The year of the priest does not seem to be going well.
The accusations against priests who have molested girls and boys are mounting in places like Ireland, Germany, Brazil, and other countries.
Bishops are being criticized for protecting their priests, rather than children.
And while, perhaps, we are too close to the issue right now to know all that has happened, clearly terrible things were done – sinful things – and even looking for explanations seems callous and truly is problematic.
As a priest of 18 years, I can say I am truly ashamed for what some of my brother priests have done, what some bishops did – for whatever reason.
I mourn for the children who were abused, many of whom are now deeply wounded adults who, sadly often for good reason, no longer trust the Church, and, in some cases, no longer trust God.
The Gospel this weekend comes from a passage immediately following Jesus’ declaration of himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
Given that the word “pastor” comes from the Greek word for shepherd, and “bishop” comes from the Greek word for overseer, or guardian, it’s appropriate to reflect a bit on shepherds who acted like wolves.
Jesus says he knows his sheep and they hear his voice.
The Lord knows everything, including his sheep – and those called to be shepherds in his name.
A good pastor – a good shepherd – puts his life on the line for the sheep; their welfare is his reason for living.
And yet, the Old Testament is littered with shepherds who aren’t always good.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, King David, were all shepherds at one point in their career – sometimes before, sometimes after God’s call to them.
But Abraham and Isaac were so fearful for their lives when they were in foreign countries that they tried to pass off their beautiful wives, Sarah and Rebekah, as their sisters.
They thought if the men of the countries they were living in knew the truth, they’d be murdered so their wives would be free to marry.
Jacob deceived his father Isaac, masquerading as his older brother Esau, and stealing his father, Isaac’s blessing.
Moses killed an Egyptian, and didn’t fully trust God to produce water from his thirsty people.
David committed adultery with Bathsheba contrived the death of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, so he could marry her.
Perhaps the most important shepherd of all started as a fisherman.
Simon Peter, who denied Jesus three times, is three times asked if he loves the risen Lord, and after each of what are really half-hearted responses in the Greek, Jesus says, “tend my lambs, feed my sheep.”
The bishops are flawed, like the shepherds of old.
No one of them is entirely bad, as some would try to make us believe.
Bishop Kicanas of Tucson, for example, reminded us that not every law is just, and that human rights must be protected as the governor of Arizona signed a law that invites discrimination and racial profiling.
I can tell you from painful experience that I am not completely good – nor is any human besides Our Lord and His Mother.
This is not news – it’s reality.
As painful and shameful as the sexual abuse of children by clergy is, and as appalling as the negligence in reporting it or attempts to cover it up are, I am hopeful that something good may come from this crisis.
I know from my own experience that at times I sin – and occasionally in ways that surprise and appall me.
Sometimes I recognize the sin, sometimes others have to point it out to me.
In either case, I find myself asking, “How could I have done that?”
That question causes me to step back and examine my thoughts, my rationalizations, my desires, and in those moments, God’s grace – which makes it possible for me to even recognize the sin – calls me not only to repentance, but to conversion.
Conversion is a radical change – that is, a change that is a new, humble vision of ourselves and a new realization of our utter dependence upon God and the Christ he has sent to us.
It is my hope and prayer that in this year of the priest we clergy are shocked along the laity, into realizing that we priests and bishops have strayed far from the ideal of the Good Shepherd.
I pray that we realize that we have forgotten that we are not just shepherds, but first of all sheep who must hear the voice of the one and only Good Shepherd.
We must be disciples first.
If we are not, or if we ever stray from the daily following of the Good Shepherd, we will become blind guides like the Pharisees who opposed Jesus.
Jesus was quite clear about how the leaders of his Church were to behave, and it was to be in stark contrast to the models of leadership found in the world.
At the last supper in the Gospel of John, when he’s giving the most intimate of teaching to his apostles, Jesus washes their feet and says, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” John 13:15
The early Church no doubt saw some priests in ministry for the money or prestige, so the author of 1 Peter had to write, “I exhort the presbyters among you…Tend the flock of God in your midst, [overseeing] not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit, but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock.” (1Pt 5:1-3)
When James and John’s mother asked Jesus to let her sons sit on his right and left in his kingdom, he told his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.”
If a person who was completely unfamiliar with Christianity observed a Mass, saw how people speak to me, witnessed what I did and how I dressed, and then were asked, “Whom do you think is the servant here, who is the least among us?” they’d probably be much more likely to point to the altar server, rather than me.
I have had people kiss my hand, refuse to let me perform simple acts of manual labor, and want to pay me for what I would give for free.
I understand that some of these things are done because of whom I represent, but it is not always easy to remember that, particularly when it happens time and time again, without reference to Jesus, but always me – “Father”.
Consequently, it is my fervent prayer that all of us – laity and especially clergy – step back from the sexual abuse crisis and ask ourselves some hard questions.
How did we get to the place where people presume (often correctly) that bishops and priests have power – and want to broaden the pool of eligibility for priesthood so that power can be distributed more widely?
How did we get to the point where shepherds feel comfortable with titles like monsignor (i.e., “My lord”), or Most Reverend, or Excellency?
How did we get to the point where priests and bishops couldn’t see that the welfare of children is more important than the good name of the Church?
The answers may be supplied at some point by sociologists and psychologists, but even before that point, priesthood must begin to be lived differently.
If we want to protect the reputation of the Church, then we must also choose to not preach Christ crucified, for He is always a scandal to those caught up in the world.
And, sadly, we’ve done that in many ways – so much so that some Catholics don’t want to talk about the cross because it “places violence at the center of the Gospel.”
And it is not God’s violence, but ours, just as the violence and abuse done to unknown numbers of children is ours.
The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles shows us that to preach Christ effectively is to invite rejection, but also to offer life to those who are spiritually dead.
I pray that this crisis in the priesthood leads us to remembering what has been taught about the true nature of priesthood.
I pray we remember that my office, my ministry as priest, is directed to the laity and their office, which is lived out in the context of the world around us.
It is our mission to the world – to make disciples, baptize and teach what Jesus taught – that is the very reason for the Church’s existence.
I hope priests realize that it is absolutely untrue that the only important things in life happen at church, where we priests live and work.
The truth of the matter is everything we do at Mass is to give glory to God and to prepare the laity for their work in the world, where God is also glorified through the way they live their faith day after day after day.
Mass is incomplete and my life as a priest without effect if the laity do not live lives that are more holy, if you do not learn how to follow Jesus better, if the world does not become more just, more safe, more peaceful, more joyful because of God at work through you.
With the grace of God we will come through this painful chapter in the Church’s life.
Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit rekindles a desire for true humility in priests and bishops – in all of us who follow the One Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for us, and who feeds us with his body and blood hidden in the humble elements of bread and wine.
If the awareness of sin is the first step towards repentance and conversion, then perhaps this might be a good “year of the priest”, after all.