When I was a boy pondering a vocation some forty years ago, I was intrigued by a pamphlet from the Divine Word Missionaries. It chronicled a lonely priest with his mule carrying his Mass and medical supplies as he journeyed to a remote mountain outpost. It detailed a religious version of “Indiana Jones,” years before the movie, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. It grabbed my romantic imagination. However, my poor mother grieved my leaving home and I settled on becoming an archdiocesan priest. I do not regret the change in direction, especially now when “everything hurts” but sometimes I do wonder how different my life might have been.
I am amazed these days that we still have young men answering a call. We have given them few heroes and one scandal after another. It must surely be the movement of supernatural grace.
As I reflect upon my priesthood, I struggle with what has always been a dark shadow in my ministry. I have never felt myself worthy. No matter whether it were true or not, I always considered myself the worst of priests, a poor and weak example among a throng of virtuous saints in the faith. We have preachers who can readily inspire and move hearts. We have celebrants who both look the part and conduct the sacraments with great solemnity and seeming ease. We have men who have apparently brushed aside distractions and are always about prayer and service. When I look to myself, I see a man who forgets far more than he remembers. My sermons are mediocre at best and my liturgical abilities come across as clumsy and amateurish. I do not have much in the way of ambition and my attention easily strays. I often talk to God not with typical or expected piety but much as one might irreverently talk to a friend sharing a beer. Indeed, I recall telling God, “All I want to be is a humble priest” and hearing him in my heart respond, “Well you certainly have much about which to be humble.” I often imagine Mary cloaking me with her veil and telling me that she loves me even though I am the least of her sons.
I certainly recognize that sin in the life of any Christian represents a terrible duplicity where we are convicted as hypocrites. What surprises me is how some of the clergy could have committed sins that literally cry out to heaven. Self-destruction is truly awful; but hurting and tearing down others compounds the sin in a way that shatters the sacramental signification of the man in holy orders. It places men into the mold of antichrists. The current scandal has damaged the ability of bishops to govern the Church and of priests to proclaim the doctrinal and moral teachings which are constitutive of the Gospel. Any hold we have upon God’s people is purely through their free consent. There is no Medieval dictatorial religious state that can demand or force one to remain a Catholic or Christian. Forfeit favor and good will— and churchmen will find themselves abandoned— with empty coffers and pews. The direst effect may be the loss of souls. When did we forget that our most pressing obligation is to realize the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of souls?
The Church is not a company where businessmen might do anything or everything to preserve revenue. The Church is not a priestly boy’s club where members protect their leadership to the detriment of their flocks. Our preoccupation should not gravitate to the powerful and the rich, but as in the ministry of Jesus to echo the universal call to salvation, albeit with a preferential option for the poor. Clergy must also place the teachings of the faith ahead of their own pet ideas. We are summoned to convert the world to Christ, not to compromise the kerygma of faith to the demands of subjective truth and a hostile secular modernity. Indeed, our clergy and people alike must allow the courage of Christ to take precedence over their own passivity and fearfulness. Much of the trouble we are facing is a crisis of holiness and belief. Why would any churchman allow a known child-rapist an opportunity to bring harm to youth and families? Why would we allow men who have disordered and perverse desires to minister and to threaten our people? Fornication is a sin. Adultery is a sin. Homosexual acts constitute sin. Perhaps many of the clergy have become soft upon such mortal sins because they too are perpetrators of such transgressions of the moral law? There is no denying that there are also thieves, drunkards and gluttons among us. But the sexual sins are the ones that most draw the ire of God’s people. Indeed, I suspect the Lord, himself, is most troubled by these sins because they are a direct violation of a priest’s profound promise toward obedience and celibacy. We are pledged to celibate love. Do all our priests fully appreciate the meaning of their celibacy or do they simply experience it as a difficult discipline to endure? It is not merely the avoidance of genital relations. It is not the same as virginity and chastity. Christian celibacy is a manner of self-donation and sacrificial loving. It is the priest’s way of saying he belongs entirely to the Lord. This love is expressed in worship, prayer, fidelity and service. It is factored into everything he is about; it is the manner through which the good priest repeatedly says, to the Lord and to his people, “I love you.” The priest prays his breviary— I love you. The priest celebrates Mass— I love you. The priest helps in outreach to the poor— I love you. The priest preaches and teaches— I love you. The good priest is consumed within his pledge of celibate love. It is within this obedient and giving celibacy that the priest finds holiness in Christ. The current scandals are not the fault of celibacy. The answer would not be a married clergy. The solution would be in loving fidelity to the priestly mission and to the truth. The priest or bishop is not the master of the faith community, but its most profound servant.
Admittedly there are intimate and delicate matters difficult to speak about; so much so that they are often left outside of public deliberations. Priests are men and they live in a world where the custody of the eyes is very difficult. Priests need to earnestly defend their celibacy, taking threats seriously. Too many men and women probably excuse the habit of masturbation as part of a false contemporary enlightenment. It should always be voiced in Confession; indeed, those elements that feed the sin need purification from the lives of God’s people, particularly from those called as priests. Chief among the sinful contributing factors is the danger of pornography which is easily accessed and has taken upon itself epidemic proportions in modern society. It has even infected marriages where couples commit virtual adultery and then substitute sexual shenanigans other than the prescribed marital act. Pleasure is substituted for true fidelity and companionship with each other in Christ. It is among the devil’s deceits that such secret sins do no real harm or necessarily contribute to a person’s movement into adulthood. While many contemporary psychologists would disagree, in truth, the man (or woman) in bondage to pornography and masturbation suffer a stunted emotional and spiritual maturation; they are caught within a juvenile self-absorption that inhibits an integrated sexual identity as a person able to fully realize his (or her) capacity to interact with others in love and service.
Turning toward the Lord, the priest must renounce the seductions of the world. The priest’s hands are made for the chalice and host. His hands render blessing and absolution. The priest’s eyes should look at every person as a child of God. He must never forget his spiritual fatherhood— even toward those who have ruined themselves by lust and exploitation. The priest’s body is not made for pleasure but for sacerdotal sacrifice. His association with Christ draws him inevitably toward the passion and crucifixion.
Many priests feel increasing estranged from those they serve. This does not help matters. He has sacrificed much to be a priest and it often seems that many if not most people really do not care. Increasingly, while there is little praise, there is no shortage of rebuke or even mockery. That is why efforts like those by the Knights of Columbus espousing solidarity with bishops and priests are so very important. The laity should not be uncritical; they have a right to good and holy priests. It is in this vein that God’s people should never hesitate to pray for their priests. We must not allow the scandals and accompanying anger to destroy this important component to the inner life of the Church. The priest does not pray alone. According to our station in life, we pray for each other. We should reject the false demarcations of the People of God as either an institutional Church or the Church in the pews. The Church is one— she is a family, even if sometimes sinful in her members and dysfunctional in her practical relationships.
The definition of a priest is one who renders sacrifice to his deity. The Catholic priest makes his oblation as the principal worship of the Lord. He makes it both for himself and for others. Christ is the great high priest. Those ordained share in his priesthood where Jesus is both priest and victim. The priest at the altar is one with Christ (the head of the Church) who dies so that we might live. He atones for sin and heals the rift between heaven and earth. Jesus offers his own blood and dies once and for all. The mystery of his oblation is made present in our liturgy, albeit in a clean or unbloody manner. The only thing missing from Christ’s historical sacrifice is our participation. The Mass allows us to return to that one-time offering where we (grafted to Christ) can offer ourselves to the heavenly Father as an acceptable oblation. Just as the gifts of bread and wine are transformed into the risen body and blood of Christ; so too, are we beseeching the Lord to change us ever more and more into the likeness of God’s Son.
The efficacy of the sacraments is assured even if the priest is in mortal sin and a terrible reprobate. However, this does not mean that the sacraments are still all that they should be. The movement of grace is damaged by poor witness. People disillusioned by their ministers can close their hearts and minds to God. They may even walk away from the sacraments entirely. The priest stands convicted at the altar of sacrifice. As with the communicants, we must be properly disposed to what the sacraments entail. That is why many of us are concerned about inviting everyone to the altar so as to receive the Eucharist. The sacrament that heals and saves can also bring condemnation to those in mortal sin.
What does it mean to receive the bread of life if one is an active enabler of the culture of death? Too many feign Catholicity within the church doors and then once outside become the chief advocates in the public forum for the death of unwanted unborn children.
What does it mean to partake from the nuptial banquet table of Christ and his bride the Church when one is living in violation of his or her own marriage vows? Christ rejects divorce and demands that marriage between men and women reflect fidelity within the Church. Are we witnesses to his promise or do we substitute our broken promises instead?
Currently there is also a great debate about the status of active homosexuals in the Church. Nevertheless, priests, bishops and even popes do not stand above Sacred Scripture but rather below as servants of the Word. What does the Word say? We read in Paul’s epistle to Timothy:
“We know that the law is good, provided that one uses it as law, with the understanding that law is meant not for a righteous person but for the lawless and unruly, the godless and sinful, the unholy and profane, those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, the unchaste, sodomites, kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is opposed to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted” (1 Timothy 1:8-11).
Along with the concern that many of us have about welcoming pro-abortionists, adulterers and active homosexuals to take Holy Communion; the priest must also focus upon his own status before almighty God. Is the one offering the sacrament of salvation to others bringing down judgment upon himself by celebrating the Mass unworthily? How is it that we can become comfortable with the prospect of priests standing at our altars while in mortal sin or not truly believing?
Christians in the early days of the faith were warned not to take part in the food offerings from pagan sacrifices. Unlike the sacrifices of the Jewish temple or that of the Eucharist, these oblations to false gods were deemed as poisoned food given to demons. It was customary in such sacrifices that a third was burned and given to the so-called deity, a third went to the priests (even the pagan ones) and a third was given to the poor. Believers were warned against taking this tainted food.
While the Eucharist, by comparison, is all holy since Christ is holy, the liturgy can be polluted or corrupted by priests in mortal sin or who are closet atheists or who fail to give due diligence about what they celebrate. It does not matter so much as to what language or anaphora (eucharistic prayer) is used as long as the priest is one with the Church and faithful in the rubrics of the celebration. He must be attentive to what he is doing and that care begins with himself. The ordained priest should feel humbled by his role. His priesthood compliments and makes possible the operation of the laity’s baptismal priesthood. A basic symbolism of Catholic sacraments, centered upon the paschal mystery, is that we must die with Christ if we hope to live with him. The priest’s celibate love is subsumed into this profound mystery. When the priest processes to the altar, he should be fully aware and prepared for both Christ’s sacrifice and his own— he is Jesus Christ entering Jerusalem— he is coming to the altar to die.