Over the past several months, as story after story of clerical misconduct filled the papers and the news broadcasts, I have thought time and again of the good priests I know, and what they must be suffering because of the scandal caused by their brother-priests. It is small comfort when one is caught in the media hurricane and every day seems to bring a new body-blow, but it’s worth remembering that those whom Christ chooses have been betraying him from the beginning.
During Holy Week we read again the story of Judas. What would have happened to the first priests of the Church if they had become demoralized and paralyzed by the betrayal of their fellow-apostle? What would have happened if all the members of the early Church were so scandalized by Judas’s treason that they could not grasp how God brings good out of evil?
The early Church got it right, however. It acknowledged that even the chosen can betray their call by including the story of Judas in its sacred scripture, as a reminder and a warning. But it focused its primary attention on those who lived the truth of their apostolic and priestly vocations: all of whom, according to tradition, were ultimately martyred in witness to the truth they lived, with the sole exception of St. John the Evangelist (who in any event suffered the slow martyrdom of exile). Judas is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, but treason is not the main story-line in Acts: fidelity is. There is a lesson for us here.
In thinking recently of all the good priests I know, I have thought especially of younger priests, and particularly of the men with whom I became friends in Rome during the years I was preparing my biography of Pope John Paul II. They are some of the finest men I have ever met. We prayed, walked, toured, argued, partied, laughed, and mourned together. These young priests are now doing wonderful work in parishes and diocesan offices and seminaries — often under difficult personal or pastoral circumstances, sometimes under suspicion because of their orthodoxy and fidelity to the Church’s liturgical rubrics. They have been happy in their priesthood, and now some of them frankly admit to being shaken.
To them, I would like to say: you are the generation of reform. You are the men who will revitalize the priesthood in the image of John Paul II, “priest of the world’s destiny” (as one book nicely styled him). You are the men who will restore trust where it has been broken, because you see your priesthood primarily in evangelical and sacramental terms. Because you don’t think of yourselves as ecclesiastical functionaries but as icons of Christ, and because you know that you are that by the grace of Christ and not by any merit of your own, you will be the generation that reforms the ecclesiastical apparatus so that scandals of the sort we have seen in recent months are far less likely. You are the men who will be the bishops who call other men to priestly holiness and who call the laity to be apostles in the world. I am quite confident of that, even as I know what pain and suffering it will cause you in the years ahead. Be not afraid.
Priests are much on our minds these days, but we would be very mistaken if we thought that this crisis of clerical scandal doesn’t have something to do with all of us. God has a way of dealing with times of scandal and reform: God deals with the Church’s failings by raising up saints to renew the Church in its witness to Christ and his Gospel.
The fully adequate response to today’s crisis is the response that is always necessary when the Church is bottoming out — the call to holiness must be lived more intensely by every member of the Church. Everyone. The crisis of today is like the crises of the past. It is a crisis caused by an insufficiency of saints. That is a wake-up call for all of us.
“Crisis” also means “opportunity.” The opportunity before all of us is to live holier lives.