Priests are hurt by crisis, but remain resilient and faithful

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: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash