Priests are hurt by crisis, but remain resilient and faithful

Aaron Lambert

When the news of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick broke and thus opened another wave of scandals within the Church, one thought went through Father Bert Chilson’s mind: “Not again.”

“When I heard this, my heart just sank,” Father Chilson, pastor of St. Stephen’s Parish in Glenwood Springs, told the Denver Catholic. Father Chilson was ordained a priest in 1978 and recalls living through the Church scandals that broke in 1992 and then again in 2002.

“[It] really gets you down and has you looking over your shoulder a little bit, because you don’t know how people are going to react or respond,” he said.

With the current crisis in the Church unfolding more and more every day, it’s clear that the lay faithful are hurting and looking for answers from the Church’s leadership.

But how are our priests holding up?

For priests like Father Chilson, it hasn’t changed who they are as priests, or what they do in being Christ to their people. And the same can be said for the majority of priests.

“It might get me down for a day or two, but then [I’m] refocusing on what I’ve always done,” he said. “Who I am as a person, who I am as a priest…adelante, as they say in Spanish: moving forward, being who you are, being your authentic self.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that priests aren’t hurt by it. Ordained in 2016, Father Mason Fraley, parochial vicar at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, told the Denver Catholic that this scandal evokes a few different reactions in him simultaneously.

“On the one hand, I am a baptized Catholic too — another son of the Church, and seeing priests betray Christ and the Church by betraying their vocation causes sadness,” Father Fraley said. “On the other hand, I am a fellow priest, and these men are my brothers. I must admit I feel more anger in this respect.

“Their betrayal of their vocation is also their betrayal of my vocation. I love my priesthood, and so naturally I am inclined to see someone who brings shame upon it as a threat.”

Priests of the people

When the scandals broke in 2002, Father Chilson remembers that some of his brother priests withdrew from the people, stopped taking appointments and even stopped hugging people in response to what was going on. In such a time of uncertainty, they were afraid to extend pastoral care to their parishioners, for fear of giving the wrong impression.

Although he said that his heart sank with the current wave of scandals of sexual abuse in the clergy, Father Bert Chilson has not stopped engaging people to bring them to Christ and show them the goodness of the priesthood. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

Father Chilson said that he doesn’t think this behavior is healthy, especially as a priest.

“We are still priests of the people, we need to engage with them and be genuine and authentic,” he said. “I still try to be the engaging person that’s present and available and reaching out, as the More Than You Realize conference talked about, [and using] those touchpoints.

“We need to be more present than ever and not be afraid to show people the goodness of the priesthood.”

Neither Father Chilson nor Father Fraley have experienced any ill-willed behavior toward them while wearing their clerics in public. They also say that, thankfully, Catholics tend to be very loyal to their own parish priest, and they’ve received nothing but support from their parishioners.

Doing better

Both priests agree that the crisis has shaken the trust of the faithful in the pews and see this as an opportunity to re-evaluate their own priesthood and see how they can better be the servants the Lord has called them to be.

“I am hardened in my resolve to be a good priest, and more determined to maintain those disciplines which will keep me from being a bad one,” Father Fraley said. “Priests are poor sinners too, so we are of course in desperate need of your prayers, penances and personal support.”

Father Fraley also offered a request to the faithful to help priests remain resilient and faithful: “Demand that we be very holy.”

“As a priest, I feel so blessed, so honored, so grateful for my vocation, for the opportunities to receive and to use all the Gospel virtues of love and care and service unabashedly and without holding back, even despite this blow,” said Father Chilson. “It’s a moment to stop and re-evaluate, do better and regain the confidence and trust of the people.”

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash