Thursday 20th June 2019

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How Many Good Priests Did We Lose?

September 23, 2018 Frontpage No Comments


On pilgrimage in Nazareth, I had the opportunity to spend time with Archbishop Joseph T. Ryan in 1999, just a year before he passed. Ryan was responsible for the construction of many of the refugee camps in the Holy Land during the 1950s with the Pontifical Mission for Palestine before eventually moving on to shepherd the Military Archdiocese of Washington.
He was older, but still every bit the old Marine who stormed the beaches of Okinawa. Unfortunately, the hill that we had to walk to get to the Basilica of the Annunciation was too steep, and I and one other pilgrim stayed behind to sit in the shade and drink water.
Ryan and I chatted for some time. I don’t recall much of the conversation. What I do recall is that after the rest of the group came from the basilica, our priest came over the intercom and said that Ryan wanted to thank the two young gentlemen who stayed behind with him.
“He says he thinks he sees a vocation in those two, but definitely the bearded one.”
I had the beard.
Naturally my heart leapt to my throat. That was the reason I was on pilgrimage, after all. Yet back home when recounting this to a spiritual director, I was told very much otherwise. Too rigid, an immature faith…but always there was the hint in these conversations about sexual ethics. Where do you stand on homosexuality? Where do you stand on married clergy? Questions more political than faithful in hindsight.
Exploring a priestly or religious vocation can be one of the most powerful and humbling encounters of a person’s life, if for no other reason than one is quite literally laying his entire self before Christ and exclaiming with the Blessed Mother the same fiat — “Be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).
Mary’s fiat is juxtaposed with the beginning of the Gospel of John, where the “Word became flesh” (John 1:1). Note quickly the capitalization, for where in John the logos becomes flesh, in Luke we have the word rhema which has the connotations of a birthing or “hearing of faith” as is described in Gal. 3:2-5.
This birthing of faith through the spoken word is precisely what we are called to do in any vocation. When one explores a vocation, there is a faithfulness and fidelity that is implied in what St. John Paul II said was a total self-giving, a presentation of the self to a consecrated other that was unique, devoted, and singular.
Most of us will identify this experience of being head-over-heels within the confines of the Sacrament of Marriage, or at the very least its pursuit. The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges used to quip that falling in love was creating a religion with a fallible god, yet for those experiencing a calling to the religious life, we were falling in love with the God.
We here at The Wanderer received quite a few letters regarding my own reflections on being passed over during the discernment process for the priesthood. These experiences are intensely personal; few people recount them if for no other reason than it is so much more painful than the separation from a spouse. If our spouses are indeed fallible gods, imagine how one must feel having come to the very precipice of offering yourself entirely in service to the Living God only to be told by a spiritual director that you are simply “too rigid” in your adherence to the Catholic Catechism’s instruction on homosexuality.
When the criticism is leveled, it comes entirely out of left field. Other things occupy your mind during a formation period, such as the willingness to sacrifice family for the even larger family of a parish, a devout focus on the Holy Eucharist, whether one is even worthy to say Holy Mass, learning to pray with the Church through the Divine Liturgy . . . its introduction is like a spear through the mind; the dismissal is as if God held you in His hand during a time of a crisis of vocations and found you unworthy of the calling.
For those of us who moved on to a different vocation, it is entirely incorrect to say that we made the wrong decision, or that we are less happy in our outcomes. My wife is incredible, my kids are tremendous.
Yet for those of us who heard the calling to the religious life and were pushed away, there is always a small voice that whispers before it speaks in low tones. Were we destined for a different life? Catholic men will mention this privately to one another as their children throw red solo cups across a yard and scarf down hot dogs and hamburgers.
One respondent mentioned that he too was castigated with the accusations of “rigidity and immaturity” and counseled by his spiritual director that what he needed was to make love — a lot. Sound familiar? There are a few hundred men shaking their heads at this right now.
More often than not, the same stories keep rectifying your own, and it always seems to come back to the sort of sexual grooming that one hears about in the pages of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.
As of this writing, Cardinal Wuerl is en route to the Vatican to ask Pope Francis to take up his letter of resignation again, the same one he was canonically required to submit at the age of 75. Perhaps Wuerl can be taken at face value as the man who had to get his hands dirty in order to clean up the sins of the past — one who, like Cardinal Spellman before, chose discretion over holiness.
Yet Mary’s fiat has much to offer us. The logos become flesh means that we have a reasonable God; Mary’s fiat is a contradiction to the world. Yet through her word, this rhema, the entire world was redeemed. Not because she did what discretion demanded, but because she did what was faithful and — at least in the eyes of a world that has never understood faith — unreasonable.
This is the purpose of a vocation — it should make us exposed to holiness, not be a retreat from the world. Such vocations enable us to become who we are.
For myself and the countless others who were refused the tremendous grace of serving a priestly vocation due to our “rigidity and immaturity,” there is confidence in the fact that we were not alone in our fiat to God. If we are truly undergoing a chastisement — and it certainly seems as if we are in the beginning stages of one — then we have all the more duty to live our vocations as faithfully as we can. It is the only way our rhema can become Logos.

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Pope Francis mentions in a homily that our priests and bishops involved in scandal are being attacked by the “Great Accuser” — implying that our concerns here in the United States and elsewhere over sexual abuse against the laity and our seminarians spring from a satanic source.
This unholy trinity of unity, discernment, and silence is precisely the nonsense that we heard in 2002. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus argued back then that the response should have been fidelity, fidelity, fidelity. Christ warned us that He came not to bring peace to the world but a sword (Matt. 10:34). Shockingly enough, in the verses immediately afterward? Christ discusses the conditions for discipleship: “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37-39).
That’s not an accusation; it is Gospel. Certainly there is room for contrition and forgiveness, but there should be no room for treating symptoms while refusing to address cures. Pope Francis has to see this — shouldn’t he?

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Of course, I am succeeding (but not replacing) the inestimable Mr. James K. Fitzpatrick for the First Teachers column. Please feel free to send any correspondence for First Teachers to Shaun Kenney, c/o First Teachers, 5289 Venable Road, Kents Store, VA 23084 — or if it is easier, simply send me an e-mail with First Teachers in the subject line to:

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