The priest I need

Bishop Jorge Rodriguez

This is the time of year official appointments of pastors and parochial vicars are announced in the Archdiocese of Denver. Expectations are high. Each person has their own ideal of what kind of pastor they want in their parish: “I like him,” “I don’t like him,” “he’s not like the last one,” “the last one was great…” And each person has their own ideal of what kind of pastor their parish needs.

With many expectations, we often await a new priest that preaches like St. Paul, that is entertaining, that knows how to relate to people, that makes miracles with the collection funds, that keeps everything clean and in order, that is always around for when he’s needed, that never gets mad, that is always joyful, that never gets sick, that is a tamer of teenagers…the list can go on.

Yet in reality, the only thing that matters, the only thing that is truly needed, is that he be a holy priest: a priest that we see is in love with Christ when he speaks; that celebrates the sacraments with faith and unction; that teaches us to pray and live a love relationship with God and with our neighbor, and that treats everyone with the same love of God.

A holy priest is a gift from heaven we must ask for. It’s something that can’t be made here on earth or that comes from the human nature of the man called by God to this vocation. Holiness is always a gift from God. Thus, a well-known Spanish prayer for priests ends by saying, “Oh Lord! Send holy and fervent priests to your Church!”

The Church observes the yearly World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests on the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, this year celebrated on June 8.

I think many can concur with the words of the famous film director and actor Mark Wahlberg: “I was married by a priest. My children were baptized by a priest. And whenever somebody in my family passed away, they’ve all been buried by a priest. My sins have been forgiven when I go to confession to a priest. Every time I go to Mass, it’s through a priest’s hands that I receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, which strengthens me to share my Catholic faith with others.”

I ask that you raise a small prayer for your parish priest and all the priests of the archdiocese this June 8 — ask nothing for them except holiness.

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash