Dateline Delaware: Clayton Priest Finds Direction during Time of Crisis

By Beth Miller
The News Journal
May 3, 2013

Father Paul Mast is shown in his office at his home residence on the Benedictines School grounds. Mast found a spiritual direction after he was burnt out and spent some time in a hospital.

It was a summer Sunday in 2002 and Paul Mast had a message that required special delivery. It wasn’t a song, though this tenor could have done that. It wasn’t a sermon or a liturgy or a prayer or anything that would arrive in formal wrapping.

It was a lament, a heart cry, a burden of the soul – and he would not smother it.

So after celebrating Mass with the congregation in Ocean City, Md., the soft-spoken priest – who grew up in Clayton and had served the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington for three decades – sat down for the closing prayer.

That posture was unusual enough, but more surprising to those in the pews were the words that came next – and the weeping that accompanied them.

“If anyone here has ever been sexually abused by a priest, I sincerely apologize to you,” Mast said. “If you are the parents or grandparents of someone who was abused, I sincerely apologize to you. I need to tell you that so that you know I am hurting, too.”

It was just a few months after the Boston Globe published its landmark investigation of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the church officials’ practice of moving offenders from parish to parish, where they often found new victims.

The grievous sins destroyed lives, faith, families and left parishes and parishioners with wrenching troubles that continue.

The Rev. Paul Mast has served as chaplain at the Benedictine’s School in Ridgely, Md., for 10 years. The school serves almost 200 students with autism, about 80 of whom live on its 550-acre site. Most of the others live in group homes nearby, Mast said. / JASON MINTO/SPECIAL TO THE NEWS JOURNAL

Mast, too, was working through a “dark night of the soul,” as St. John of the Cross famously described it in his 16th-century classic. Mast saw it as spiritual paralysis brought on by the trauma of scandalous revelations that jolted his core.

He could not let this congregation leave the church without acknowledging their agony and letting them know he shared it.

Moments later, at the door, many told him they needed to hear the words he had spoken.

And throughout that summer, as vacationers came and went through the beach town, Mast ended each Sunday Mass the same way. For a while, he couldn’t do it without weeping. After a month, he also shared his struggle to take even small steps toward forgiving the bishops who had been part of the problem.

Before that summer season ended, several people found their way to this priest, hoping he could help them deal with the abuse they – or a family member – had suffered. Their questions were searing.

“The issue that brought them to me was not so much their anger over the church, but their anger toward God,” he said. “They wanted to heal that relationship. Why were they chosen to be a victim?”

That question would become a pivot point in Mast’s ministry. But before he could address the anguish of others, he first had to face his own sorrow and anger.

For help with that, he went to his spiritual director.

The call to service

Mast was the third of five children – four sons and one daughter – born to Julia and Amos Mast, who made themselves servants to their town, Clayton, just west of Smyrna.

Amos was a truck driver, who taught his children to do more than just think of others. He put snow shovels in his boys’ hands – sometimes at 5 in the morning – and sent them out to clear sidewalks and driveways of elderly neighbors, St. Joseph’s and the nearby Methodist church, the local doctor, and others. He pointed them out the door to help those neighbors get groceries and prescriptions, tend to their lawns, and be useful wherever they could.

Julia was a charter member of the Clayton Fire Company’s Women’s Auxiliary and later became president of the statewide auxiliary. The fire service was a family tradition and one of Paul’s brothers, David, has served as Clayton’s fire chief and presided over several related associations.

The call to service was genetic for Paul Mast. The call to ministry was more gradual.

He was the first in his family to go to Catholic school and the seeds were sown there. He went to seminary, was ordained in 1972, and started a relatively brief tenure in parish ministry. By 1979 he was burned out, he says, a casualty of a Messiah complex.

“You respond to every call, you do every wedding, every baptism, every counseling session,” he said. “I burned out in the rectory of Our Lady of Fatima church.”

His collapse there brought a bit of humor, though. During the ride to the hospital, the paramedic – who knew Mast – told him he had blacked out. He told him who was driving and Mast recognized the name as the owner of a nearby funeral home. He asked the medic if he was in an ambulance or a hearse.

He spent the next week at St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington, where he believes God said something important to him: “Paul, there is a Messiah – and it’s not you.”

Soon after his release, he asked for – and was granted – time to pursue advanced study. Over the next two decades he took every such opportunity and in 2000 earned a certificate in spiritual direction.

'Best-kept secret'

Spiritual direction is not the best name for the ministry it represents, says Eileen Flanagan, the faculty adviser who helped create the program at Neumann University in nearby Aston, Pa. It’s not a matter of one person telling another person what to do. And it’s not the clinical type of relationship seen in psychotherapy.

It’s more a mentoring relationship, she said, between two believers, one of whom has the experience, insight and knowledge to assist the other in discerning a next step or navigating a challenging passage. There is no license and no certifying board, she said, but there are guidelines recognized by others in the field.

“I think people would call it the best-kept secret in the church,” she said. “People who know about it are the cheerleaders and advocates. It helps to foster spiritual freedom in a most accountable way.”

Robert Krebs, spokesman for the Diocese of Wilmington, said spiritual direction is part of the ministry of all priests.

But Flanagan said the depth of training offered at Neumann is not often part of priestly studies.

Mast’s ministry grew, and he now meets with about 30 people in monthly sessions. Some meet with him one-on-one, as Jim Cordie of Dover does. Cordie has met with Mast for almost 15 years.

Others – including Rosanne Shoemaker – meet with him in larger groups. Shoemaker’s group – all women in or near their 50s – meets with Mast once a month for a meal and a conversation.

“We really love Father and respect him,” she said. “We are so grateful that he has come into our lives and embraced us and become part of our spiritual growth. We’ve had a wonderful journey with him.”

Cordie said he had been a conscientious Catholic all his life but found himself ill at ease and tempted to walk away from the church. Someone suggested he call Mast and the connection lasted.

“In some ways, he probably knows me better than any other living human being,” Cordie said.

For the past 10 years, Mast also has served as chaplain of the Benedictine School in Ridgely, Md. The school serves almost 200 students with autism, about 80 of whom live on its 550-acre site. Most of the others live in group homes nearby, Mast said.

Though he had no background in working with children with disabilities, he moves easily among them now – calling them by name, noting something unique about them, asking what they’re learning and thinking about.

“We see him all the time,” said Lance Yeager, 20, of Milford. “He’s a very good priest – good homilies, good stories.”

The victims' story

Stories are central to Mast’s ministry, and last year he sent one story to a much broader audience when he published his first novel, “Fatal Absolution.”

It’s an earthy murder mystery that goes from a medical examiner’s office to the lofty circles of church authority. The abuse scandal is traced, a forbidden romance emerges, and the book gives voice to Mast’s take on how the church responded to the crisis. Let’s just say bishops do not fare well in this book.

Mast was angry, hurt and bitter after the scandal emerged. But he recognized that those responses could consume him and suffocate his spirit. He fought that temptation with the help of his spiritual director, who suggested a new perspective on what it means to be a victim.

The question for him, he wrote in 2006, became: “Who will I give my heart to in the unfolding chapters of this scandal? The answer echoed softly in my soul, give your heart to the victims. I began to chant those words like a mantra. They unleashed in me a renewed sense of hope.”

Mast said his spiritual director helped him to consider Jesus as a victim – and the implications that affinity could have for all those who had been victimized.

In 2009, he wrote an article contrasting the church’s response to the desecration of a church – St. Michael’s parish in Georgetown, which had been vandalized and desecrated by a burglar – with its response to the desecration of abuse victims.

A special ritual was required to reconsecrate the church, he wrote. Why had there been no special ritual to reconsecrate those who had been desecrated by priests? He wrote one.

“The grace that happened to me was that I found my own voice,” Mast said.

He could preach about it. He could write about it. He could meet with those victims and those parents. He could write that book. He could ask why all in the church didn’t wear ashes the whole time the Diocese of Wilmington was in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, where it negotiated settlements with victims.

“We could have worn ashes on our foreheads and when someone asked why, we could tell them: ‘We’re in mourning. We’re inviting God to remake us and refashion us.’”

The legal settlements – which have exceeded $100 million throughout the Wilmington diocese – have not ended the troubles. There is unfinished business to address – for victims, too.

“Are you going to live in your victimhood?” Mast said. “You can also do something else with it. God wants you to do something with it. Why else are you here? If you say, ‘I want to get free and become a survivor,’ then the next step is your call to help somebody else become a survivor.”

Not all will make that turn, he knows. But some can, some have and some will. It’s a turn, he says, in the right spiritual direction.


For more information on the Rev. Paul Mast and spiritual direction, see his website at For information on the spiritual direction program at Neumann University, visit

Mast will sign copies of his novel “Fatal Absolution” at local events over the next few weeks, including: 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Smyrna library; 3-4 p.m. and 7-8 p.m. Thursday at the Clayton Fire Hall; noon May 18 at The Young Bean Coffee Shop in Clayton; noon May 26 at DiFebo’s Restaurant in Bethany Beach; noon to 2 p.m. June 1 at Acorn Book store in Dover and 10 a.m. to noon June 9 at Browseabout Book Store in Rehoboth Beach.








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