By Sister Mary Catherine, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, March 10, 2019
Introductory Note: The author is restricting this essay to attitudes toward priests in light of the Philadelphia Grand Jury report. She extends wholehearted sympathy for the shattered lives affected by the actions of immoral priests. By focusing on priests, this article will hopefully raise more awareness of the urgency to pray for holy priests and therefore obliterate some diabolical crimes.
“Nothing is new under the sun.” (Ecc 1:9) During the fourteenth century, homosexuality cloaked the Church.1 Clerics (of the Latin rite) cohabited with women, and their children were seen at their fathers’ own Masses. These same immoral ministers rarely gave corrections, except perhaps to the poor who could not retaliate. Both priests and prelates sought higher office from motives of honor and avarice. Hence, it was not shocking to see some clergy, especially bishops with luxurious attire, acting like worldly nobles, living in palaces.
One mystic living during the time recorded Our Lord’s words describing these reprobate clerics: “mirrors of wickedness.” On the other hand, the same mystic — St. Catherine of Siena — wrote in the Dialogues some of the most beautiful descriptions of priests: “my anointed ones,” “my Christs,” “fragrant flowers in the mystic body of the church,” “no angel has this dignity,” “it is impossible to have a greater dignity than this one on earth” (Dialogues, 113). Our Lord continues to describe the nobility of specific saintly priests to Catherine. Why? He tells her all this so she may better understand priests’ dignity, and therefore grieve the more over their wickedness. For St. Catherine, “grieving” meant the most fervent of petitionary prayers, including true tears of sadness for the sinful priests’ moral plight.
This picture of the fourteenth-century Catholic clergy, and the love of one female saint, depicts perennial principles for us immersed in moral outrage over sexually abusive clerics, on the one hand, and critical defensiveness for many innocent priests on the other. Those in the “moral outrage” group are the ones who are leaving the Church, with a tendency to generalize every priest into a sexual abuser, and questioning the integrity of most, if not all, bishops. Those who are in the other group stand convicted of the Faith, remembering that Christ perdures in the Church, and loves even more all the self-sacrificing priests known. Then there is the “middle” who do not know what to think.
What can good clerics and the faithful offer to the morally outraged, the hurt, the puzzled? When perplexed about health, we consult a good doctor, so let us seek the answers provided by a female Church Doctor, St. Catherine of Siena. Though particular circumstances of the fourteenth century differ from today, some universal principles endure, helping to enlighten us.
“Leave the judging to Me” (Dialogues, 120).
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom 12:19).
Those in moral outrage, motivated by love of victimized children and young men, angered by deception, especially for those young seminarians molested by priestly predators, are joined by Someone who is infinitely horrified: God. Catherine writes of homosexual acts 2 (not persons living with homosexual tendencies3) with a chilling, unforgettable sting (she was expressing her revelations from the Lord): “these wretches not only do not restrain their weakness; they make it worse by committing that cursed unnatural sin. . . . The stench reaches even up to Me, supreme Purity, and is so hateful to Me that five cities were struck by my Divine Judgement. For my Divine Justice could no longer tolerate it, so despicable to me is this abominable sin” (Dialogues, 124).
God’s “rage,” though keenly depicted . . . gets worse. Catherine expresses that the devils as well loathe the sight of that horrendous sin actually being committed. Ironically, however, as expressed in Dialogues 116, these sinners have made the demons their masters. (Perhaps unknowingly?) Therefore, those of us in justified anger, recall God is more repelled by these sins than we are, for He is Pure Love.
Woe, woe to their wretched lives! . . . They devour souls bought with Christ’s Blood . . . you are devils who have taken up the devils’ work! . . . these wretches, unworthy of being called ministers, are devils incarnate, for by their sins they have patterned themselves after the devil. (Dialogues, 121)
If this is not enough to show God’s own anger at these sins, read the following horrific description of the judgement reserved for depraved clerics: “At the moment of death the demons accuse them with such terrifying faces — that a person would choose any suffering that can be endured in this life rather than endure this sight. Even the sting of their conscience is reawakened, gnawing away at them . . . now their selfish sensuality accuses them . . . as members of devils, they have neither the supernatural light of grace or of learning . . . they do not know what to do” (Dialogues, 132).
On the other hand, Our Lord also points out the sin of pride in those who persecute these sinful clerics. Why? What is the reason we respect priests? It is for Christ’s authority. Period. We may love their holiness, admire their self-sacrifice, feel inspired by their orthodox homilies, but this is not the chief reason we revere them: “the reverence (to clerics) belongs not to them, but to Me” (Dialogues, 116).
As a relevant example, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI came out with a defense of his abdication, after receiving numerous communiques of criticism. He further warned that continued anger at his decision risked undermining the papal office. Benedict said he understood “the deep-seated pain” the end of his papacy caused a cardinal and others. At the same time, the pope emeritus wrote, he recognized that for some people the pain had “turned into an anger that no longer merely concerns my resignation, but increasingly also my person and my papacy as a whole.”4
Catherine repeats three reasons for this mandated reverence for sinful clerics: 1) What persecutors do to them they do to Christ; 2) Persecution of a pope, priest, or deacon is against Christ’s commandment; 3) Persecution is committed deliberately and with malice (Dialogues, 133). We must recall in Catherine’s time clerics were murdered, tortured, and viciously mocked. However, the principle perdures: we respect the office of the cleric, not his person. We can and must denounce error and scandal, but with the utmost carefulness. Pope Benedict’s reminder remains: continued anger risks undermining the papal office. We must stand for Christ’s Church, no matter what!
How, then, do we regard those responsible for the most, in Bishop Robert Barron’s words, “stomach-turning and diabolical acts”?5 What we do not do is generalize. Many priests have communicated to me that mothers shelter their children when they see these priests, priests whom I know to be innocent, self-sacrificing, and perhaps fresh out of the seminary. They love children and gave up having their own to beget spiritual children for the Kingdom in imitation of their Master. We, their Catholic flock, should at this time particularly pray fervently for all priests and, when fitting, encourage them. In regard to actually proven abusers, let us follow Our Lord’s advice to Catherine,
Now, dearest daughter, I invite you and all my other servants to weep over these dead . . . be as sheep . . . grazing in holy longing and constant prayer . . . so merciful to the world . . . This will be a sign you and the others love Me in truth. (Dialogues, 133)
As utterly abhorrent as these crimes against innocent children and teens are, some Catholics seem to only support the clergy and look down upon even the victims’ own reporting. Some victims report that even ordinary Catholics and their own parents did not believe them. Jim Van Sickle, a Pennsylvania victim, age 55, wrote, “I’ve known others that came forward. They were ridiculed and ostracized — even by their own family members.”6From the same article, “sexual-assault victims say they were hurt not only by individual priests, but by church officials and ordinary Catholics who treated them with intolerance and indifference.” Although probably true during the time period these outrages occurred, it is on the whole anachronistic to attribute this quality of indifference to today’s world. (There are always some people who live in the past and will not listen to these sufferers.) The horrific memory of not being understood remains, however, and nothing but mercy should be shown to these victims of priests, most likely at the time children, adolescents, youthful seminarians.
The author knows of one then-new seminarian who was sexually approached by another student. The new seminarian thought it might be a fluke, so gave the other one another chance. The same sexual advance occurred by the same seminarian. The new candidate described the event to the rector. Who was asked to leave? The new, chaste seminarian. The time period? The Seventies.
It is definitely true that blameless priests suffer from scoffs, mocking looks, eyes of fear. In addition, the author knows of priests who have been falsely accused, seemingly for illicit motives. Many times these mostly elderly priests, who have lived a holy life, die out of heartbreak. It is a heavy cross for priests, be it a false accusation or just the receiving of hateful scorn. (For more information on this topic, see the HPR articles “Accusations against Priests: The Need for More Justice and Psychological Science” and “Sacrificing Priests on the Altar of Insurance.”)
Archbishop Chaput of Pennsylvania wrote, “The only acceptable responses are grief and support for the victims, and comprehensive efforts to ensure that such things never recur. Anger is also a righteous and necessary response — but it needs to be an anger that bears good fruit; an anger guided by clear thinking, prudence, and a desire for justice.”7
In the same piece, he also distinguishes rage from anger: “For many, rage is the emotion of choice. But rage risks wounding the innocent along with the guilty and it rarely accomplishes anything good.” This rage leads to the accusing of the innocent, a kind of mob mentality.
Yet, a large group of faithful Catholics do support priests who have had nothing to do with this. Is this right? After all, are they not part of a larger group of sinners? How do we know if they are truly innocent? The children years ago trusted the priests who molested them. What does Catherine teach? “I have chosen priests for your salvation” (Dialogues, 110).
Why do we have priests, anyway? Our Lord tells Catherine, “I have chosen priests for your salvation, so that through them the blood of the humble spotless Lamb, my only-begotten Son, might be administered to you. It is the Sun I have given them to administer for I have given them the light of learning, the heat of divine charity” (Dialogues, 119). In other words, priests are given to us so we can worship God through the sacraments, receive sacramental grace, sound preaching. If anything is evil, it is this distrust of every priest . . . a diabolical masterpiece, in the words of Father Robert Barron, echoing the words of Catherine in the Dialogues. Bishop Barron asserts: through priests we receive the sacraments, are evangelized and catechized.
Moreover, the grace of the sacraments does not depend on the holiness or even the sinfulness of the priest. “No uncleanness can defile this Sun, nor is its light lost because of any darkness of deadly sin that may be in the minister or in those who receive it. Their sin cannot injure the sacraments of holy Church or lessen their power” (Dialogues, 115).
The ancient pagan philosopher Socrates once said, “It is better to suffer evil than to do evil.” How much more can we as Catholic Christians proclaim this with all our hearts? The priests who are innocent, all of them, can only grow like their Master by calumny, mockery, distrust. Who was more lied about than Christ, who was put to death as a blasphemer? Can any priest be more mocked and distrusted than Our Lord was by the Sanhedrin?
In fact, death perennially stands as the ultimate suffering. Catherine perhaps best shows how a calumniation of a youth leading to his death is in fact an ineffable grace.
Nicolas Tuldo, a Perugian aristocrat, thoughtlessly used haughty speech of the then-Plebian government in Siena. For this blunder he was sentenced to a beheading. Nicolas received this death sentence with incredulity, leading to horror, rage, rebellion, and finally, black despair. He would not see a priest. Yet Catherine managed to speak to him. Her soothing presence brought him not only calmness, but her words fired him to long for heaven.
Nicolas, after preparing himself for death by confession, begged St. Catherine to stay with him at the time of the beheading. On the morning of his decapitation, he received first Holy Communion, and expressed a vehement desire for God. “From where does such grace come to me, that my soul’s sweetness will await me at the holy place of justice?” Catherine continues in her letter that the youth said words so sweet as to break one’s heart of God’s goodness. She begged Mary to give him a light and peace in his heart at the moment of beheading. What Catherine beheld far exceeded her prayer, for she saw Christ take Nicolas to Himself, and Nicolas waved back to Catherine. Catherine stayed on earth “with holy envy,” she writes. Then she addresses her spiritual priest friend: “therefore do not wonder if I impose upon you nothing save to see yourselves [he and his brothers in the Dominican Order] drowned in the blood and flame poured out from the side of God’s Son . . . no more negligence, sweetest my sons” (“Letter to Raimondo,” 109).
This portrayal of a teenage boy converted from rage and despair at a supreme injustice to a holy longing to be united with Christ in heaven bespeaks a supernatural vision. “Yes, but he is a saint.” Yet, are we not all called to become transformed, especially priests, who share in the highest call (Dialogue, 113)? It is only by suffering, by imitating Christ, that we share in this union. Thus, innocent priests who have to endure slights because they are priests are spreading the Kingdom and, above all, uniting with their Crucified Master.
How many priests, at least in our Western culture, face death? Catherine reminds Blessed Raymond, for whom she desires martyrdom: “And beware, lest through the illusion of the devils . . . you should ever draw back: but persevere always in the hour when things look most cold, until we may see blood shed with sweet and enamoured desires. Up, up, my sweetest father . . . for I have just received a head in my hands which was to me of such sweetness as heart cannot think, nor eye see, nor ears hear” (“Letter to Raimondo,” 111).
As already written, Catherine urges us to pray most intensely for their salvation. They who had been called to the highest grace now exist in the most depraved disorder or in some cases mental illness. These men too are God’s children. How can we not want to pray that they will be saved from an eternity of horror? This is why the Father granted his Catherine the grace of fervent intercessory prayer when describing the horrendous judgement of reprobate priests.
Again, let us look to Catherine’s example. She spoke to weathered murderers, knights, poets, nuns, popes, bishops, people both worldly and holy, with a true love ignited by the fire of purity. She exuded a warm tenderness for real men and women. She does rebuke, but she first enters into a conversation with humility, calling herself “a servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ.” Then she frequently passes into fervent meditation on some specific theme — God’s tender love, the beauty of prayer, the exaltation of obedience. She praises the ideal for which God created the individual. Having assured the person of her love, she gains trust. Then she shows the truth of the human being before her . . . be it “the unnatural sin,” an over-attachment to one’s family (Pope Gregory XI), unnecessary harshness (Pope Urban VI), or fear of death (Blessed Raimondo). In all cases, with a few trenchant assertions, the person sees the contradiction of his sin in contrast to the overwhelming beauty of heaven.
Moreover, in Catherine’s mind, it is not you, but “we” who have sinned. So frequently Catherine cries over her sin which has caused, in her opinion, the immorality blazing around her. She unites with her friends; by a remarkable identification of herself with the person to whom she addresses, she saves herself from Pharisaic self-righteousness, an easy sin into which to fall, while never passing over the reality of the other’s sin. Why is she accepted? She saw in human beings: not only their sins, but their ideal. She quickens repentance by being hopeful, and filling the person with glowing visions of heavenly beauty.
By working on our own transformation into Christ, by appropriating a supernatural attitude, our prayers will be more efficacious for our priests and our example inspiring. Perhaps we too can even write some encouraging words to some cleric who considers us friends. Santa Caterina, ora pro nobis!