NEW ORLEANS — New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan suggested to more than 400 priests of the state of Louisiana that humbly and openly sharing the “wounds” and shortcomings of the church might bring those who are alienated back to the practice of the faith.
Using the image of the church as “our supernatural family, which we, as priests, are called to image,” Dolan told the opening session of the three-day Louisiana Priests’ Convention that human weakness has been a part of the church from the beginning.
“The church is not just our family — it’s also a dysfunctional family,” he said Sept. 19 during what is one of the largest statewide gatherings of priests in the U.S. “Everybody today talks about dysfunctional families. Have you ever met a functional one?”
Dolan, who spoke on the theme of “Shepherding Today as Priest, Prophet and King,” said in the jubilee year of 2000, St. John Paul II “apologized publicly” 54 times for “the specific sins of the church.”
“That’s more than once a week,” Dolan said. “And Pope Francis surely has done so.”
The cardinal said while the world is “ever ready to headline the flaws of the church,” the dynamic changes when “her loyal members are more than willing to own up to them.”
If that happens, people estranged from the church “might just take a second look,” he said.
“Their favorite caricature of the church is as a corrupt, arrogant, self-righteous, judgmental hypocrite,” Dolan said. “I sure don’t have any problem admitting that, at times, it can be tough to love the church because of her imperfections. The mystical body of Christ has lots of warts.”
However, Dolan noted, it is clear from the Acts of the Apostles, in particular the conversion of St. Paul, that “Jesus Christ and his church are inseparable.”
When Saul was blinded and knocked off his horse on his way to Damascus, Dolan said, the voice he heard was, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“He didn’t say, ‘Why do you persecute my people?’ Nope. ‘My followers?’ Nope. ‘My disciples?’ Nope. To be rather blunt, Jesus and his church are the same. Christ and his church are one. Jesus Christ and his church are synonymous,” the cardinal continued.
“My brother priests, as we consider the priesthood, preserving the unity of Christ and his church is perhaps the most significant pastoral challenge we shepherds face today,” Dolan said. “I’m not telling you anything (new) — you’re all on the front lines. The dominant opinion and sentiment that we face today is, ‘We want Christ; we want nothing to do with that stupid church.'”
A YouTube video by evangelical Jefferson Bethke — “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” — “went viral with 27 million views” because of that sentiment, he said.
“Such is the popular and the successful crusade now to annul the spousal bond between Christ and his bride, the church,” Dolan said. “We hear this all the time, right? ‘I prefer spirituality to religion; I want the Lord as my shepherd, as long as I’m the only one there; I want Christ as my king in a kingdom of one; I’ll believe, I won’t belong; God is my father, and I’m the only child; Jesus is my general, but there’s no army.’ They want Christ without his church.
“We live in a world that often considers belief in God a private hobby, at best, a dangerous ideology, at worst,” Dolan said. “The church is considered superstitious, irrational, backwards, useless, counterproductive, out of it. So, what do we do, my fellow museum pieces?”
Dolan suggested to the 435 priests that they evangelize by developing “a theology and a practice of the church as a family.” He said it’s not a new idea; it’s one that also resonates with the Jewish community, which is experiencing similar challenges of keeping young people within the practice of their faith.
Dolan said the late New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin once wrote: “We Catholics might not be very good at being members of the church, but we never leave. We’re all just one chest pain away from going back.
“Not anymore, I’m afraid,” Dolan said. “I don’t know about you, but every time the Pew Research Center puts out a new study, every time CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) announces more statistics, I, as a priest, a shepherd, a prophet and a king, hold my breath because the percentage of people who claim to be ex-Catholic or ‘none’ rises a couple of points.”
If people with a cynical or jaded view of the church experience priests who “prize honesty and humility” and are “contrite and eager” to reform the flaws of the church, then they may begin to view the church as “a warm, tender, inviting family.”
“If we’re not afraid as priests to show our wounds — the wounds of the church, the wounds of our family — maybe the other wounded will come back,” Dolan said.
Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.