We judge one another. Often. Too often. Sometimes we try and justify this judgment by the "I would never do that" excuse. But we are all fallible — and at one time or another, we all fall. Father Damian Ference examines what we must do when one among us errs, and who we must turn to to pick up the pieces
Recently a Catholic news outlet reported a story that has left me unsettled. A Catholic priest – who from his picture doesn’t look too much older than me – made a call to 911 to ask for assistance. He was stuck in a pair of handcuffs at the rectory. When the police arrived on the scene they found the pastor not only in handcuffs, but dressed in an orange prison outfit and wearing a leather bondage mask. The police officers set the priest free, and the priest wisely met with his bishop and asked to take a leave of absence, which was granted. The incident happened in late November. In early January the story hit the press. It’s a sad story, indeed.
What do we do when a priest falls? What is the right response when a pastor goes astray? How do you wrap your mind and heart around a situation that involves a man who is supposed to be a witness of grace and strength but is publicly and embarrassingly exposed in his sin and weakness? Is there anything we can say? Is there anything we should say?
Obviously, since I’m writing this piece, I do think there is something to say. But let me start with this – since I don’t know anything more than what was stated in the police report, I will not comment or speculate on the situation itself. And even if I did have more information, these things ought to be worked out in confidence between the priest and his bishop, not in the public forum. What I do want to address, however, is how we might best respond to troubling news about a priest that has gone public.
A first reaction to a story like this is unfortunately often one of self-affirmation. We read an article about someone else’s terrible sin or embarrassing crime and say to ourselves, “At least I’m not that guy” or “Compared to him, I’m really doing well” or “My sins are small next to that.” It’s an easy trap to fall into. We compare ourselves to our brothers and sisters in their brokenness and weakness, and then take comfort in our own mediocrity. I’m convinced that this is same the phenomenon that drives the ratings of most reality television – show the extremes of dysfunction, vice, and disorder in order to make the audience believe that their lives aren’t so bad. It’s a classic case of lowering the bar.
Of course, Catholic Christianity works in the opposite direction. Rather than comparing ourselves to the most morally broken and weak examples of men and women of our day in order to take comfort in our own mediocrity, we Catholics look to the holy, innocent and eternal One who became broken and weak for our sake. We recognize our own brokenness and weakness, and then we admit that we need help. In other words, an authentic encounter with Jesus is always one that humbles us to see ourselves as we really are – broken men and women who are loved by God – sinners who need a Savior.
Moreover, the Church raises up men and women who have allowed Jesus to heal their brokenness in order to be authentic models of Christian living for us – the saints. The Communion of Saints is the antithesis of The Jersey Shore, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Buck Wild. The Communion of Saints set the bar high, and remind us that a virtuous life is possible. The Church wisely offers us a wide variety of holy men and woman who, by their own stories of conversion, are able to assist us in our conversions. Rather than settling for mediocrity, the saints challenge us to live bold and authentic lives of holiness, conforming ourselves to Jesus, the Doctor of Souls.
And speaking of the Doctor of Souls, recall that Jesus never distances himself from sin-sick people – he loves them, right where they are. Throughout his ministry Jesus was constantly approaching people in their sickness, hunger, thirst, blindness, deafness, isolation, embarrassment, and even in their death. Jesus meets people in their brokenness and sin and offers his healing love. An authentic encounter with the Doctor of Souls changes everything – the sick are made whole, the hungry are fed, the thirsty receive drink, the blind see, the deaf hear, the isolated find community, the embarrassed find compassion, and the dead come back to life. Jesus changes sinners into saints. He meets us where we are, but he loves us enough not to leave us there. He heals us. He saves us.
The beauty and the hope of Christianity is this: no one is too far gone for Jesus. The gospels offer story after story of men and women who were considered hopeless cases by their communities, like the leper, the woman at the well, the man possessed, and the woman caught in adultery. When I first read the story about the priest with the handcuffs, I think I put him in that category – “he’s a goner.” And maybe that’s why this story has haunted me so much. For a moment I thought that the priest’s brokenness was greater than Christ’s mercy.
In John’s gospel we hear about the woman who was caught in the very act of adultery. The detail of “the very act” is what makes a bad situation even worse. How embarrassing it must have been for her to be dragged out into the middle of the street, exposed, humiliated, surrounded by a mob, yet alone. But Saint John tells us that Jesus made sure she wasn’t alone. He knew she had sinned, and he didn’t ignore that reality, but he also knew that those who were surrounding her were also guilty, because everyone of them was marked with that thing we call original sin. He creatively reminded the mob that they were more like the woman than they would like to admit, that they were all sinners in need of God’s mercy. He forgave the woman and told her to sin no more.
It seems to me that if we can’t see ourselves in people like the woman caught in the very act of adultery or the priest who was caught in an embarrassing situation in his rectory, we’re missing something. Granted, perhaps our sins are not as serious or as public, but the truth is that all of us are broken. Yet we know what the Lord does with broken people – he offers them healing.
I don’t know what will become of that priest who called the police to his rectory that dark November night, but I do know this, he’s not too far gone for Jesus. And that’s good news for all of us. Saint John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, used to say, “Our sins are but a grain of sand in an ocean of God’s mercy.” In that case, let’s go swimming.
Father Damian Ference is a priest in the diocese of Cleveland. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at the Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.
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