, The men then are presented a paten with the bread and chalice containing the wine mixed with water for the celebration of the Mass. Lastly the bishop and priests present gave each of the newly ordained the fraternal greeting.

Father Chojnacki, who is from Plock, Poland, completed his studies at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Mich. During his years of formation he has served at parishes in Venice, Palmetto, and Naples and most recently at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Port Charlotte. He was joined at the ordination by his mother, sister and several other family members and friends.

When Father Chojnacki was a child his parish pastor served as an inspiration for him to seek becoming a priest, as well as the wholehearted support of his parents and grandparents. He is saddened that his father passed away before his ordination. He said he knows his father is watching over him. “I knew early on that God wanted my heart and I have given it to him.”

His mother, Barbara Chojnacki, came from Poland to see her son ordained. She sat through the ordination with a smile on her face as her son gave himself to God. Through a translator, she said her “little boy made me very proud today. He is a priest, just as he always wanted to be. God will now watch over him.”

I could not help thinking, God does indeed watch over this man — not just in his attempts to be holy and to serve God, but also in the humiliation he is now undergoing. Indeed, perhaps, even more so: The man caught in sin knows himself to be more in need of God than does the man who is self-consciously living a holy life, and thus the former might be more open to God’s grace. A personal anecdote: Some time ago, I expressed a political opinion that caused a great deal of abuse to be sent in my direction. I took the stance I did because I believe that morality requires it — and so the criticism that hurt the most was an accusation that my stance was itself immoral. The fact that this hurt took me by surprise, and made me reflect on my own motives: Had I been self-righteous, trying to win approval by setting myself up as a good person? I needed to realize that presenting oneself as good, and winning praise, is not what’s most important. I had said what I thought was right, and the absence of praise should not have made a difference. Of course, I had known this intellectually; but I didn’t realize how I needed to apply it to myself. It was a tough process, but I reflected again and again on the line in Psalm 51:17: “A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” It helped.

Father Chojnacki now faces a more awful situation than I have ever faced. But I ask him not to forget that what he said about God wanting his heart, and what his mother said about God looking out for him, all remains true. He tried to please God, and he fell, but it is when we are broken in spirit that God reaches out to us the most. “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will”: We engage in our own rough-hewing, some in offices in Manhattan and others on a beach in Florida, but the divinity never ceases to hold and shape. This is a faith, Father Chojnacki, that you should hang on to; He is still hanging on to you.

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