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 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

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Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore | Flickr