Last week I was in a meeting with the staff and, of course, the topic of the abuse crisis came up. I say "of course," because no matter where we begin the topic always comes up, it is the ghost lurking in the corner of every room. Our discussion was a good one, an honest discussion and a well-thought-out discussion.
After the meeting, one of our long-term staff members turned to me and said: "We are going to be dealing with this for the rest of our lives." My first, internal response was: "Oh my, I hope not." On further reflection however, I realized that she was probably right.
The first encounter with this issue began for me before I was ordained, over 25 years ago. It has been the dissonant background music to my whole priestly life. It has manifested itself in different ways through the years. It has affected the way we look at our priests, and now, our bishops. It has touched profoundly the lives of our people, our parishes, our schools, and our young people. It has now come to affect the highest arenas of Catholic life, cardinals, even the pope.
Our ministries, my ministry, have been circumvented with programs like Safe and Sacred and Virtus. We have to present credentials when moving from place to place, even to concelebrate at weddings and ordinations. When I come into a room of non-Catholics today, I feel somewhat self-conscious. I am highly cognizant of being alone with any child, no matter what the circumstances. We are living, my brothers and sisters, in a bruised Church. What has this led to?
I believe that one thing it has led to is a defensive or apologetic priesthood. It has led to a defensive attitude toward our essential vocations, what we have been called by God to do. What have we been called to do? Our task, as priests, is to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ to an anxious world. Our task, as priests, is to make that same Jesus Christ manifest in the Eucharist, in the other sacraments, and in our presence to people in the world. Out task, as priests, is to be the ones called to lead others to salvation, to call others to follow, to engage others in the saving message of Christ and to do that without compromise and without any sense of concession.
The message that we are called to give is not only a nice message, but a message that facilitates eternal life. Everything we have, everything we are, everything we need to be is dependent on that message, mediated for all of us in the saving action of the Eucharist, the christus prolongatus,the prolonged presence of Christ in the world.
Why does Christ need to be in the world? Because his presence, and his influence as Salvador mundi, Savior of the world, indicates who we are, our nature, what we are called to be. Without the preached message of the Gospel, the world cannot find its center, the world cannot spin properly. What do I want to create in these schools? I want to create ambassadors of Christ that never fail and never falter, because they are convinced that the good of the world centers on the work they do.
But what do we encounter in fact? So often, we encounter priests and ministers of the Gospel who are timid, who are reluctant to call people to conversion. They say: we are only going to have a very short Mass, which will be at your convenience. We won't keep you too long. Don't worry, you can get on with your life and, by the way, drop a couple of dollars in the basket if you please.
These parishes of convenience, run by timid pastors, are "not asking too much." They are not educating their people. They are not nourishing their people. They are not calling their people to active service. These places are afraid of alienating a reluctant flock by asking too much of them. No singing. No music at all. No servers. No readers. No anything. In and out. They believe that this method serves the needs of a people who are reluctant.
I say it does the opposite. It instills in the people of God a sense that faith is so easy. It requires very little time and effort. It is not ultimately about too much. Well, brothers and sisters, this is a lie. This faith is all we have. This faith is all we are. This faith is all you have to give to the people, all mothers and fathers have to give to their families. This faith is the flashpoint of life and, when we priests sell it short, or try to make it something easy, something that it is not, we do so at the peril of our souls. The bricks of minimalism pave the road to hell.
Furthermore, if we perceive that this apologetic approach, this defensiveness, is the necessary outcome of a Church humbled by the abuse crisis, then I say this: The devil has already won this battle. As a priest, I will not be stifled in my authentic ministry because of the sins of some of my brothers. I will not be quieted in preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because some of my fellow priests have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
I will instead be bolder, because in the cacophony of a media-drenched world, in the noise of fear and confusion, in the midst of authentic heartache and pain, the Word must be proclaimed more loudly than ever. Because it is a healing Word. Because it is that balm of Gilead that heals the sin-sick souls of people drowning in materialism, in artifice, in populisms, in the flesh.
The devil wants to minimize our ministry. We will not have it. The people of God deserve too many things from us. The people of God deserve our time. The people of God deserve our attention. The people of God deserve priests and deacons who study the Word day and night. The people of God deserve men of prayer. The people of God deserve priests who are intelligent. The people of God deserve men whose lives are poured out at the altar of this world's challenges, who are willing to die rather than ever give up their tireless preaching of the message: For God so loved the world, he gave his Only Son and whoever believes in him will have eternal life. It must be. It will be.
This crisis for us is a wake-up call. It is a clarion call bounding off the broken walls of this world's edifices. Come and serve Christ. Come and serve the Creator of the Universe. Come and be a witness and know, know full well, that is all you are called to do.
When all of our good lay folks, when all of our religious, when all of our deacons, when all of our priests, when all of our bishops can be determined in this direction and this direction only, we will have life and have it in the full. Until we can get to this fullness, we have nothing but stories in the newspapers, sorry, pain, misery.
Last year, I had the opportunity to present some reflections on the priesthood, particularly focusing on my four priest-heroes from history. For my jubilee in May, Deacon Tim Pick created a musical celebration based on those talks. I do not feel the need this evening to revisit those heroes. They have an attractiveness of their own and followers of their own. They earned both. Instead, this evening, I would like to focus on a series of questions as I asked our then-deacons, now priests, at our celebration of promises in the Spring.
Do any of us here tonight expect that our lives will be easier because we believe in God, because we cast all of our hopes on Christ? They will not.
Do you expect that privilege will be offered to you because of the so-called sacrifices you are making, that in giving your life to the Church there is a showcase showdown awaiting you even in this present life? There is not.
Do you believe that there are easier days ahead than the hell of this seminary you are currently enduring? There are not.
Brothers and sisters, do not kid yourselves, we are not living in an age of comfort or a time of privilege; we are not conformed to the world of reward as we understand it in the popular culture around us.
We are living in a moment in history when the world must hear the Word of God proclaimed boldly and fearlessly, or the world must perish. We are living in a time when we in the Church must be bold and fearless or we shall perish, or worse, we shall render ourselves useless, archaic.
You have no idea how much I stand by those words tonight. Here is what the priest must be. He must be a man whose prayer has both strengthened him and worn him out, a man whose commitment to prayer is without compromise. Ultimately, that is what I care about, maybe all I care about. He must be a man who is willing to live anonymously, whose every accomplishment is not trumpeted, who is willing to sit in a dank confessional for hours because souls need to be reconciled to God and he is the instrument of that reconciliation.
He must be a man who is willing to prepare a homily every week, every day, in the knowledge of what his parish needs, his people need, because he is a doctor of souls. He is a man who never lets his personal opinions and tastes overwhelm the sensitivities of the people he has been called to serve. He is a man who desires above all things to be a herald of the Gospel so that everything else falters; no other attraction can have sway in light of this central reality.
This priest is always saying this: I want to draw nearer to God. I want to be an ambassador of love. I want to be a crutch for others. I want to be a challenging teacher of God's Word. I want to be a custodian of God's sacraments. I want to be an agent of trust. I want to stand with the lonely. I want to hold the hand of the widow. I want to care for those whom society throws away. That is all I want until my end.
Do you know something? We have many such priests in the Church but they are not known, nor should they be. We have many such priests in the Church. They do not necessarily have a massive social media interface. We have many such priests in the Church who labor day and night in little towns in Kentucky or Alabama or Arkansas or Korea, or Chile, or name any place. We have many such priests who serve without counting the cost and die with holes in their shoes, who suffer pain and misunderstanding, but who never lose their sense of humor or their smile. These are the kinds of priests the Church deserves and, by God, they will have them.
We do not need any more preening, narcissistic, lying cads infecting our Church. We do not need any more raging ideologues who put their own versions of orthodoxy above the cries of the needy and the poor. The integrity of the Church's teaching will take care of itself, if you attend to the cries of the poor. But if you do not attend to the cries of those who are suffering in our world, all of those cultivated syllables are nothing but dead notes, dry as dust, trailing in the wind of indifference. We do not need that.
We do not need any priests more concerned with the petty politics of the chancery than they are in the real dramas unfolding in the nursing homes, the hospitals, among the shut-ins, the sick and dying in their benefices. I want to write an examination of conscience for priests, to guide them. I want those priests to understand where the energy of their priesthood must be.
We do not need priests who cannot love, who are unwilling to be grasped and hugged and kissed by old ladies, who will not brave a brownie because they are "on a diet," whose workout supersedes the daily tasks of ministry and then who complain they just have no time to attend to those who need their attention. You never will if your workday extends from 11 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon with a two-hour, six-martini lunch thrown in.
We do not need priests unwilling to cry, unwilling to bleed, unwilling to be held, unwilling to fall in love, unwilling to be honest with the flock, unwilling to scream at injustice, unwilling to lay prostrate on the floor of their room in penance, unwilling to confess, unwilling to be crushed under the daily burden that belongs to every man, woman and child who is truly alive, unwilling to put aside for now, for a moment, the godforsaken banner of personal entitlement and comfort and put on the breastplate of righteousness and the mantle of a justice received on the knees.
I may have to live the rest of my life in the aftermath of this crisis, but I can tell you this. If I have to drop dead doing it, the priests that leave here, the deacons that go through our programs, the lay ministers that we prepare, are going to serve the Church well. They are going to give the Church the ministry it deserves; they are going to represent our Church without compromise, so help me God.