February 28, 2020

‘I embrace this willingly’: Priest offers suffering from brain tumor for victims of clergy sexual abuse

Father John Hollowell elevates the Eucharist during a July 31, 2013, Mass at Annunciation Church in Brazil. Recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, Father Hollowell has offered up his sufferings on behalf of victims of clergy sexual abuse. He is the pastor of Annunciation Parish in Brazil and St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, and Catholic chaplain of DePauw University, also in Greencastle. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

Father John Hollowell elevates the Eucharist during a July 31, 2013, Mass at Annunciation Church in Brazil. Recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, Father Hollowell has offered up his sufferings on behalf of victims of clergy sexual abuse. He is the pastor of Annunciation Parish in Brazil and St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, and Catholic chaplain of DePauw University, also in Greencastle. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

GREENCASTLE—Father John Hollowell cried as he sat in the confessional of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Greencastle.

It was the summer of 2018—a time when the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse surfaced again through government investigations and media reports.

Father Hollowell cried as he thought of the suffering of abuse victims across several decades.

From these tears came a prayer. Father Hollowell asked God to let him bear a cross on behalf of the victims of clergy sexual abuse.

About 18 months later, it would seem that prayer was answered. After having several fainting spells and spasms in 2019, Father Hollowell was diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota earlier this month with a brain tumor.

His doctors have given him a promising prognosis. But his treatment will involve brain surgery and the potential for radiation, chemotherapy and therapy to recover from possible effects to his speaking and motor skills.

Looking back on his prayer, Father Hollowell recalled that it wasn’t just a passing thought.

“It definitely stuck in my mind,” he said. “I remember thinking about it for a while and praying it, making a declaration to the Lord in prayer. I knew when I made the prayer in 2018 that it may very well be answered in a very serious way.”

‘I embrace this willingly’

Soon after learning of his diagnosis, Father Hollowell went to Twitter to share the news with his more than 20,000 followers, and that he would bear his suffering on behalf of victims of clergy sexual abuse. “I embrace this willingly,” he wrote in a tweet on Feb. 13.

Father Hollowell was soon flooded with more than 1,000 replies to his tweet. He’s also received hundreds of e-mails from abuse victims around the world thanking him for his witness and, at times, sharing with him how his decision to suffer on their behalf has helped them.

“I didn’t know when I made that prayer that it would be a public thing like this,” said Father Hollowell. “I had no idea how it would play out, or what God would do with it.

“To be able to say that I’m sorry and I wanted to suffer to show that I’m sorry—I hope that helps. And I’ve heard from some victims already that it has helped to hear that.”

In the days following his diagnosis, Father Hollowell returned to ministering as the pastor of Annunciation Parish in Brazil and St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle.

The fainting episodes and spasms he has experienced have been the only effects from his brain tumor thus far. Surgery has been scheduled for March 13 at the Mayo Clinic to remove the tumor. He expects to be away from his parishes for about 10 weeks.

The relatively good health he has experienced despite the tumor has been a blessing for him, especially as he has corresponded with so many abuse victims.

“It’s been a grace that I haven’t had debilitating migraines, because I’ve been able to be really present to the people as they’ve reached out to me,” Father Hollowell said. “I’ve been able to respond to these e-mails and carry on conversations with people.”

‘Trying to live the pain’

At the same time, Father Hollowell knows there’s a real difference between what he’s suffering and will suffer—as serious as it might be physically—and the effects that abuse has had on victims for much of their lives.

“There are a lot of people who committed suicide,” he noted. “Everyone else that is alive is going to be affected for the rest of their lives. And I, God willing, will be mostly back to normal in 10 weeks to three months.”

Even though some abuse victims have thanked him for his choice to offer up his suffering on their behalf, Father Hollowell has no expectation that what he is going through will change their lives.

“I’m not walking in here and saying, ‘Hey, I’m here to help and fix it,’ ” Father Hollowell said. “I’m not expecting my actions to move any victim one inch any closer to healing. If it does help them, that’s awesome and thanks be to God.”

Reading through hundreds of e-mails that often include accounts of clergy sexual abuse has been its own burden for Father Hollowell.

“It’s mentally and spiritually draining to hear that,” he said. “Anytime you hear a story of abuse, it takes its toll. It’s part of the cross that the Lord has let me carry.”

Norbert Krapf, a victim of clergy sexual abuse, is impressed with Father Hollowell and his choice to suffer on behalf of him and other abuse victims.

“Victim survivors are always moved when others appreciate their dilemma,” said Krapf, a member of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral Parish in Indianapolis. “This is a heightened awareness of our dilemma. Anytime anyone sympathizes with survivors and wants to help them—that in itself is healing.”

Krapf also appreciates Father Hollowell offering up his suffering as a kind of physical way of apologizing to abuse victims.

“Sometimes words are easy to say, but to live them is an advancement beyond just having the words and sharing them with people,” Krapf reflected. “It’s trying to live the pain yourself. That is significant.”

Words are important to Krapf. A former poet laureate of Indiana, he is the author of several collections of poems, including Catholic Boy Blues, a book in which, through poetry, he processes his experience of being abused by a priest in the 1950s in Jasper, Ind., in the Evansville Diocese.

As creative as he can be in his writing, though, he said the choice of a priest to suffer on his behalf was new and surprising for him.

“It’s not something that I ever imagined would have happened,” Krapf said. “I have a pretty good imagination, but my imagination would never have gone there. It’s most impressive that someone could take that course. That’s a major identification with a lot of people’s suffering.”

‘Following in the footsteps of his heroes’

It wasn’t surprising to Father Jonathan Meyer. His friendship with Father Hollowell is so close that the pair have spoken by phone with each other daily for at least five years to give support and help each other be faithful in their priestly life and ministry.

“If something affects him, he is going to act,” said Father Meyer, pastor of All Saints Parish in Dearborn County. “If there is a problem and he can do something, he’s going to act.

“His response about the victims is exactly what John does. It’s authentically John.”

That part of Father Hollowell’s personality was formed in part through his devotion to saints who suffered much and reflected on meaning of that suffering. They include St. John of the Cross,

St. John Vianney and St. John Paul II.

“He’s really following in the footsteps of his heroes,” Father Meyer said. “It’s what he’s been taught by the saints. When you suffer, you offer it up. And if that means you do it publicly, you do it publicly.”

While Father Hollowell’s suffering in public has become known well beyond Indiana, he is still the pastor of two small-town parishes in the western part of the state and the Catholic chaplain of DePauw University in Greencastle.

Grace Evans is a DePauw senior who appreciates Father Hollowell’s ministry to her and her fellow students, saying that it “push[es] all of us to strive for holiness.”

But like many Catholic young adults, she has been troubled by the renewal of the clergy sexual abuse crisis at a time when many people her age are moving away from the Church. So, having a priestly example like Father Hollowell has been refreshing for her and the other members of Tiger Catholic, the Catholic student organization at DePauw.

“I was not surprised in the slightest that Father Hollowell was offering [his suffering] up for victims of sexual abuse,” Evans said. “That’s just the type of man that Father Hollowell is. This is what it means to be Catholic. This is the type of love that the Church has always proclaimed for the past 2,000 years.”

‘It’s strengthened our bond’

Laura Thompson, a member of Annunciation Parish in Brazil, was also not surprised when she learned that her pastor was offering up his sufferings on behalf of abuse victims.

When she had earlier worked as Annunciation Parish’s secretary, she saw Father Hollowell make small sacrifices on a daily basis and do what was needed to help the faith community.

“I saw him not use extra heat when it was cold, and no air conditioning when it was very hot,” Thompson recalled. “He gives of himself and his time without complaint, donates his money and rolls up his sleeves and works beside us on whatever project needs done.

“He shows us how the seemingly little, daily tasks can be given as constant prayer offerings.”

Father Hollowell has been encouraged by the support he has received from his parishioners and the students at DePauw since his diagnosis.

“Even though this thing is sort of playing out way outside our parish boundaries, I think it’s strengthened our bond within the parishes and the college,” he said. “I’ve been blown away by what God is doing with this.

“The hardest part will be my being away from my parishes and the students for [10 weeks].”

Father Hollowell has also received support from Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, whom he called within hours of receiving his diagnosis.

“Deeply rooted in prayer, faith and hope, Father John has evidenced courage and serenity in learning of his medical condition,” Archbishop Thompson said. “Expressing his embrace of suffering as solidarity with victims of sexual abuse is a witness to his pastoral character as a pastor of souls. My heart and prayers also go out to his family and parishioners.”

When Father Hollowell returns to the Mayo Clinic for his March 13 brain surgery, he’ll take with him a list of all the abuse victims who have reached out to him so that he can remain especially close to them in prayer and suffering.

“It’s almost given me a singular focus,” Father Hollowell said. “I’m walking toward the battlefield of this surgery, radiation and chemo. It’s a great grace from God to have this mission to accomplish as part of this.” †

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