Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Support your local priests!

Yesterday, Cardinal Justin Rigali placed twenty-one of the thirty-seven Philadelphia priests named by the recent grand jury report on administrative leave, pending further investigation. In this decision, he was assisted by Gina Maisto Smith, a former prosecutor who’s now a partner in the law firm Ballard Spahr, according to CNS.

Of the remaining sixteen, eight were cleared, three had already been suspended, two are members of religious orders (which puts canonical action against them out of +Rigali’s hands), and two are no longer active in ministry, their priesthoods impeded. (NB: Since +Rigali turned 75 last April, his resignation is already on the Pope’s desk, pending the nomination of the archbishop’s successor.) There seems to be one unaccounted for, so I’m wondering if there wasn’t an error in CNS reporter Marianne Medlin’s numbers.

Since the story is ongoing, it would be premature to say this en masse suspension “culminates” a month of recriminations and soul-searching for the Philly Archdiocese. Rather, this action—which a more imaginative era of journalism would have quickly dubbed the “Shrove Tuesday Massacre”—has the feeling of being a mere pit stop along a road traveled before, a road becoming distressingly familiar.

According to Rocco Palma, one unnamed bishop has complained, “What were they thinking? In this day and age, this stuff never stays hidden. And it shouldn’t.” Another anonymous priest told him, “I don’t know how your guys [who remain] get out of bed and do Ash Wednesday.”

Indeed. At first glance, this would appear to be a serious body-blow to the morale of the Philly presbytery. But then again, there must be those among that same presbytery who regard the suspension as a good and necessary thing, who are frustrated not because so many heads have been whacked off at one time but because it took so long for the chancery to pull its finger out.

The actual damage to the priesthood wasn’t a product of the scandals themselves; that is, it wasn’t done by the public revelation of chancery efforts to hide criminous priests. In many dioceses, the priests themselves have known for years about “lavender rectories”, and have grumbled to themselves at the disparity in treatment between priests involved in heterosexual affairs (summary discipline and suspension) and those involved in gay relationships (vincible, even willful, ignorance).

The failure to exercise due diligence fairly and openly, though, is only one symptom of a hierarchy that failed to maintain and nourish fraternal support for its priests for over thirty years. The hierarchy’s failure, to be fair, occurred at the same time that liturgical innovators were stealing functions from the sacramental priesthood, devaluing its role. Concurrent with this, Catholic religious education took a nosedive, leaving many laypeople without the background knowledge to understand the grounds for a celibate priesthood.

In sum, the priestly identity which sustains the vocation itself has been taking a beating since the late 1960s. It’s less a wonder that more priests don’t leave now than that they haven’t all left already. And, as Fr./Dr. Andrew M. Greeley has long maintained, if priests don’t feel good about their vocation, how can you expect them to recruit new seminarians with any vigor?

The funny thing is, these first steps at correcting the abuses of the past should help the “long black line” to close ranks. Nothing fosters solidarity like a common enemy, and predator priests are definitely enemies of the priesthood.

At this time, though, +Rigali’s successor needs to be someone who not only emphasizes orthodoxy but also someone who takes steps to get orthodox priests together into mutually-supporting groups. Facebook and priestly blogs have their function, but they’re not adequate substitutes for social gatherings and face-to-face contact.

But the faithful of Philadelphia should also be grateful that their priests have gotten out of bed to do Ash Wednesday. In a sense, this is what Ash Wednesday is all about: renewal and rededication through repentance. If there were any day the Philly presbytery should choose to begin again, it would be the first day of Lent.

The existence of wolves in the fold don’t disprove anything about Catholicism; rather, it shows just how desperately orthodox Catholicism needs to be authentically taught and authentically lived. And there are priests who do just that: they live their vocations to the best of their abilities, teaching the evangelium faithfully, praying their offices regularly, taking sick calls at all hours of the day and night, hearing emergency confessions in the strangest places, going into the most evil corners of civilization with no greater protection than their Roman collars and their rosaries.

The media focuses on the predators and their hierarchical enablers because that’s how they roll. Bad news sells; good news (especially THE “good news”) doesn’t. Newsies aren’t interested in the 90+% of priests who remain continent; they want to hear about the Father Cutiés of the world … at least, until they stop being Catholic priests, at which point their sexual shenanigans are no longer interesting.

But in times like these, when the presbytery comes under greater scrutiny from the secular world and under greater attack from the forces of evil, that the lay faithful need to show their support for priests more openly and more forcefully. This is not just to protect or defend them, but also to lift them up, to let them know that we appreciate and respect priests. They give a lot for us; they give up a lot for us. A “bless you and thank you” is a bare-minimum return.


  1. Thank you very much. This column was the grace that turned this day around for me.

    Fr. Tim Moyle

  2. My pleasure, Fr. Tim. I hope your parish is good to you and appreciates what you do for them. Gratia Dei tecum.

  3. The immediate acceptance by Rome of Cardinal Rigali's resignation is imperative. Oh how I would love to hear some American cardinals and archbishops publically rebuke Rigali. It would show everone that the Church means business.


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