Tag: crisis

Hope for the Future: Holding Clerics to a Higher Standard

We want to share with you the following reflections from a recent bulletin article by Fr. Steve Mattson, from Church of the Resurrection in Lansing, Michigan.

Reflections on the Ordination of a Bishop

Later today (Wednesday), a good priest friend of mine, Monsignor Jerry Vincke, will be ordained the 12th Bishop of Salina, Kansas. I am privileged to be here to celebrate with and to pray for him and his new diocese. Last evening, we celebrated Solemn Vespers in Sacred Heart Cathedral. It was beautiful and poignant, especially in light of the current crisis. The cathedral was filled with priests from Salina, from Lansing, and other priest friends near and far. There were bishops too, of course, from Kansas, Michigan, and other places around the country whom Bishop-elect Vincke has come to know during his years of priestly ministry. His family and some friends also made the journey and were with us last night.

Mixed Emotions

Largely because of the horrors of the past few weeks, at a dinner in Bishop-elect Vincke’s honor, I experienced a range of emotions. Sobered and angered by the actions and inactions of bishops near and far, I couldn’t help but wonder about each and every bishop whom I saw last night: what has he done or not done to protect children from priests and or other bishops? Has he been faithful as a shepherd of Christ’s flock? The same question could and should be asked of every priest, myself included. The recent weeks have caused me to be suspicious about everyone. This, despite the fact that I continue to trust the Lord for the good of His Church. Such is the state of the current crisis in the Church, when all priests and bishops are suspect. We have been here before, in terms of poor reputation, and the answer today, as always, is sanctity. Of course, the evil one loves this scandal. But God, I’m sure, is at work. I am prayerful and hopeful that the news, as devastating as it has been, will finally lead the bishops (or the Pope, if they will not act) to excise the duplicitous clerics from their ranks. We all need to be who we say we are, priests in the High Priest, committed always to doing only the Father’s Will, and leading lives guided by the Holy Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit!


In his recent letter to the Catholic faithful, the Holy Father pointed his finger at clericalism as one of the roots, if not the root, of the current ongoing sex-abuse crisis. There are obviously other roots, including the all-too-common “gay subcultures” in seminaries and in dioceses, but I think there is no doubt that clericalism is at the root of the crisis. Last evening, as I watched priests interacting with the bishops who were at the dinner, I couldn’t help recalling the ways seminarians would rub shoulders with bishops at seminary events, longing to impress, to be noticed. I wonder how many of the priests who are here have hopes of one day joining the rank of bishop. This seems to be a particular temptation of those men who study in Rome. I never studied in Rome, but it seems many who do so half-expect that they are “bishop material” by that very fact. It makes sense. They get to meet those who make such decisions. Those of us who never study in Rome and especially those who are in small dioceses know, whatever others might tell us, that we never will become a bishop. It’s a relief, actually, because we never feel the itch to impress or to be noticed.

Clericalism II

The other manifest way that clericalism is evident is that priests are often treated differently from the way lay men and women are treated. Priests’ (and bishops’) pastoral failures, human weaknesses, manifest sins, even their crimes(!), have been tolerated and/or covered over. They have been judged with greater leniency rather than, as scripture says, with greater strictness (James 3:1). I suspect it’s been in the name of avoiding scandal, but “prudential” decisions of this sort have made the crisis worse.  Whether a priest’s misuse of office is marked by failure to teach the truths of the Church (which is bad enough), or (much worse) the psychological or sexual abuse of staff or parishioners, or some other scandalous behavior, too many priests have been given countless “second chances.” Why? The answer is bound up with clericalism, which screams loudly that “we’re different.” Though priests and bishops are set apart, we are not above reproach, nor ought our sins be tolerated or ignored. (This is not to say that all sinners should be eliminated from the priesthood, just those who have abused their office in any way. We are, in fact, all sinners. But not sinners with the same sins. It won’t do, of course, to dismiss this call for a higher standard by saying “we’re all sinners, who am I to judge?” Bishops must judge, for the Lord will one day judge them for how they tended the flock entrusted to their care.)

How Does This Happen?

You might ask, why would any bishop tolerate this sort of behavior, even though it often demoralizes the lay faithful and other priests? I offer a few possibilities. Some bishops seem to desire to be known as “priests’ bishops.” They want to be seen as their priests’ defenders, which leads them to tolerate too much. And, in fact, bishops are canonically required to care for their priests. (It should go without saying that caring for priests cannot trump caring for the “sheep” those priests are called to feed and protect!) Others may make decisions primarily to protect the reputation of the Church, to keep the dirty secrets from getting out. It is fear-based, and clearly a failing project. Other bishops may not discipline a priest out of fear of conflict with the priest and/or with the priest’s fans. (All priests have fans.) Many others, I suspect, are just trying to keep things “running.” They have to deal with a very real shortage of priests. If they discipline a priest, the priest might leave, and others might protest his being disciplined and they might threaten to leave as well. Then what would happen? It’s, of course, a very good question, and from where I sit, it is a question that I hope we will have to answer. That’s because I am convinced that the faithful in this moment of crisis are fed up. They are coming to the point where they are demanding (again!) fidelity. It need not be said that Christ has always demanded fidelity, but the prospect of the final judgment does not seem to have elicited sufficient Fear of the Lord among some bishops and priests nor the consequent “beginning of wisdom” scripture promises will follow. As your pastor, I am convinced that the only way out of this crisis is for bishops to demand of themselves and their priests absolute fidelity to Christ, and to countenance no duplicity in their ranks. Clerics must be held to a higher, not a lower, standard. Please hold me to this standard. And pray for me.

Hope for the Future

I think if a bishop commits to fidelity and demands it of his priests, young men will respond to the call to help fill the holes in the priesthood in that diocese. The families and those men will know that the battle must be joined, and that those relatively few who remain are worth fighting alongside, because they are faithful and serve the cause of Christ and the salvation of souls. May all bishops embrace, for themselves and their priests, fidelity to Christ as the litmus test for ministry. This is a moment of grace, a “severe mercy.” May the bishops pursue God’s path forward, whatever the consequences, entrusting their flock to the Good Shepherd. Come, Holy Spirit! I am grateful to say that I am utterly confident that Bishop Vincke will be that sort of bishop. Please keep him and the Diocese of Salina in your prayers.

With prayers and fasting for the purification of the Church,

Fr. Steve Mattson

A Severe Mercy: Our Time of Visitation

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Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I’m writing to share with you a few thoughts as a follow up to Ralph Martin’s excellent and courageous letter Dear Troubled Catholics, regarding the current crisis in the Church.

Ralph wrote that this current crisis, precipitated by the revelation of Cardinal McCarrick’s moral failures and the failure of leadership in the Church to prevent his rise to prominence, could be a “tipping point” for the Church. He sees in it a possibility for genuine repentance and change for the Church.

I perceive in this crisis—both here in the United States and around the world—an opportunity, given us by our Lord. I believe we are experiencing the discipline of the Lord; it is a severe mercy, a judgment upon the Church that is meant to lead to deep, thorough repentance, healing, and reformation. It’s an opportunity that demands a response from all of us, beginning with the leadership of the Church. If we cooperate with Jesus, with obedient and repentant hearts and total honesty and transparency in the fear of the Lord, Jesus will lead us out of this terrible crisis. If we fail to respond to this time of purification, I believe the Church in America will be severely weakened, the decline we’re witnessing in the Church will escalate, and the flock will scatter.

While on mission in Uganda in 2016, the Lord spoke to me about what we are now living through. Our team from Renewal Ministries was leading a week-long retreat for about 350 priests and bishops from five east-African countries. One morning during daily Mass, right after Communion, I sensed the Lord telling me to get out my journal and to write down the following: “The days ahead will be marked by growing chaos and confusion. I am coming to purify my Church. I am about to bring down the idols that hold my people in bondage; I will expose the hypocrisy of the mighty and the strong, both in the Church and in the world.”

Watching the mighty fall in the past few years—Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, Al Franken, and now former Cardinal McCarrick (now Archbishop McCarrick) and other cardinals and bishops—has been sobering. These revelations are meant to lead all of us to repentance and to instill in us a healthy fear of the Lord. The Captain of the Armies of Heaven, Jesus, the Lord, is purifying His Church and exposing the emptiness and hypocrisy of the world. Scripture tells us that the Lord disciplines those whom He loves.

It’s important for us to understand Jesus’ intent. He doesn’t come to humiliate or destroy; He comes to save. St. Peter tells us that judgment begins with the house of God. Jesus is purifying His Church for the sake of the salvation of the world. The Church is the hope of the world, the sacrament of salvation, the light of the world. When the Church is trapped in sin, her light goes dim and her salt goes flat.

Today, the Church is infected with deep strongholds of sin that are crippling her life and witness. In the period leading up to the Dallas Charter in 2002, Jesus began to expose the horrific corruption of homosexual sins of pedophilia and ephebophilia (sexual attraction to pubescent boys) among the clergy, and the cover up by some of the hierarchy of these crimes. Eighty-one percent of the victims were adolescent males.

Steps were taken at the time to respond to the crisis with the Dallas Charter and the “zero tolerance” policy instituted throughout the Church in the United States. The Charter was a start, but lacked complete honesty and transparency. The efforts by the bishops left the dishonest impression that the primary problem the Church was facing in this crisis was pedophilia and not ephebophilia. This allowed them to deflect attention from the fact that active homosexuality among the clergy was the primary source of the problem.

What’s clear from the revelations about Archbishop McCarrick is that the repentance in 2002 did not go deep enough. There was a cover up, a strategic decision to hide the bigger problem of active homosexuality among the clergy, including some of the hierarchy.

What we are seeing is the means to which Jesus will go to purify His Church. The wound of sin in this area is deeper than most of our brothers in the hierarchy are willing to acknowledge or to confront. But the Lord will not relent.

In the letter to the Church in Ephesus in the Book of Revelation, Jesus tells the leaders of the Church the following:

“I have this against you, that you abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rv 2:4-5).

Jesus warned the leaders of the Church that even though they had done many things right, they had lost their first love. He then gave them a three-step process to make things right: remember, repent, and act. They were to remember the place from which they had fallen, to repent, and then do the works they had done at first. In this crisis, this is a good guide for all of us, especially our leaders.

Jesus is calling our leaders to remember the purity and holiness to which they have been called, and to make a thorough examination of their lives before Him. They must then act decisively, with zeal and determination, to bring to light all that is hidden in darkness. They must remember that this severe mercy is an act of love that calls for total obedience to the Lord, knowing, “those whom I love I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent” (Rv 3:19).

Just as in Ephesus, so it will be with the Church in America, if we don’t respond wholeheartedly, with complete honesty. If the Church refuses to expose the truth, and in the fear of the Lord to cooperate with Him in this hour of purification, He will “come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”

That is what I believe is at stake at this time for the Church in America. To “remove your lampstand” means, in the words of Victorinus of Petovium, to “disperse the congregation.”[i] The Church in many parts of the United States is already in decline. If we as a Church do not cooperate fully with the Lord at this time of visitation, the decline will escalate dramatically.

Cooperation means that policies, good public relations, the advice of lawyers, and the like are not enough. Just looking to the future is not enough. Positive platitudes are not enough. What is needed is action to root out systemic habit patterns of sin, to expose strongholds of sin to the full light of day.

This kind of stronghold of sin will not go away. It will keep producing like a deadly virus in the body or like a festering wound that has only been tended to on the surface. The infection will keep spreading. To date, the words of Jeremiah are a fitting description of the response of the bishops to this serious problem: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly” (Jer 6:14).

The bishops can no longer continue to treat this wound carelessly; it has to be cut out, to the root. That means having to confront the fear that holds them back. To address this problem head on and to take appropriate action will likely cause serious disruption in the Church for a time, and serious pushback from forces in and outside the Church. There is no easy way forward; it will require great courage.

There is a way out of this: follow Jesus, obey Him. He will give all of us what we need. It’s time to awaken the graces of our confirmation, fortitude that is “prepared to suffer injury and, if need be, death for the truth and for the realization of justice.”[ii] And a healthy fear of the Lord to overcome the fear of men that so often leads to inaction and weak, foolish responses in the face of serious sin. “The man who fears the Lord will not be fainthearted” (Sir 34:14).

We have nothing to fear if we put all our hope in Him. It’s not our job to secure all the potential consequences that may transpire from a radical response to Jesus at this time. Our job is to obey and to entrust everything to His mercy and love, and to the protection and intercession of Our Lady.

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). Even in the greatest darkness, we can walk in the Light.

[i] Peter Williamson, Revelation: Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 62.

[ii] Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 11.