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: Denver mayor surprises Catholic school students for Black History Month presentation

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On Monday, February 24, Christ the King Roman Catholic School in Denver held their first Black History Month celebration, and among the special guests was the Denver’s own Mayor Michael Hancock.

The celebration began with the surprise visit of Mayor Hancock, who addressed the students and spoke about the importance of the African American community in our society and remembered those who have made history and impacted our lives.

“I want us all to remember very clearly that this world, our society, has been created by so many people of different colors, races, religions, and we all depend on one another,” Mayor Hancock told the crowd. “Even when we don’t think about it, we’re depending on the inventions and discoveries of people who don’t look like us…Black history Month should also be about celebrating the cultures of history of all people that made this society great.”

After the Mayor’s speech, Kateri Williams, Director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry at the Archdiocese of Denver shared her testimony about how she was born and raised Catholic and the impact her faith has had throughout her life.

Mayor Michael Hancock surprised students at Christ the King Catholic School, in Denver Feb. 24 during a presentation on Black History Month. (Photos by Brandon Ortega)

“It’s important that we don’t celebrate in just the month of February or Black Catholic History Month in November, but throughout the entire year,” Williams said. “It’s also important to remember, as Pope Francis has shared, that unity and diversity is something we should have a joyful celebration about. It’s not our differences that we should be focused on, but our unity in our Lord Jesus Christ, that brings us all together and we should bring all of those gifts from all of our ethnic communities together as the one universal Catholic Church.”

As part of the Black History Month celebration at Christ The King, the school held several events during the entire week of February 24, including a basketball game to honor the athlete Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who were killed with seven others in a helicopter accident back in January. Before the fatal crash, Bryant, a Catholic, was seen praying at his local parish.

“The purpose is to bring focus to the contribution that the Catholic Church has [had] with black history,” said Sandra Moss, Teachers and Preschool Assistant at Christ the King Catholic School. “I want students to know Black history is American history. It’s not just about the color of your skin. It’s not about the negativity that is occurring everywhere in the world. I wanted them to see the good side of it… Black history is American history.”