From Scandal to Reform: The Apostles We Need

George Weigel

However grim the present circumstances may seem, many of the pre-requisites for a thoroughgoing revitalization of the priesthood in America are already in place.

Catholics have not abandoned their priests in the wake of three months of seemingly-endless reports of scandal. On the contrary, they are rallying to the support of priests, confident that faithful pastors represent the great majority of the Catholic clergy in America.

For twenty-three years now, in his Holy Thursday letters to priests and in numerous other homilies and addresses, Pope John Paul II has been proposing a noble vision of the priest as an icon of Christ in the world. That vision has attracted thousands of young men to the seminaries; it has reinvigorated the ministry of priests who have been ordained for decades; and it gives the Church the theological substance with which to accelerate the reform of its ordained ministry.

The generation of dissent in the theological guild is greying and intellectually sterile, unable to reproduce itself. Younger scholars, more interested in exploring Catholic orthodoxy than in deconstructing it, will increasingly fill seminary faculties and university schools of theology.

Priests formed in the past fifteen years and committed to the heroic model of the priesthood proposed by John Paul II are eager to be catalysts of reform and renewal.

What is needed now are the bishops capable of leading the reform of local presbyterates, diocesan vocations offices, local and regional seminaries. Some of those bishops have already been ordained and are doing heroic work. The question now is, how do we get more of the bishops we need to carry out the reform of the ordained ministry that lay leaders and the Church’s most effective priests are calling for?

Changes are needed in the criteria for appointing bishops and in the process for vetting candidates for the episcopate.

The preference for older candidates for bishops, while understandable, should be re-examined in light of today’s urgent needs. Those most capable of leading the reform of the ministry will often be men in their forties, even late thirties, who are part of the John Paul II generation of Catholic clergy in the United States. Their age should not be held against them as potential bishops, if they have demonstrated effective leadership as pastors of parishes or seminary professors. There is also strong historical precedent for appointing younger men as bishops in times of crisis and needed reform. St. Cyril of Alexandria was a bishop at 36. St Ambrose was 34 when he was ordained bishop of Milan, and St. Augustine was 41 when he became bishop of Hippo. St. Francis de Sales and St. Charles Borromeo, great reformers of the counter-Reformation, were bishops in their mid-thirties. Stefan Wyszynski was named Primate of Poland at age 47.

The Church in the United States has generally been allergic to scholar-bishops. And while the record of some academics-turned-bishops in Europe in the past forty years has been discouraging, there is the powerful counter-example of John Paul II, a true scholar-bishop, to reckon with. In the United States today there are theologians, philosophers, and historians, proven effective as teachers and spiritual directors, who would make excellent bishops. Their doctorates and their scholarly careers should not be considered impediments to episcopal ordination.


The consultation process must also be widened. While bishops and priests will and should always have an important role in proposing and commenting on candidates, mature, knowledgeable, and prudent lay people ought to be consulted far more widely that they are today. Lay people may see things clergy can miss.

Finally, the bishops capable of leading the reform the Church needs will be evangelists and pastors, capable of communicating their passion for Christ to their priests and people. There is, arguably, too much raillery about the Catholic bureaucracy today; many Church bureaucrats are entirely admirable people. Yet eighty years after Max Weber dissected the character of bureaucracies, it should be clear that the typical bureaucratic cast of mind — which emphasizes efficient management and damage-control, and almost always prefers amelioration to necessary confrontation — can be in serious tension with the bishop’s duty to teach, govern, and sanctify.

Apostles, not managers, are what will move the Church from crisis to reform.

COMING UP: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

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When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!