October 21, 2011

Retired vicar judicial reflects on 44 years of ministry in canon law in local, universal Church

Msgr. Frederick Easton, now adjunct vicar judicial, holds a copy of the Code of Canon Law while sitting in a conference room of the archdiocese’s Metropolitan Tribunal in the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis on Oct. 6. Msgr. Easton led the tribunal as its vicar judicial for 31 years before retiring in July. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Msgr. Frederick Easton, now adjunct vicar judicial, holds a copy of the Code of Canon Law while sitting in a conference room of the archdiocese’s Metropolitan Tribunal in the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis on Oct. 6. Msgr. Easton led the tribunal as its vicar judicial for 31 years before retiring in July. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Msgr. Frederick Easton has been a priest for 45 years. For nearly that entire time, he has ministered as a canon law expert for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ Metropolitan Tribunal.

For 31 of those years, he served as vicar judicial, the tribunal’s leader.

Although he still holds the title of adjunct vicar judicial, Msgr. Easton retired from day-to-day ministry in the tribunal in July.

In the coming months, Msgr. Easton will be a visiting scholar at The Catholic University of America in Washington. During that time, he will research the section of the Church’s Code of Canon Law related to penalties for breaking Church law. Much of these relate to cases of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

Msgr. Easton will then continue that research in Rome as he speaks with Vatican officials on the topic.

The following is an edited version of an interview with Msgr. Easton in which he reflects on his upcoming research, his 40 years of ministry as a canonist, some health challenges that he faced earlier this year and the spiritual insights he gained through them.

Q. Does your interest in researching the Church’s penal law flow out of the specific work that you did in 2002 to prepare the Canon Law Society of America’s guidebook regarding the implementation of the norms of the Dallas Charter, which set forth rules of how dioceses in the U.S. should deal with cases of clergy sex abuse and work to prevent such crimes in the future?

A. “Yes, it does.

“When we were going through canon law school, I would say that all of us thought that this really wasn’t an area that we would ever use.

“Then, all of a sudden, the crisis that sparked the special Dallas meeting of the bishops and formed all of the content of that meeting, for the most part, got the Canon Law Society interested in dealing with this area, and trying to offer a guide for applying the essential norms so that it would not conflict in any way with the Code of Canon Law.

“That can be a difficult thing, given the pressures involved from the secular media upon bishops and even from their civil attorneys, too. We have our feet in two different worlds here—the world of canon law and the world of civil law.”

Q. Being a scholar in residence at The Catholic University of America is, in a way, a recognition of the leading role that you’ve played in the understanding and application of canon law in the Church in the broader United States.

As your time as vicar judicial comes to an end, what’s it like for you to look back at your contributions to this important field of ministry in the Church, not simply here in central and southern Indiana, but throughout the broader United States?

A. “As priests, we don’t like to tout our successes. But it is true that here I’m one of the longer serving judicial vicars at 31 years, and 44 years in tribunal work altogether.

“Involvement as a member in the leadership of the Canon Law Society of America has made my public exposure to the canonists of the country kind of evident.

“Receiving their highest honor, the Rule of Law Award, in 2003 was a mind-blower.”

Q. How would you say that this kind of work in studying the Church’s penal law and perhaps affecting the revision of it would be important to Catholics?

A. “It would be important to them in order to help … their ability to handle these cases so that canonists in dioceses are able to advise their bishops to sentire cum ecclesia, to think with the Church.

“The Church during these days has encountered a whole new set of circumstances. A new problematic has come. And we realize that the past praxis cannot continue, although I won’t say that it was contra legem [against the law]. It’s just that they didn’t apply the law. I predict that it will encourage bishops not to shy away from using this pastoral tool. That, in a nutshell, is what I think will come of this.”

Q. Your retirement from the Metropolitan Tribunal after 31 years of leading it came at a time when you went through a good bit of physical suffering.

You had hip replacement surgery, and had to have that replacement removed because of an infection, then undergo a second hip replacement surgery. During that trying time, did you spend time reflecting on how your suffering was a part, in some way, of your priestly ministry?

A. “Amen to that.

“It was helped very much by Archbishop Daniel [M. Buechlein]. He came to see me on Ash Wednesday afternoon at Marquette Manor [in Indianapolis]. That was a very important visit for me that he came, number one.

“Number two, he was encouraging me to offer up my suffering, and to face it with courage and to offer it, really, for our priests, which I did faithfully.

“As it turned out, one of the other helps for me in dealing with the suffering and uniting it with [Christ’s suffering] for the good of the Church was reading volume two of Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth. I found it exceedingly helpful, especially the section where he treats the agony in the garden. I found it most moving and most helpful.”

Q. It was about 10 days after the archbishop visited you that he had a stroke. He had encouraged you to offer up your suffering for the presbyterate. After he had his stroke, did you see that you had a really special reason to offer up your sufferings?

A. “Yes, for him, too.

“He was very specifically [in my prayers] because his role in the presbyterate is the center of unity. I was thinking, ‘He’s probably doing the same thing that I’m doing in terms of offering things up.’ ”

Q. You started ministering here in the tribunal 44 years ago, just 10 months after your ordination. Looking back, how do you see the Church’s law shaping your priestly life and ministry?

A. “A canonist is one who helps those who do the hands-on ministry, the pastors of the Church.

“That’s what he or she does. That’s how the law of the Church shapes me because I am a spokesperson. I’m someone who’s supposed to understand it and be able to hand on the wisdom of the law, which is embedded in the values that are behind the law for the sake of those pastors and the people to whom they minister.

“It gets you right back to that phrase of the last canon, ‘The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls,’ an often quoted statement.

“We’re not only a spiritual community. We’re a lived reality, a human community. And we cannot live without laws. That’s just how we are. Otherwise, there’s no communication. There’s no basis for working together.”

Q. Although your influence has reached far beyond central and southern Indiana, what has it been like for you to have ministered as a priest and, more particularly, as a leader in canon law, for the faithful in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis?

A. “In hearing back from the clergy, time and time again I’ve heard that they really appreciate what the tribunal has done. People have told me that it was my leadership that made such a favorable influence on the staff. It’s a friendly place to visit.

“One of the dimensions of how we’ve done tribunal work is availability. People have commented on that. I think that’s been true all along. That was true with my predecessor, Msgr. Charles Koster. He was always available almost night and day. Something about how I am is driven by how he was, in some elements.

Q. We talked earlier about a physical cross you had to bear in your hip replacement. Have the revelations of clergy sexual abuse over the past 10 years been a spiritual cross for you to bear since you’ve had to deal a lot with the misdeeds of brother priests far and wide?

A. “That has been a cross. Just hearing about it is a cross.

“I’ll never forget early on when all of this stuff was coming out in 2002, it was Holy Thursday. And I had the Holy Thursday liturgy at St. Rose [of Lima Church in Franklin]. Afterward, you have the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on the altar of reserve.

“For some reason, I was sitting there. I was already grieving and was disturbed by all the stuff that I was hearing. I was maybe discouraged about that.

“And it was almost like I heard the Lord say to me—it was an interior experience—‘Why are you discouraged? Remember, they all left me that night.’

“That grabbed me. I’ll never forget that. That says to me that we don’t give up hope. Perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking that all is lost because this has happened. I had been beginning to think that until that night.

“All of us ought to be in sync with the will of the Father. We stopped doing that as a group with original sin, if you will. And the words of Jesus, ‘Please take this chalice from me’ [Mt 26:39, 42], would be how we would be ordinarily.

“That’s how I was in Marquette Manor. I didn’t want this to happen. But it’s constantly then trying to do what Jesus did in the garden, ‘Not my will, but yours be done’ [Mt 26:39, 42].

“He enables us to do that because he did it. It isn’t just a one-time only event. That event in the Garden of Gethsemane is a mystery. And it has to continue to form us, and guide our lives and be a support. He needs to continue to enable us to do as he did. Grace, in other words.” †

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