This week marks the fifteenth anniversary of the death of the priest who baptized and confirmed me, Monsignor Donald Neumann. We were so blessed to have a priest who was a true Father to his people. I remember him in two ways. When I think of him as Father I remember his huge presence. He was a big man with a big smile and a big personality. He had shiny red cheeks and a voice overflowing with laughter. Of course this is a child’s memory, he was also a very wise and good man who could be serious, but I think of him as joy and cheer personified. That is Father.
But when I remember him as priest I remember him entirely differently. At every mass we would kneel for the consecration as he raised the host ad orientem. I could not see his face, his voice became the voice of every priest. He seemed more a type than an individual. After looking up at the Eucharist I would bow my head, and peek up from under my fringe of bangs to read over and over the red embroidered words along the hem of his white alb:
You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
This means priest to me. Father Neumann was most living his vocation when he disappeared into it. At the end of the day, what mattered was not this priest but the priesthood. He was only one of the order of Melchizedek. The summit of his work was to stand in persona Christi.
Priests & Priesthood
These memories have returned to me often in the past few months. I am horrified and grieved to imagine a Father who is not a father but a predator. I mourn the damage done to the image of priesthood by those who profaned their sacred vocation in the most disgusting ways. And while I understand the argument, I worry when I hear so many say, “I don’t stay for priests, I stay for the Eucharist” or “I’m not a Catholic because of priests but because it is true”.
Well and good. We are Catholics because of Christ, yes. We wish to eat his flesh and drink his blood so that there may be life within us. I do not stay for a priest (except the High Priest Jesus Christ.) But I do stay, in some sense, because of priests. I do not stay for any one Pope, but I stay in some sense because of the Papacy.
In my generation, the age of mass media, the modern Popes loom very large in our lives, perhaps blurring the distinction between office and man. St. John Paul II was a massive figure in my youth, his reign still covering the majority of my life, his sainthood assumed almost before his death. Yet I can say certainly that I am Catholic for Jesus not for John Paul, Benedict, or Francis. I am not even Catholic for Peter. Still, the Petrine office and the apostolic succession are crucial aspects of the Catholic faith.
We must not let the scandal of any individual priest or bishop obscure the necessity of these roles in our church. Jesus, the One who calls me and saves me, is also the one who tells me: no one Pope matters, but the Papacy does. He tells me no one bishop matters but bishops do. The priesthood does.
The Acts of Episcopacy
A few weeks ago I quoted extensively from St. John Fisher’s writings on corruption in the priesthood and what a good priest ought to look like. This great bishop also wrote on the institution itself in his book A Defense Of The Catholic Priesthood Against Martin Luther. Walking through the Fathers and scripture he shows that the story of the Acts of the Apostles is the story of an episcopacy.
Paul’s letter to Timothy is the letter of a bishop to one of his anointed successors. He talks about the order of Melchizedek and his offering of bread and wine. He speaks of the laying on of hands and the different tasks of the ministerial priesthood.
We stay for the Eucharist, but it is through the unworthy hands of his priests that Jesus chooses to become present to us. We stay for the sacrament of reconciliation but, again, Christ gave the powers of binding and loosing to his priests. We stay because the faith is true, but the protection of this Truth belongs to the successors of the apostles. Where Peter is, there is the Church.
So in the midst of our anger we must guard against replacing clericalism with an adversarial relationship between clergy and laity. We cannot view ministerial priesthood as unnecessary or a thing we “put up with”, as if the Faith had been hijacked and held hostage. This is deeply opposed to our religion. The egregious failures of many shepherds do not change the fact that the flock needs shepherds.
Yet today, in frustration, anger, and hurt, this may seem a hard saying. How do we bear in mind and nourish the idea that, while we may say “I am not Catholic because of priests”, we must say “I need priests, because I am Catholic.”
First we recall that good priests, seminarians, and altar boys have been amongst those who have suffered the most at the hands of those monstrous wolves disguised as shepherds. We must grieve with them and support them in their own healing.
In fact, the sacred nature of the priesthood is itself blasphemed in these crimes, both in the debasement of those priests who perpetrated them, befouling their sacred office, and in assaults upon the vocations of many victims.
I found this twitter exchange, between author Leah Libresco and theologian C.C. Pecknold, to express this so well. Libresco writes: “All abuse is monstrous, but preying on seminarians is attacking the gifts as they are brought to the altar.” Pecknold replies: “To see the sacrilege is to see the whole.”
To see the sacrilege in it is to see the whole. https://t.co/UbaQ0792M3
— C. C. Pecknold (@ccpecknold) August 28, 2018
This helps frame the battle as — not between priest and people — but between evil and good. An evil priest is himself an enemy of the priesthood, even his own. Clergy and laity alike exercise our universal priesthood in rooting out all such.
We can also keep in mind the long history of the priesthood, which has had within it all sorts of men from its inception. There will always be St. Johns who stand at the foot of the cross and take Mary into their homes. There will always be Peters who rashly raise the sword and then cravenly deny Christ only to repent and become strong preachers of the word as well as martyrs. There are also Judases who hand Christ over to be defiled while feigning love for Him with a kiss, who never ask forgiveness but give in to despair and damnation.
Finally, we can ponder how like Our Lord it is to be willing to come to us even through wicked men. We were saved thus, when he allowed himself to be handed over to be crucified. As I look up at Him on the cross and in the Eucharist now I think that if he is still willing to remain with this tarnished Church and work through the hands of sinners then I can remain too, and receive Him and His grace through the structure He ordained.
Don’t Abandon Christ
My son asked me, what would we do if the church were so full of bad priests that we could not find a holy one anywhere? I told him we would cry out against them. We would demand their removal and repentance. We would never stop fighting to purify our Church, but as long as the sacraments they dispensed were valid we would continue to avail ourselves of them.
Far be it from us to abandon Christ and refuse Him when He is willing to bear such indignity. Far be it from us to forgo the powerful weapons of battle which are the sacraments. How fitting that we could take these weapons even from the hands of our enemies and so renew Christ’s church just as He overthrew death by passing through it.
Let us pray for the Church and for Her priests. Let us not just tolerate the priesthood but give thanks for it. Give thanks for our holy priests who live out their vocations beautifully and also give thanks for the institution itself through which we receive the sacraments and through which the truths of the faith are safeguarded.
Let us pray that all our priests, and we the faithful, may unite ourselves always more fully with Christ the High Priest. Amen.