This May 24th, I will celebrate my 25th anniversary as a priest. This past quarter century—just shy of half my life—has been joyful indeed, and I have never once regretted my decision to become a priest. The priesthood has taken me all over the world and deep into the hearts of people I’ve been privileged to serve. Some warned me long ago that I would be lonely as a priest, but I have never found this to be true. On the contrary, the priesthood has connected me to an incredible number of people in a wide variety of contexts. My life as a priest of Jesus Christ has been unconventional, creative, energizing, unpredictable, and exciting.
However I’d be far less than honest if I didn’t admit that a shadow has brooded over almost the whole of my twenty-five years of priesthood. I’m speaking, of course, of the clerical sex-abuse scandal. The first wave of the crisis hit in the early 1990’s when I was a doctoral student in Paris, just a handful of years after my ordination. Upon my return to this country, my deeply Catholic mother blithely informed me that when people asked what I did for a living, she responded “he’s a writer.” That’s when I knew that something had gone terribly awry. Suddenly, it was embarrassing to be seen publicly with the Roman collar; suddenly, I found myself worrying, as I watched the news every night, what the latest revelation would be.
After the accusation against Cardinal Bernardin proved to be phony, things calmed down a bit, but in 2002, the scandal re-erupted with even greater destructive force. It seemed as though devastating reports were emerging on a daily basis. Some priests—far too many—had engaged in the most vile and disgusting behavior, and some bishops—far too many—had looked the other way, or even, it seems, had countenanced and enabled the wickedness. Priests began to be seen as members of “a criminal class,” as Cardinal George of Chicago put it so memorably. Late night comedians commenced to use “the pedophile priest” as a standard comic type. Just when this second wave began to die down, a third wave, in 2010, swept through Europe, as the crimes of priests and bishops in Germany, Italy, Belgium, and especially Ireland came to public attention. And to be frank, the pitifully inadequate response to the European outbreak on the part of the official church just made matters worse.
The Bible has much to say about this time. When you have a moment, consider the story of Eli the priest and his evil sons in 1 Samuel or the account of the angel army protecting the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings. But I would like to draw special attention to a passage in the 8th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, which recounts a fierce persecution of the early church in the wake of the stoning of St. Stephen. With the exception of the Apostles themselves, the first Christians fled from the dangers in Jerusalem and moved into the surrounding areas. As a result, they successfully spread the word of Jesus far and wide. Philip, we hear, even preached to an Ethiopian eunuch who, presumably, brought the Christian faith back to his native country. The point is this: it was the persecution itself which, in God’s always strange and surprising providence, conduced to the great good of spreading the Gospel. Now please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not insinuating for a second that I think the church is being “persecuted” unfairly today. I’m simply observing that God has a way of bringing great good out of even great evil. During desert times, people of faith, therefore, should always look for green shoots.
I can testify that one of the principal motivations for my work in evangelization through the media was to put forth a vibrant vision of the church precisely in this time of crisis. I was (and am) convinced that the Catholic thing in all of its beauty and truth and texture and power should not be reduced to the sex abuse scandal—as bad as that is and as surely as it needs to be addressed. I realized that many of the great saints were called forth during periods of crisis and corruption: St. Benedict just after the collapse of Roman order; Sts. Francis and Dominic, when the clerical culture had become decadent; St. Ignatius of Loyola during the Protestant Reformation, etc. I’m no saint, but I’m trying to imitate the saints in responding to our present day difficulties, not by retreating in fear or crouching defensively behind ecclesiastical walls, but rather by recovering the simplicity and integrity of the Gospel message. I am quite sure that my work in radio, TV, and internet, as well as the production of my documentary film on Catholicism, would not have happened had it not been for the scandals.
And this is why I would like to say to seminarians and to young priests just starting out: this is your time and it’s a good time. I’m not engaging in wishful thinking here or whistling in the dark. I’m reminding them that this time of crisis—and it is the worst crisis in the history of the American church—should call forth their greatest creativity, energy, imagination, and evangelical enthusiasm. They should revel in the fact that they’ve been chosen by God, precisely at this moment, to be part of the solution.