His name is Mike Hammer. In a black T-shirt, with a shaved head and a drooping moustache, he looks like he’d be more comfortable serving up tequila in a Walker’s Point biker bar than serving communion.
But despite his heavy-metal name, Michael is no hammer. He’s a soft-spoken, teddy bear of a guy who signs off his voice mail with the salutation: “Blessings. And toodles.”
This is a tough time to be a Catholic priest. U.S. bishops have reported allegations of abuse by 5,600 clergy nationwide – more than 5 percent of the 109,694 active in this country since 1950. Of 102 Wisconsin priests who have been accused, 61 are from the Milwaukee archdiocese.
“People think priests everywhere are raping kids. It isn’t so,” Hammer says. “All the parish priests are taking the backlash for the few.”
Hammer recognizes the pain that’s been suffered. “We have a profound responsibility to care for anyone we have abused. Profound.” But there’s still so much good work being done by priests, he adds, noting that 25 percent of the world’s AIDS patients are cared for by the Catholic Church.
“Father Mike,” as he’s known, is one of those caregivers, having worked 27 years as coordinator of the Catholic AIDS Ministry. Now 67 and a priest since 1969, Hammer was first drawn to the problem in the early 1980s. He went to Milwaukee’s St. Joseph Hospital to see if there were any AIDS patients in hospice care. Fitted with a hospital gown, gloves and a surgical mask, he was led to a patient named Tad, who said his parents were too ashamed of him to visit.
Hammer flew to the East Coast to meet Tad’s parents. They said they’d been told by their pastor that Tad was evil because he was gay. “Ask yourself: ‘What would Jesus want?’ ” Hammer said to the parents. His question prompted them to come to Milwaukee to see their dying son. Soon after, Hammer founded the ministry.
In the early years, before treatment could prolong the lives of AIDS patients, Hammer attended two or three funerals a week. That steeled him against the condemnations of those with AIDS, turning him into an advocate.
On any given day, he meets with AIDS patients, IV drug users and homosexuals. As his ministry expanded, he started support groups for transgender people and parents of young gays and lesbians who struggle with their children’s sexual orientation. Needle exchange, free condoms, gay sex – the day-to-day issues of Father Mike’s work often put him at odds with Catholic doctrine.
In 2003, he tangled withconservative Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, who ordered a ministry in his diocese to stop raising funds for the Milwaukee AIDS Walk, arguing this promoted homosexuality. Flinging a challenge to Burke, Hammer noted his parish’s efforts to line up pledges for the Walk. “We send them out from the cathedral with a blessing,” he declared.
Hammer has worked for four archbishops. St. John’s Cathedral is the Milwaukee archbishop’s home base, where Hammer has been a parish priest since the mid-1970s. He says it took Archbishop Timothy Dolan a while to lose his suspicions of Hammer and his work with gays and people with AIDS.
He won over Dolan with home-cooked recipes learned from his Polish mother. Hammer made fresh kielbasa, a potato-and-dumpling stew called kopyta, and pork loin stuffed with dried fruit. At the time, though, Dolan was on the Atkins diet, so Hammer offered a second helping of veggies. But Dolan waved him off. “I’ll have more of the dumplings,” he said, and the ice was broken between conservative archbishop and progressive priest.
It’s been a bumpy start for Dolan’s successor, Jerome Listecki, who ran into early criticism for seeming to evade the issue of abusive clergy and by the recent firestorm that erupted after Marquette University, under pressure from the new archbishop, withdrew a job offer to a lesbian professor from Seattle.
Hammer says he differs with Listecki on some issues. But he hopes to cook for the archbishop, to share communion with him, too. If an Irishman could enjoy Polish food, why not a Pole? “There are about 680,000 Catholics in the archdiocese,” says Hammer. “We all don’t think alike, and not all bishops think alike, either.”
On Pentecost Sunday 2009, Hammer celebrated Mass at the cathedral to a full house. In his sermon, he suggested it was time the church take a look at three issues. Should priests be allowed to marry? Should women be ordained as priests? Should the church relax its condemnation of homosexuality?
Father Mike got a standing ovation.
Opinion polls suggest most Catholics favor female priests and married ones, and that they believe homosexual relations are “morally acceptable.” Hammer remains hopeful the Catholic hierarchy will accept the need to change. For a church so stained by scandal, and so divided by ideology, such change could be the key to its future, if it has a future at all.