Friday, May 29, 2009

Only with the Eyes of a Loving Father

I am sorry for the length of this post but please bear with me as this has been something on my heart for a while.

One of the things I have been focusing on this year during my formation is living a faithful celibate life. It is one thing to say you can live the celibate life, another to promise it, but really different to practice it. Yet that is what the Catholic priest is called to do.

I am unsure if any of you have been reading about the priest scandal in Miami where a popular young priest, Fr. Cutie, was caught breaking his promise of celibacy with a divorced woman. Obviously, if this account says anything, it shows us that the life of a celibate is not easy. The priest is tempted just like any other man. And this does not go away with the sacrament of ordination.

So it becomes crucial that as seminarians and those discerning, we are formed in the celibate life. Part of this I believe is coming to understand all people as children of the Church, and therefore our children, as fathers in the Church. So whether someone is young or old, male or female, beautiful or not quite so beautiful, they are all our children and we love them all the same. And this love means we desire what is best for them.

There is a story of a saintly monk who was walking with another monk down a road and a prostitute, scantily clad, passed by in front of them. The latter monk turned away to avoid the near occasion of sin while the saintly monk looked on in love. The prostitute was so confused at the way he looked at her and realized finally, that he saw her true beauty as a child of God. She later turned from her former way of life and became a true follower of God (this is the best rendition of the story as I remember). And as my fundamental morals professor says, "A woman knows when a man is looking at her lustfully." She knows. So a priest, if he is truly to be father to all, must learn to see all people as his children. This comes with prayer and practice but it must come.

I remember a recent hospital visit of mine where I came into a room where there was a young Italian woman (22 years old I found out), who was very attractive. In fact, I was always jokingly told to stay away from the Italian women here less you end up staying in Italy and not as a priest. But nevertheless I came to this woman in a Roman collar as a Catholic seminarian to simply be the presence of Christ. And I was amazed how despite my being attracted to her, she was so happy and joyful too, I saw her as a child of God and ministered to her as such. I was able with the grace of God to be Christ and not just a 25 year old young man interested in talking to this attractive woman. This experience still marks my prayer at times realizing that God can accomplish what I cannot. He can give me the heart to be a celibate priest.

And celibacy is not something where you just buckle down with tight fists and say I am going to do it. This type of living the celibate life does not work. Rather, you have to enter into the spirit of the celibate life. I often wonder if Fr. Cutie had a priestly support group where he talked about his struggles over celibacy, if he had a regular spiritual director and confessor who gave him counsel and support, and I wonder if he had a regular group of friends and families who he could always call up to spend time with when he might feel alone. Because with a strong support and an active prayer life, priestly celibacy is not only possible, it is done everyday by the majority of priests around the world. These supports, the lives of others, help them to reinforce their knowledge that all people are their children whom they are called to love and serve. Celibacy is, yes, a gift from God and guess what, He is still giving this gift of celibacy.

The recent priest scandals like Fr. Cutie and even the bishop in Paraguay who has now admitted to three different relationships with women and three different children as a result destroys the Church from within. It destroys our witness, it destroys the faith of Catholics, and it brings great scandal upon the Church. I think sometimes what people fail to realize is that when a priest fails, it does not just effect him and maybe the other person or people involved, in effects all the faithful. Because the priest, as Fulton Sheen would say, is not his own. He belongs to the Church and he belongs to his people. People are hurt by scandal. Whether or not you say priests should marry, today's reality is that in the Latin Church, priests are celibate and breaking that promise is akin to cheating on your spouse. In some ways it may be even worse because it effects many more people.

This Cutie recently joined the Episcopal church and I suppose he will continue to act as some kind of minister. But has he not lost his priestly identity? Priests should cry out like Christ "I thirst" for souls. Yet the actions of this priest takes himself, this woman, and possibly others, directly out of the safe hands of the Church, putting souls at risk. These are the very souls his vocation is directed towards saving. And what do his actions really say? They say that if I cannot live the way I want to do and do what I want, then I will find a place where I can. He has turned the Gospel on its head. Jesus does not say just follow me, don't worry about the cross or denying any of the pleasures of your former life. He doesn't say well love is just accepting you just the way you are and you have no need to change. He is no longer the witness of Jesus Christ. The radicality of the Gospel, the one that young Catholics that I have met are so eager to say yes to, is the one that demands that they deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Jesus. Anything less than that is not worth anyone's time. Young people are tired of hypocrisy. They want something real. Laxity is not going to do it for them. It should not do it for us.

The opposite of this priest's actions is Msgr. Gruss. I have already mentioned his story to you. But I repeat it here for the sake of effect.

Before coming to the NAC, he served for a number of years in the chancery of his diocese and specifically worked with sexual abuse complaints and lawsuits. He would have to sit down with the victim, the victim's lawyer, and the diocese's own lawyer to try and reach settlements. He found himself tested in his love as a father by meeting with these people and hearing their stories. He was angered at the abuse at the hands of priests, in sorrow that people wanted money but not any help, and frustrated that attorneys were willing to bankrupt the diocese to get what they wanted.

He told us one story of a man who came into a mediation meeting with real anger in his eyes. He would not even make eye contact. Each person, lawyers, victim, and Msgr. Gruss had a chance to make some opening remarks. Msgr. Gruss mentioned his sorrow over the abuse that took place and his own desire to help in anyway. After two hours of mediation and such, the man looked Msgr. Gruss in the eye and said that before he came into that meeting, he had no desire to settle and was ready to go to court. But his words had changed everything. Later on he would call Msgr. Gruss and they would have coffee and continue to keep in touch. A couple weeks ago he received a letter that said "Dear Father Gruss". He had never called any priests father after his abuse. The letter continued saying if you wonder why I call you father, it's because in my eyes you earned it.

This is a priest that gets down in the trenches with people. He loves everyone, even those who may hate the Church for one reason or another. He is truly father. Do you see the chasm between these different models?

So as we continue to discern the priestly life, I think celibacy stands as a big question mark. The question is, can you do this with the grace of God? Has God given you this gift? Are you willing to make this sacrifice? Can you try to love everyone you meet? Because in the end, priests have great power in their hands. With it, they can do amazing good or horrible evil. As I have heard many times before, wherever a priest goes, he never goes alone. To heaven, he will bring many with him, and sadly if to hell, he will drag a whole lot of poor souls too.

My brothers and sisters, from my own 3 years of experience in the seminary system and the diocese, meeting over 300 seminarians and over 50 priests, I tell you, this life is beautiful, it is glorious, it is possible, and it takes a whole lot of courage. But the future of our Church does not lie in making things easier because of the age in which we live, but realizing we as our forefathers in faith are called in this age, to take up the cross and carry on the faith to the next generations.

Please pray for priests who struggle with celibacy, priests who have left the priesthood over celibacy, for seminarians being formed to be celibate priests, and for men discerning the call to priesthood and find themselves struggling over the issue of celibacy.