Finding the Meaning of Life in and out of the Church

By Lynn Steinberg
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
February 27, 1996

BODY: Christopher Breen is quiet and reflective as he begins talking about his path to the priesthood. But before long, the hands that were folded in his lap are reaching toward the heavens and Breen is out of his chair, reinacting scenes from his life with the drama and passion of an actor on a stage.

He is in the living room of his home near Bothell, where he has lived with his wife, Susan Blake, since he and the church parted ways 20 years ago.

It is a bright, airy space, with picture windows facing onto a lush green meadow, a place reminiscent of his native Ireland, where he came of age in a devoutly Catholic culture.

He was born in Dublin, the second of seven children. His youngest sister, Ellen, became a nun. And Breen decided, at age 22, that he too would devote his life to God.

It was the 1950s and he had been living the good life, working as an engineer rebuilding the war-ravaged cities of Europe, immersing himself in art and music, literature and love.

"I was very alive in the world. I had plenty of money. I was a career person. I had engaged in the dance of life and the love of life with women. And that was gorgeous," he says. "But it wasn't enough. Something was missing."

He sought guidance from a friend of his father's, a Jesuit pastoral priest named Charles Maloney who, over the course of a year, introduced Breen to a world he never knew existed.

"At the end, I was looking for the meaning of life beyond the physical, economic or intellectual," he remembers. "I was looking for my spiritual self."

He found it in a Jesuit school for "late" entrants to the priesthood, where he was one of nine students taught by six retired professors.

"Imagine three years with six men teaching you philosophy. It was a wonderful place. I dived into the sea of knowledge that had come down through the ages. It was a magnificent experience to engage a mind like that. I was totally captivated.

"It was exhilarating. Glorious."

Then came four years of seminary, and finally, his ordination as a priest at age 29. On that day, as his mother knelt before him to receive his blessing, she looked into the eyes of her second-oldest son and whispered, "You are an answer to my prayers."

When Breen reported to Father John Kelly, the seminary's president who would give him his first assignment, the elder priest turned to a huge map on the wall behind his desk.

"Mr. Breen," Kelly said, "you are going to Ya-KEE-ma."

Breen thought he was bound for Asia until Kelly crossed the map with his pointer, moving it slowly from one continent to the next, until it came to rest on a tiny dot in the northwestern corner of the United States.

Breen was to be an assistant pastor at St. Paul Cathedral in Yakima and a teacher at a new diocesan high school for boys.

He eventually became the cathedral's pastor.

Then came the social upheaval of the 1960s and '70s, and Breen began to question the authority of the church, particularly on matters of marriage, divorce and birth control.

"You're given a script and a set of rituals," he explains. "... The script I had didn't answer all the questions parishoners were asking. There was tremendous pain and anguish. The answer I had to respond to the pain and anguish was law, and law doesn't heal pain and anguish. It intensifies the pain."

For four years, he wrestled with the prospect of leaving the priesthood.

"It was a tremendous struggle," he says.

He'd been a priest for 15 years, after studying to be one for seven. But the church felt increasingly wrong for him.

His vows of celibacy had little to do with his dilemma; there was no woman in his life then.

"That's the beauty of it," he says. "I was celibate for 20-plus years, and as soon as I make the decision to leave, an extraordinary thing happens.

"This woman comes into my life, just like this," he says, effortlessly gliding one hand over the other. "That's the magic of life."

It was on the steps of the cathedral that Father Christopher Breen first laid eyes on Susan Blake. She had come to Yakima with friends from her college in Duluth, Minn., and eventually went to work as a fund-raiser for St. Paul's.

It became increasingly apparent that she and Breen were meant to be together.

As if the excitement of this recollection is too much to bear, Breen is out of his chair again.

"I'm was in my 40s, she was in her 20s," he says. "But she had a calmness, a depth, a presence about her that arrested me. I wanted to know what this is."

They married in 1976, three years after they met, and moved to Seattle where Breen went to work as executive director of Big Brothers of King County. He held that position until his retirement two years ago.

Now, at age 64, he assists families of fisherman lost at sea though a contract with the Seattle Fisherman Memorial Committee. He volunteers with Hospice of Seattle and has twice served as president of its board. And he works as a "personal advisor," meeting with clients who seek out his counsel.

But his life is centered around the home he has made with his wife.

"She is," he says, "a wonderful woman, an extraordinary woman. I love being married. I love being married to this woman.

"To have missed it," he says, "would have been a tragedy of life."


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