The happiest day of my life came three years ago when I was ordained a priest.
I can honestly say, without hyperbole, that every day since has been a joy. The daily work in the parish always encapsulates the high dignities and duties of the priesthood, that is, to be “another Christ” in working for the salvation of the souls entrusted to my care. Like many young priests today (I am not yet 30), my zeal for the Lord’s house (Psa. 69:9), the Church, was not something I always possessed. It had to be discovered amid the pervasive secularism of our day.
The catalyst for my discovery of what I now know to be the greatest legacy of my ancestors was the pious example of my grandfather in the time I spent with him at the end of his life. This sparked an intellectual curiosity within me to study the Faith on my own. I’ll never forget the exhilaration of my college years, in reading the Catechism, G.K. Chesterton, Peter Kreeft, the lives of the saints and more, when I finally felt freed from the dysfunction of the vulgar popular culture and liberal philosophies that were (and remain) the dominant ethos of our secular society. I found Jesus and His Church—a bold voice proclaiming truth and virtue in our broken world.
Chesterton, in remarking on the paradoxes of faith in Orthodoxy, stated:
It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads…would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.
To paraphrase: the world showed me all the ways there are to fall, but when I discovered the Church, I found the one way there is to stand.
By temperament I do not do things “halfway”, and so with all of this zeal I discerned it was God’s will that I give my life completely to Him as a priest. I entered the seminary in 2010, well after the news of the clergy sex abuse scandal broke in 2002 and the ensuing fallout. The two most common reactions to my desire to enter the seminary were to question my sanity or doubt my manhood. Being filled with zeal for the Lord’s house, however, I was not going to be deterred. I know what the Catholic Church is: She is Christ’s Bride on earth. She was established by Him to bring all men to eternal salvation. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit enables her to teach, sanctify and govern the faithful in the name of Christ and prevents her from committing errors on matters of faith or morals, that is, that which pertains to the salvation of our souls.
Despite the disgusting sins of some of her priests and the pathetic cover-up by some of her bishops, I wasn’t going to let this evil have the last word. I was going to to do my part and fight for Christ’s Bride, the Church. And so, I entered the seminary.
My fighting spirit has been challenged by the revelations of the past dreadful week, with the release of the grand jury report detailing seven decades of sexual abuse and cover-up in six dioceses of Pennsylvania. It has been the toughest week of my short priesthood. I have had feelings of anger, incredulity, sadness, and embarrassment. It is hard to say, but also fair and necessary, that in the post Second Vatican Council era, the Church has become too worldly.
It seems the Church has been administered institutionally as if it were a company. The faithful have all too often been viewed not in terms of their immortal souls but rather in terms of being paying customers. Preaching faith and morals became secondary to keeping the customers happy and paying. Letting word of scandal get out is bad for business. And so, the holy fear that comes with the faithful knowledge that we will all be judged by God at the end of our lives gave way to covering up scandal to protect the company’s reputation. A positive that can come from this crisis is that the Church can be guided and governed as a Church again, not as a company. And that the faithful be viewed as souls hungering for God, not customers looking for happy talk.
Here I would like to offer a word of caution to those who may give in to the temptation of allowing themselves to be demoralized by the disgusting sins of priests and bishops. First, the priests and bishops who have committed grave sin and heinous crimes are guilty of causing scandal, which is an act of spiritual murder. They will be judged by God and the proper authorities. But we cannot allow ourselves to fall into the temptation of being so scandalized that we lose the Faith and leave the Church. To do so would be spiritual suicide. The necessary distinction has to be made between the Church and her fallible, human ministers. The Church was established by Christ; She is His spotless Bride on earth. The gates of hell shall never prevail against her (Matt. 16:18).
As hard as it can be to see it in such times, the Church is the only bastion of true faith and morals in our world, precisely because She is the Body of Christ. The Church is the ark of salvation that can guide us through the treacherous waters of life on earth to the safe harbor of heaven. But Her human ministers are not exempt from original sin. All of them are unworthy of the dignity of their office as priests and bishops and can often fail to live up to the duties of their state.
We cannot and we must not allow their sins to separate us from Christ’s Church. That would be the blow upon the bruise of the catastrophe of this scandal.
During these past days my zeal for the Lord’s house has been challenged, but it has not waned. In the wake of the further revelation of this scandal I resolve to be a better and holier priest. I, along with some of my close priest-friends, have decided to take on added penances, such as fasting, to offer to God in reparation for the sins of priests. We must respond to this evil with our goodness. Now more than ever we should embrace the inheritance of the Catholic faith we have received from our ancestors. Now more than ever, we ought to be bold in our proclamation of the teachings of the Church. Now more than ever, we ought to embrace the promises we made on the day of our ordination, especially celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom (c.f. Matt. 19:12; Mk. 12:25).
In the midst of this past, demoralizing week came the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is the patronal feast of one of the churches of my parish. It was a welcome respite being with my pastor and some wonderful parishioners in the piazza of our church preparing for our procession and festival. We were setting up tables and chairs, making pasta, affixing the flowers to the statue of our Lady, which would be carried in procession. In the middle of this pleasant atmosphere a reporter and a cameraman from a local media outlet arrived. My first thought was, “Oh how nice, they came to cover our procession and festa.” I soon realized, however, they were there to do a story on how one of the predator priests named in the grand jury report had been assigned to my parish over 50 years ago.
There was a temptation to despair, to let this take away from the spirit of our evening devoted to honoring our Lady’s Assumption. But my parishioners didn’t let that happen. Three hundred of them turned out on a Wednesday night for the festival. Their own zeal for the Lord’s house inspired me. They clearly cherish their Catholic identity, the Faith, and the Church. We processed around the neighborhood carrying our Lady, singing hymns and praying the rosary. When we returned to the church the sun was setting beautifully on us as we concluded with the Litany of Loreto.
Afterward, a parishioner approached me with tears in his eyes. “Father,” he said, “this procession was a light in the darkness of these tough times. Thank you for your priesthood. We need you. We need all you good priests. Don’t get down. Hang in there. Remember what our Lady said at Fatima, that through it all, ‘In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.'”
Battered, but faithful; reeling, but erect. May zeal for the Lord’s house continue to consume me.