One of the good things coming out of the evil that is the current sex abuse crisis in the Church is the call for a closer relationship between the laity and the clergy. The days of placing priests on pedestals passed with the first sex abuses crisis 17 years ago. This is a good thing because it allows us to get to work in cooperating with God’s plan for cleansing and renewing His Bride, the Church. Artificial barriers that have been put in place in the past, especially due clericalism, are breaking down as they must in order for cleansing and renewal to take place.
The priesthood is due our reverence for its sacred role and hierarchical function within the Church. Priests serve as our spiritual fathers who act in persona Christi—in the person of Christ—during the Mass and in the Sacraments. They also serve as alter Christus—another Christ—to us and the world. It is because of this sacred role that they are due our respect and a properly ordered reverence. There is a considerable difference at the level of being between a priest and a member of the laity, but that does not preclude erroneous forms of separation between the two vocations.
While they should be men of considerable holiness, they are Fallen men, and their progress in the spiritual life will vary, just as it does within the laity and in the lives of religious. Most priests are not yet saints and so we must also view them in a more practical and merciful light. They afford us the same mercy and compassion as they shepherd us through our spiritual lives both through the Sacraments and in our daily dealings with one another.
All of us—laity and priests—need to find a more balanced understanding of our connection with one another in the communion we share, especially in this time of great scandal.
The laity has been demanding a greater role in response to the rampant sex abuse coming to light in various parts of the world. This is especially true in the United States. The laity wants more access to the hierarchy in order to bring their talents and gifts into the service of the Church. As long as the intention of the laity is to support and encourage the hierarchical Church, this is a great good, in my opinion. Why not embrace the different gifts that God has bestowed upon the members of the Church in order to purge and renew Holy Mother Church? Issues arise, however, when the laity oversteps its function and seeks power that God has not given to us.
We in the laity must remember that our role will always remain a much needed advisory role. God has given authority to the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. That means our priests who share in Holy Orders with their bishop have the ultimate say in our parishes and the bishop has ultimate say in a diocese. We cannot demand the ability to make decisions that are not ours to make, no matter how great the crisis. We should, however, offer counsel and guidance to our priests as we are able and as the gifts God has given to us allow.
Prayer comes first
Before we consider taking up an issue with our parish priest, especially as it pertains to the current crisis, we must make sure that we are steeped in prayer. We need to make sure that any counsel we provide is coming from the Holy Spirit and not ourselves.
It’s very easy to be overcome with anger at a time like this, so we need quiet time in prayer discerning God’s will for us in these matters. There will be genuine times when God will call us to speak to our priests and encourage them to act, but we must do so in accordance with God’s desires and in His time. We will often act imprudently and out of anger without first taking our concerns to prayer.
The danger of taking such heated issues up with our priests without prayer is that we will attack, rather than encourage and help them in making decisions in response to the ever breaking news about the scandals. Prudence is the queen of the virtues and it is a virtue often taught to us in prayer and in seeking counsel from holy friends and guides.
Lambasting our priests after Sunday Mass accomplishes very little. It only serves to inflame and spread division in an already greatly divided Church. The Accuser is working over-time right now trying to divide us as much as possible and that includes the priesthood from the laity. In fact, that is a major goal for the Enemy.
There are many people who are frustrated with their parish priests for largely ignoring the scandals. There are people leaving the Church in our own parishes and priests turning a blind eye to the grave seriousness of these scandals is harmful. This is a time when shepherding as Christ does is essential for the good of His flock. It is not an easy task by any means. This means that our prayer must also focus on our priests and the strength and fortitude they need in order to respond well. Before we approach them with our thoughts about the situation, we also must have prayed earnestly for our priest.
Docility and humility are required
The laity’s role is not one of authority within the Church. Christ in His designs left that to the priesthood. That means, quite frankly, that any priest can ignore our guidance at any time and for any reason. Whether or not that is prudent or grounded in charity on their part is a different issue. What it means for us is that we can provide our feedback, thoughts, and feelings about the situation and even offer ideas for responding, but we need to do so from a place of humility. That means we go into it accepting that our priest may ignore everything we have to say. We cannot force anyone to do what we want them to do, and in the case of the priesthood, we do not have the right to force them to do so either.
It’s helpful to remember that approaching any of our priests in a spirit of docility and humility will often lead to a more positive outcome than approaching them in attack mode. This is human nature. When were are angry about something, we are less likely to approach another person with the respect and dignity they deserve as someone made in imago Dei. All of us make this mistake from time-to-time in our daily lives.
Righteous anger is completely justified in times such as these, however, it can still become unruly and we can inadvertently take our frustrations out on our priests. Allowing that passion to die down to a manageable level will also encourage greater discussions and solutions at the parish level. If other parishes are anything like my own, priests are very open to helpful suggestions in responding to this crisis. They too want to see the light of truth penetrate the Church and for healing and renewal to begin.
Everything must be ordered to charity
Above all, if we seek to truly bring renewal and reform within the Church—largely done at the parish level for most of us—then we must order our desires to both divine and fraternal charity. We all have a great love for Holy Mother Church and seeing her in this state causes deep pain and great heartache for all of us, both in the laity and in the clergy. It is difficult in the endless confusion of the scandals at present to know who to trust and who to believe. This is causing a lot of pain for people. We need to work to view one another in the light of charity.
When we approach our priests to offer encouragement and guidance, the spirit of charity should be our guide. This is fostered through prayer, humility, and by focusing on how they are both our spiritual fathers and our brothers in Christ. We must desire to see them as Christ sees them and love them as Christ loves them. This may be easier said than done in certain circumstances, but many of the great saints talk about how we must bear one another’s burdens, and that includes dealing sometimes with difficult priests. Think about how many difficult parishioners they deal with, including you and me at times. By relying on Christ and His desires for our parish communities, we will be able to build up the communion we share and begin moving forward together.
Priests need encouragement and guidance from the laity. We need much deeper relationships between priests and laity in order to weather such an intense storm together. Any remaining artificial barriers that remain out of fear or clericalism need to come down. Let’s make sure we approach these relationships in a true spirit of charity, humility, and prayer, so that we can cooperate with God’s will in our parishes. The renewal of the Church is not going to largely begin in Rome. It is going to begin in our parish communities. Now is the time for us to truly enter into communion with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, both laity and clergy. The only way forward is together.