As our conversation was winding down, the elephant in the room was looming large. I gathered my courage and asked the obvious: How did two priests reconcile being fans of a musician known for his explicit lyrics and provocative stage persona?
The answer, I realized, had everything to do with opening my own mind, because I was operating under the weight of pre-conceived notions of the pristine and unsullied life of a man of the cloth.
Far from living in an ivory tower, being a man of the cloth entails navigating the most challenging aspects of being human, the priests said. Helping parishioners cope with the heart-wrenching loss of a child, or the transgression of an extramarital affair, or even the crabbiness and negativity that can creep up on the best-intentioned person, is all part of a priest’s job description. You could say that a day’s work for a priest is as much helping people cope with “you have accessed the hate experience” as “welcome to the dawn.”
There’s no line of demarcation between the sacred and the profane, and the artist that embodied that dichotomy best is the one they hold close to their hearts.
“What drew me to like Prince’s music as a teenager is that you’re dealing with sexuality, and on the other hand, I was drawn to the church and wanted to be a priest,” Father Tom acknowledges. “People would say to me, `Oh, you listen to Prince and all those dirty songs, all those bad songs.’ And I would tell them that there’s a message behind that too. The message was part of what drew me to him, and to see him mature was vindication.”
Father Fred remembers feeling conflicted. “As a young person, I’d think, `Should I pick up this album? Should I throw it down and run the other way?’” he says. Father Fred tends to agree with author Toure, who wrote that Prince was a preacher of the gospel and used sex to lure listeners. “Once he got them, he gave them the gospel,” he says. “His music is message-oriented. He was conscious about portraying himself. He wanted to teach, he wanted to enlighten. I tolerated his whole sexual persona and hypersexual lyrics, as if, `Okay, this is done and now we can get to some music.’”
Father Thomas adds that Prince’s music put a lot of feelings you have growing up into some perspective. “You can love God and still be able to deal with the feelings of growing up as a teenager and then as you mature you can control those things,” he says. “As people grow closer to God they realize being in communion with him is more important than a lot of the relationships we have or the material things we seek. Prince proved that by giving to charity and doing it quietly, even in his suffering. He had a lot of lavish things but they were more for the persona than his personal use. In the end, if you look at the investigation photos, he had a bedroom and a bathroom and he had shed a lot of the materialistic stuff. The cars were in the garage but he didn’t drive them. In the end, he lived in a one-bed, one-bath section of a building where he created music.”
“The interesting thing about his career was he matured as I matured, and it was great to be able to bring my kids to a Prince concert without worrying about what might happen on stage,” says Father Tom. And in fact, in 2004, Father Tom brought his then seven-year-old daughter to the Musicology tour at Madison Square Garden. He was stunned when Prince lifted her out of his arms and danced with her for a couple of minutes before lowering her back down.
Father Fred notes, “Listening to him and going beyond the surface has taught me that everybody has a value and a voice and to appreciate differences and to go beyond prejudging.”
“I saw a Welcome2Chicago show, and there were 22,000 people there,” says Father Fred. “Going into that concert, I felt out of my element. I’m not 20, I’m not with a girlfriend, I haven’t been out drinking. I felt disconnected. But when the songs were playing, I was jumping up and down and screaming totally in harmony and in sync. He brought us together and I felt, I’m just the same as everyone else.”
Father Tom agrees. “At his concerts, the whole spectrum of people were there. His most amazing feat was to bring together people from all backgrounds, races, creeds. For those couple of hours, it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from. I don’t know that any other artist did that.”
Father Fred says, “You felt like he knew he was doing it too.”