“Zeal for thy house”: A young priest’s reflections on scandal in the Church

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.

Procession on the Solemnity of the Assumption. (Photo courtesy of author)

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.

About Father Seán Connolly 12 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He currently serves as parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Our Lady Parish in Tuckahoe, New York.

25 Comments

  1. Thank you, Father Sean, for this much needed and beautifully written reflection. I pray we all unite, and follow your lead, not to
    “let this evil have the last word.“ God bless you!

    • Fr. Connelley,

      Your vocation is an inspiration to us all, and gives us hope for the future. God bless you and keep you strong.

      • God bless you, Father Connolly. We went through the same thing here in Newfoundland, Canada, several years ago. The damage done by those priests, and the neglect of the Bishop to take care of it, has left many in a sad state. You have spoken so well. I pray that God will especially be with those who are questioning their Faith, and have them see that those who are guilty, will be judged by a just and loving God. Again, God bless you and our Church, Father Connolly.

  2. At The Latin Mass yesterday a young visiting priest (Fr. Parent is on vacation) said basically the same things as this young priest is saying while referring to the scandals as a leprosy. Doubtless many will use this latest scandal as an excuse to leave the Church, but as the saying goes – you get out of it as much as you put into it.

    This is NOT time to leave, this is time for fasting, penance, and prayer NOT led by the Bishops, but by the laity. The Bishops must realize that they have lost our trust and it is up to them to regain it.

    I live in Maine, and we have a ‘catholic’ (small c) senator named Susan Collins who claims to be ‘catholic’ but who is pro-choice and has stated that Kavanaugh’s position on Roe v. Wade will be one of the factors governing her decision on whether or not she votes for him. So far I have heard nothing from our Bishop on any of these issues – Senator Collins or the McCarrick scandal or the scandal in Pennsylvania. I will continue to give at the local level and to an outside charity but my checkbook is closed to the Bishop.

  3. Correction – Bishop Deely has spoken out on the scandals, but to me he has not said enough – he must acknowledge that even though he himself has not betrayed our trust, some of his fellows HAVE, and his robe is tarnished by them.

    This must be rooted out, and tougher times lie ahead. We the laity can help – it’s OUR church, and so it us up to US to help save it.

    As always we start with prayer and fasting.

  4. God bless you Father and all the Holy priests. You are an inspiration for the faithful, to keep our eye on our Lord Jesus Christ and the church He founded.
    There are many if us who will be supporting you and your fellow clergy with our prayers and love. Thank you for speaking out, sharing your feeling and struggles you’ve had as a result of these most horrible events coming to light. Together we will hold onto one holy Catholic and apostolic Church.
    Let us take the challenge to follow Fathers lead strengthen our resolve not to be afraid to express our love of our Catholic faith.

  5. Thank you Fr Sean for your continued faithfulness to the Church and for all of other holy Priests may God Bless you all You all are in my prayers daily also for all the victims of abuse 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻❤️

  6. Father, if you have not done so, please consecrate yourself to Our Lady. All of us, but especially our priests, need to place ourselves under Our Lady’s mantle.

  7. Thank you Fr. Sean this article is really what I needed to read today. It has been such a dark and sorrowful week. Gerri

  8. Truly beautiful! It is time for Saintly shepherds to be raised up in the church to combat the evils of the past and the present…May Our Lady raise up or army of priest sons!

  9. Keep the Faith, Father! You may wish to read “The Plot Against The Church”. These subversions of the Church have been ongoing since the foundation of the Church. God bless!

  10. ‘Scandal’. That infamous word has permeated EVERY aspect of daily life, ever since the establishment of “Social Media”. “Any, and all “news” could be ‘shared’ all over the world, within mere seconds or minutes of its having occurred! Oddly enough, in ‘secular’ society, ‘scandalous news’ stories about high-ranking people — politicians, movie stars, rich businessmen, the ‘famous’ and the ‘infamous’! THIS is what passes for “News” in this day and age. EVERYONE should be aware that: “before The End, ALL will be revealed”!

  11. I too am appreciative of the service to your found vocation. Going forward it might be a good thing to make use of the words sacrilege, feminized, and homosexual. They occur to me simply by their absence with a vast head in the sand attitude throughout the wider Church. Many have to take their heads out of that sand.

  12. Thank you so much, Father for you devotion & answering the Lord’s call. You draw more should to the Lord than you will ever know know

  13. We have known for years that innocent victims have been abused. My Father being one in the 1930s. He entered the seminary to become a priest at the age of 13 and was sexually abused for four years. We will never know if he became an alcoholic because of this crime or if it just would have been. He never revealed this shame until the age of 71. God gave my Father the gift of forgiveness and the realization that not all priests are evil and that our relationship is with Our Lord. He never turned against the church but remained faithful to Jesus and His words ” forgive us our trespasses as we forgive THOSE who trespasses against us” My Father has gone home and is at peace. I have always felt empathy and compassion for these victims and knew a few. I have prayed for them in hopes that they would heal through forgiveness. For it is only in forgiving that they will be set free and in acknowledging that they are innocent victims who trusted ( as we all expected) men who represented Our Lord. Our relationship and deep love is with Jesus. There is a great responsibility on the clergy right up to the Pope to protect further abuse. All of those who have committed these horrific crimes must leave the church forever and be accounted for their actions. If not, the Catholic Church will never regain the respect it once held and our children and many adults will use this as their excuse for leaving the church. In prayer and trust.

  14. Father.. Thank you for this. I love the Church but I will not be satisfied until every last Bishop is handed over to the authorities for proper judgment under the law. Only then will the real truth come forward under the penalty of perjury. #truthtochange

  15. Dear Fr Sean, you are a bright light guiding all of our souls through the perils of earthly life. God Bless you today and always. Stand tall and proud to be a Roman Catholic Priest! The example you are setting, in the way you live your life, is an inspiration for all of us to be better Catholics ourselves. So grateful to have you in our lives.

  16. Thank you Fr. Connelly for addressing this head on from the pulpit. The challenge going forward is, what next? How does the church fix the problem.?

  17. Thank you Father for this encouraging presentation. Also: for being so candid about the effect everything has had on you and, your determination to remain a shepherd of God’s flock. With prayers and gratitude from Australia.
    Stephen.

  18. I hope this priest can survive in his own Archdiocese of New York which is filled with immorality and corruption. Check out the articles at Church Militant. And his own Archbishop, Timothy Dolan, who was here in Milwaukee before New York, is as dirty and crooked as they come.

  19. Dear Father Connolly,
    God Bless you and thank you for standing so firm against the evil that is attacking our Church.
    I pray every rosary for priests, religious, and for all vocations. I add you to my prayers.
    May you be blessed beyond measure with His Love and His Strength.

  20. I simply wanted to thank one of the true faithful pastors. Trust is hard to come by, these days, as faithful pastors and parishes become ever harder to find, holy places, in which to pray and worship, safe islands sinking all around. As with the drama of the Arian heresy, stay tuned for the season finale at 3pm EST, Oct 28, 2517 AD, meanwhile, keep the faith, baby.

  21. Thank you Fr. Sean Connolly! You lifted up my spirit with your inspiring reflections at the time when I’m struggling, thinking of what to say if somebody confronted me and ask me about this scandal. You helped me be enlightened. I’ll keep praying for you and all the priests and bishops and all the clergy,whom I know are all suffering, being tainted by this scandal. There’s still a lot of you you who live on the faith and we’ll keep praying forall of you. God bless you.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. “Zeal for thy house”: A young priest’s reflections on scandal in the Church -
  2. Interesante reflexión de un joven cura ante los abusos: su experiencia, una crítica y una anécdota | TESTIMONIO Nº 180

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*