Let’s see now: we’ve got a Sunday night series on one of the most corrupt and tawdry families in Church history, the Borgias, with popes, cardinals, bishops, and priests, all part of this big, happy family; we’ve heard non-stop for a decade about abusive priests, (albeit a small minority) and lax bishops who reassigned them; we’ve got front page stories of priests who embezzled money from their parishes; and I saw one not long ago about a priest arrested for DUI.
Yes, all this is scandalous, sinful, sickening, and criminal.
But, it is not new.
Popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, nuns, brothers are human.
That means, we are sinners.
Granted, when one of us falls, it hurts and shocks more. People rightly expect their spiritual leaders to practice what we preach. When we don’t, we’re hypocrites. And we know what Jesus thought about hypocrites.
But, this is not new.
If you think it worse today than in the past, I ask you to consider the solemn days we will observe next week, Holy Week: Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
Within an hour or so after Jesus had ordained His very first bishops and priests — the twelve apostles — what happened? They fell asleep when He asked them to pray with Him; one betrayed Him for thirty silver coins; one — the first Pope — denied three times even knowing Him; and all but one, the youngest, ran away scared at the time He most needed them. That lonely loyal one, St. John, was there with our blessed Mother at the foot of the cross on a hill called Calvary on a Friday strangely called “good.”
Not a very good start for bishops and priests. Within a few hours after their ordination, 11/12 had abandoned Him. That’s a worse record than even the Mets!
What’s the point? That we should tolerate and overlook the sins and vices of the clergy? Absolutely not! Or, worse, that we priests and bishops should stop seeking the heroic virtue, holiness, and perfection called for by Jesus? Never!
The point is that, if the life, vigor, holiness, and efficacy of the Church depended only upon the virtue of priests and bishops, it would have been dead-on-arrival, not surviving that afternoon when the sun hid in shame and the earth shuddered in sadness.
Our faith is not in popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, or even in monsignors. Nope: our faith is only in Jesus. He and He alone will never let us down; He will never sin; He and He alone will never break a promise; He and He alone deserves our absolute trust and confidence.
That’s why it’s especially tragic when someone leaves Jesus and His Church because of a sin, scandal, or slight from a priest or bishop. If your faith depended on us, it was misplaced to begin with. We priests and bishops might represent Jesus and shepherd His Church, however awkwardly — but we are not Jesus and His Church.
One of the more moving, sad, yet, usually “sacramental” duties I have as a bishop is to meet at times with victim survivors of sexual abuse by clergy, and on occasion their families. Some of them tell me they have left the Church, they hate the Church, they have lost their faith. Most of them, though, tell me that, as shattered, sickened, and angry as they may be, nobody, nowhere, nohow is going to take their faith away! These are an inspiration to me.
The wife of one victim once graciously said to me, “Archbishop, you have helped me regain my faith in the Church! I am putting my trust in you!”
I replied, “I’m flattered and grateful, but, please, don’t put absolute confidence in me. I’ll work everyday to earn and keep your trust, and pray daily I’ll never, ever let you down, but, believe me, sooner-or-later, sadly, I’m afraid I will let you down and disappoint you. Please, put your total faith and trust only in Jesus! Anything else is idolatry!”
Maybe, maybe there’s a decent reason for leaving the Church. I’ve never heard one, but a lot of people apparently think they have good cause, since “ex-Catholics” sadly number in the millions.
However, leaving because of something a priest or bishop may have done or not done is surely not a decent reason.
When I was about six-or-seven, I spent Saturday night with my grandpa and grandma, “Nonnie” and “Pata.” On Sunday morning, we got ready for Mass. Pata wasn’t budging from his EZ chair with the sports page and a second cup of coffee.
“Let’s go, Dad! (that’s what Nonnie called him),” yells Nonnie. “We’ll be late for Mass.”
“I’m not going. I can’t stand that new priest, Father McCarthy,” replies Pata.
“Oh, yeah,” responds Nonnie. “You can’t stand the new bartender up at Nick’s, either, but that sure doesn’t seem to keep you from going up there! Get moving!”
All three of us went to Mass . . .
Frank Sheed, that great Catholic lay theologian of last century, expressed it a bit more eloquently than Nonnie: “We are not baptized into the hierarchy; we do not receive the cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. Christ is the point. I, myself, admire the present pope, but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I find the Church, as I have to live with it, a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing that a pope, a bishop, a priest could do or say would make me wish to leave the Church (although I might well wish that they would).”
Pray for us bishops and priests, please. We’re sorry when we hurt you. We must try harder to conform our lives to Jesus. But don’t ever let our sins drive you away.
A blessed Holy Week!