Maverick Priest: A Story of Life on the Edge

by Father Harry J. Bury, Ph.D, Robert Reed Publishers, Bandon, OR (2018)  

Comments by Bernard Survil

Anyone who would attempt to write a book length memoir and now age 88 surely kept a detailed journal along the way. How else explain how he recorded for his behind-the-scenes “co-writer”, if I may describe Carol Master’s typing his dictation into book form that way. What are for me fuzzy memories of the same time period, especially from the early 1960’s through the 70’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s when I was also an activist, but non-maverick priest confronting the same issues, Fr. Bury has the details.  It has to be Ms. Master’s journalistic style that makes this work much more readable than Bury’s “An invitation to Think and Feel differently in the New Millennium” (Trafford Publishers, 2011)  In short, Maverick Priest is an easy read of those years when we confronted our violent-prone America.

As he travels and intervenes in violent situations across the globe, always in company with like-minded practitioners of active non-violence – which for Fr. Bury is applying GOSPEL nonviolence – he relates to “the enemy” as another human being, motivated by wanting to do the right thing.  Who chooses to do evil because it is evil? “ His answer: Absolutely no one. This keeps him from demonizing the many bad actors that populate the World. It’s probably what has kept him an affable fellow, one whose company you’d want to keep either by reading his memoirs or in meeting him face-to-face.

There are two contrasting incidents that I want to highlight, because I was witness to the 2nd one as he was completing this memoir in 2017. The contrast is similar to that between the so called secular verses the ecclesiastical treatment of sexual abuse of minors. It was the secular Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report that really got the exorcising going for the U.S. Church.  The hierarchy of Pennsylvania had done everything it could to avoid bringing its dirty laundry up for public examination just as the Boston of Cardinal Law only yielded when “The Spotlight” of the press told the story.

The scenarios:  Fr. Bury and accomplices chain themselves to the Saigon US Embassy gate in 1971.  Bury had to fake it because his accomplices hadn’t left him enough chain. When they are freed they ask to talk with the US Ambassador. They are granted an interview that very day.  It’s a civil dialogue, even though their understanding of what makes for peace were unbridgeable.  At least the demonstrators had their moment with the Department of State’s ambassador.

Compare that with Fr. Bury’s attempt to meet with the Archbishop for Military Services April 6, 2017. He had written weeks before to the Archbishop asking for an interview with him or one of his Auxiliaries. Assuming he would, he arrived in Washington only to hear it would be impossible. They were all very busy people. Bury persisted. He telephoned and got an invitation to con-celebrate the Center’s noon day Mass with the Vicar General (VG) and enjoy lunch afterwards. Arriving at the door around noon, he was told by the VG the Archbishop had just called in saying: Don’t let Bury in. So later that day, in a downpour, a handful of us arrived again before the now shuttered main gate. Bury, then allowed himself to be chained to the Center’s locked gate while a fellow demonstrator read a history of American Catholics killed in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars. Bury’s observation: “More amazed than angry, my thoughts wandered to Pope Francis and his request that people enter into dialogue, talk to each other than fight with each other. I wondered: How can dialogue happen when we priests cannot even talk to each other?”

Maverick Priest: A Story of Life on the Edge
 by Father Harry J. Bury, Ph.D, Robert Reed Publishers, Bandon, OR (2018)

Review by Bernard Survil

Publishers minds must run in the same track. There are at least three books about Maverick Priests these days. Webster’s primary definition for “maverick” is “An unbranded range animal.”  Well, any Catholic priest in good standing is branded. Some theologians have called it “an ontological mark,” permanently embedded in the individual’s makeup. Others say once ordained, one is a priest forever. The second Webster’s definition applies better: “An independent individual who doesn’t go along with a group or party.”  But even here, there are clear limits to what degree a priest can be independent of Church authority as he behaves differently than the herd.

I’d rather describe Fr. Harry Bury as “A Non-conformist Priest.”  Except for his first five years or so after his ordination in 1955, Bury lived on the edge, not in a confronting way, but in a way that made it necessary for him to seek a way to remain a priest in good standing and still survive economically and also exercise his call to prophetic witness. That witnessing began with his chaining himself to the gate of the US Embassy in Saigon in 1971 to doing the same to the gate of the Chancery of the Archdiocese of Military Services in 2017. It’s a priestly prioritizing that endures even as he resides in his late 80’s at his diocese’s priest retirement home. This is a memoir, written with the help of a very capable writer, Carol Master, who turns Bury’s dictated story into an easy read, one I highly recommend to any U.S. Catholic, priest or lay person who has lived through those interesting years of Vatican Council II and its aftermath, which means right up to the present. This reviewer, himself a priest for over 50 years, found himself thinking while reading: “By golly, I was there too. Why haven’t I written it up?”

At a moment in U.S. Church history when those 5% or so of priests and their bishops have mucked it up for the rest of us by their perpetrating sexual abuse of minors or covered it up, it’s good to hear from one of the 95% of us who, by the grace of God, has been mostly faithful to his ordination promises while reminding us that celibacy does indeed free us up to take risks for the Kingdom laid out by Jesus.