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.
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.
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