As a Catholic parish priest, people generally respond to me in two, disparate ways.
Recently, I went to a family’s home in rural Pennsylvania and had a great meal. I shot skeet with them, toured and blessed their farmland, and prayed the rosary in tranquility. The large family was warm and supportive.
Another time, I approached and greeted a different family in my town, in my priest collar, and a young woman in the group began screaming at me and talking about the devil. Her mother said that she was once abused by a priest years ago. I tried to offer some help and solace; the mother was gracious, and we all moved on.
Wisdom — to borrow (and bend) a statement by F. Scott Fitzgerald — “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
It’s a truth that allows me, a parish priest, to persevere — and function — amid dark ecclesiastical scandals. I understand our church’s troubled history and its divine mission, and I hold these two realities in ongoing tension.
The week the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, chronicling widespread sexual abuse of children over decades by Catholic priests in that state, was released, I broke a fast and had dinner with a priest friend. I noticed a homeless man near our table. I learned my priest friend was treating him to a meal. Further, he paid for his hotel room and was taking him the next day to a far-away town for treatment.
I knew my priest friend was burdened by the ongoing dark news of clerical abuse, yes, but also not abandoning his functions.
Priests these days are trying to function as vessels of God, while also being “marked men.” Though we can never know the incredible horror of abuse by a predator priest, we can reach out and listen to the dark night of that victim.
As we were encouraged by our bishop weeks ago, I, along with many priests, spoke about the church’s crisis from the pulpit and apologized. I spoke of my shame at our “sins of commission and omission” and called for our church to reform and purify.
Now, as more states announce plans to, like Pennsylvania, investigate child sexual abuse in Catholic dioceses — what one Roman bishop referred to as another American 9 /11 catastrophe — Pope Francis is calling bishops from around the world to a special meeting in Rome to be held in February.
In this dark period indicting American clergy and the Vatican itself, many have decried the prideful careerism and protective cronyism that contributed to the victims’ suffering. Another negative factor is institutionalism, whereby some in leadership have let circles of negative influence and aberrant sexuality fester.
Today, as in corrupt times past (think of the Borgia popes in the 1500s, the subject of a TV series from 2011 to 2018), we need modern prophets to purify the church and clergy. Some of these heroes were disparaged and even persecuted, like John of the Cross in sixteenth-century Spain, who was thrown into jail by his own religious order. And some may be undercut again. But they nevertheless must speak out.
We priests and Catholic officials must work sincerely, radically, to regain trust. Daily we witness anger, vitriol and darkness — and we need to. Many priests have held “listening sessions” to allow people to voice their opinions and desire for real change. Meanwhile, we priests must still function — take out the trash, say a heartfelt Mass and work for justice. As Pope Paul VI once said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
I’m reminded of Pope John Paul II, who lived with vivid contradictions. In 1999, as the third millennium approached, he apologized for past Catholic errors regarding the “Galileo affair,” egregious sins against Reformation movements, and also for Holocaust era omissions — all while respecting our vibrant religious heritage. While the Catholic Church has birthed beauty like medieval Gregorian chant and modernism’s Big Bang theory and genetics, we have also at times quelled some people’s cultures and very lives.
I accept that people today may see us negatively. I also know I am called to both atone for past sins and to cultivate beauty and harmony in the present, however humbly. More contradictions. I’m reminded that in the worst of times some of the greatest saints and prophets matured.
Rev. John J. Lombardi is Pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in Hancock, and author of the new book, “ABC’s: A Basic Christian’s Guide to Living Harmoniously in a Stressful World” (Xlibris). In November, phe plans to participate in “Fifty Miles in Faith: A Walk in Prayer and Penance for the Priesthood.”