This past week, I celebrated my eleventh anniversary of priestly ordination. Honestly, an eleventh anniversary isn’t that big a deal by itself. It’s not a tenth, or twenty-fifth, or fiftieth anniversary. It’s actually one of the quieter ones.
And yet, every ordination anniversary is a yearly reminder to a priest of what he is supposed to be and how he is called to live.
In the hustle and bustle of life, the priest – like his parishioners – jumps through hoops, moves and adjusts, balances accomplishments with disappointments, organizes peoples, coordinates events, deals with emotion, works to do good and avoid evil, and – through it all – tries to preserve a spiritual worldview and keep his attention on eternal things.
To put it mildly, this isn’t easy.
Simply because a man’s hands have been washed with chrism, or his soul endowed with the Holy Spirit, or his body covered with fancy vestments, doesn’t mean that he’s a completed project. The priest, like every believer, must continuously cooperate with God’s grace, seek God’s kingdom above all things, and labor to die to himself and selflessly love and serve his neighbor.
The priest must order his heart to be compassionate, discipline his emotions to be kind and patient, and mature his sorrow to be generous and joyful. He is called to be a man of prayer, faith, and virtue. This is a call that demands a response and relies on a persevering spirit.
Therefore, only to the degree that a priest is open to this saving work within his own soul, is he able to be a good shepherd, a bold – yet gentle – prophet and teacher, a builder of community life, a gracious and reverent leader of prayer, and a person who can lead others to a life modeled on the Beatitudes and Works of Mercy.
Regrettably, a priest’s negligence of his own discipleship, doesn’t end merely in the realm of omission. If a man is consecrated for service, and his whole life is to be directed to this end, and yet he ignores this fundamental mission, then his soul is thrown into disarray. His internal measure is off. The structure of his soul and the inner dynamics of his affections are confused and left unfulfilled.
In such a weary and confused state, the soul of such a lost priest begins to desperately look for something beyond its mission. Tragically, in a fallen world, this wayward search never ends well.
If humility is not nurtured, pride dominates. If selflessness does not become a way of life, self-absorption takes over. If love, which is to be patient and kind, is not victorious, anger and envy seek to justify themselves. The parallels are disastrous and they continuously and rapidly descend into appalling darkness, lacking any sense of goodness or self-regulation.
In such a bleak existence, the priest’s appearance, the task of “playing the role,” becomes the only rule of his life and becomes a manipulative means for deception and disguise.
While such backsliding is possible for any priest, it takes on a particularly gross expression in sexual predators who are welcomed and protected within the ranks of Catholic priests. In such shadows, the priesthood is redefined beyond comprehension by sick men, who should never have been ordained or promoted in the Church.
For such men, the priesthood is disfigured. The graces of priestly ordination are debased and diabolically become tools to dominate, hurt, harm, abuse, shame, damage, and destroy other people. The very way of priestly life becomes the exact opposite of everything it is called to be.
Abandoning the norm, the way of such grave evil is only a damnable deviation that must be called out, purified from the priesthood, and prevented in the future.
As the human family sees deviant men in the priesthood today, and observes the brokenness of their victims, the vast majority of priests – who hold God’s treasures in earthen vessels – are themselves appalled and scandalized.
The abuse of young people, the abuse of sacred authority, and the abuse of good will are staggering. The compromise and collusion to hide and protect abusers is stupefying. And so, fortitude, honesty, and swift action are urgently needed.
If those who hold high office in the Church take this course of action, then the parish priest – the one in the trenches with the people – can regain his own spiritual composure. His work can begin again to assume its necessary credibility, and the priest – with his own struggles and distractions – can more zealously get about the mission of his vocation, namely, to lead prayer, preach Good News, and selflessly serve others.