A Letter from a Friend
Holy Week, 2002
Dear Brother in Christ:
These have been very difficult days for all of us who care deeply about the Church and the priesthood. But it has been most painful of all for you who continue your dedicated service as priests day by day while trying to sort out your thoughts and feelings about the pedophilia scandals in Boston and elsewhere.
We write to express our admiration for you and our strong support. We were ordained with you. We lived with you in rectories, worked with you in parishes, prayed with you, rejoiced with you in times of success and grieved with you in times of loss. Many of you shared our struggles as we wrestled with the painful decision to leave the active ministry. In many cases the friendships which we formed in the seminary have continued despite the different paths we have followed. Today many of our families and us are nurtured spiritually by the insightful homilies you give and the prayerful liturgies over which you preside in the parishes we attend.
Thus, our first message to you is deep gratitude. You are very significant people. The work you do is crucial. You are not marginal or irrelevant or outdated. Sometimes critics describe priests as functionaries or “sacramental machines”. Nothing could be further from the truth. As people in the pews at the weddings, funerals, baptisms and reconciliations at which you preside, we can testify that these are indeed peak moments in our lives. These are experiences which bring us into the presence of a God who cares about us and strengthens us and those we love on the journey of life. You make a tremendous difference. We are profoundly touched by you when you put your heart into these rituals. We immediately differentiate between someone who is merely going through the motions and someone like yourself who leads us into a deeper awareness of God’s holy presence in these pivotal events.
In a similar way, we appreciate your visits to hospitals and nursing homes to comfort us and our parents and relatives. We appreciate your personal notes, your visits at a wake, your letters in the parish bulletin which focus not on some new rule or regulation from on high, but rather on the ways in which the Gospel intersects with the ongoing events, challenges and opportunities of our modern world. And we deeply appreciate the skillful ways by which you try to listen to the many voices of your people at the meetings which fill your schedule, trying to discern how and where the Holy Spirit is calling us. We appreciate your shepherding of a flock which can be polarized, contentious, demanding or critical.
None of us are perfect, whether we are the people in the pews, the priest at the altar, or the hierarchy in the Vatican or Pastoral Center. So often you are the ones who are caught in the middle of so many conflicting voices from the “Church Above” and the “Church Below”. We thank you for your courage, your magnanimity, your honesty and your skill in holding it all together.
The issue of pedophilia raises many complicated questions. There have been countless reports in newspapers, periodicals, radio and television programs as well as personal conversations. There have been instant analysis, quick fixes, draconian solutions, bureaucratic fumblings, as well as insightful commentaries. How do we as a Church help past victims and protect children and families now and in the future? How do we protect priests from false or unsubstantiated accusations? How do we deal with the destructive stereotypes about priests and the priesthood? How do we deal with the financial implications or the assaults on our credibility? How do we, as a community and as an institution, sort out the honest questions and less honest innuendoes about the relationship between celibacy and pedophilia? How do we, as priests or lay people, deal with our personal needs for intimacy, companionship and closeness? How do we continue to focus on the magnificent joy of being heralds of the Good News of the Gospel and not be immobilized by the bad news about pedophilia? How can we, each of us in our separate but complimentary ways, serve as midwives for the new and better Church which is waiting to be born out of this current crisis?
Many of us left the active ministry because we discovered that while we had a vocation to the priesthood which we loved, we did not have a vocation to celibacy. Many of you have remained because you were able to meet that challenge better than we. Some of you have experienced celibacy as a gift which frees you for ministry and is a profound sign of your dedication to God and to the people of God. Others of you experience celibacy as a painful burden personally and as something regretted and unappreciated by your people. Many of us and our people are confused and offended by a Church policy which welcomes married priests when they are former Protestant clergy but resists them when they are Catholics. And yet, despite all of this, you courageously and patiently persevere in your vocations. We salute you. We admire you. We thank you.
During the first millenium, the vocation to celibacy and the vocation to priesthood were two separate charisms. In the second millenium they remained separate in the East but were linked together in the West. Perhaps, with the shortage of priests and the increasing unavailability of the Eucharist in many areas, the Holy Spirit is nudging the Church back again in this third millenium. Who knows what the future will hold?
However, while we are waiting, you are the ones who are holding everything together, especially in the parishes where God’s people gather Sunday after Sunday. We are not being overly dramatic when we say that without you, as individuals and as a presbyterate, it would all fall apart. If the Church of the future will be led by lay people, you are the ones who will train them and help them through the transition. If the Church of the future is to be led by a new kind of priesthood, you are the ones who will bridge the past, present and future. These are extraordinary times. This is not what we expected when we were ordained.
We, your brothers, promise to do our best in our own ministry as lay people. We pledge to assist you and support you in whatever way we can. However, we realize that you are the key actors in this drama as it plays itself out. Like the apostles in that boat in the storm on the Sea of Galilee, you may sometimes feel that you are about to capsize. It may seem that the Lord is asleep in the stern of the boat. But your faith in the Paschal mystery which we celebrate this Holy Week consists in knowing in the deepest part of your being that you are not alone, that the storm will end, and you and we and all of us will survive.