Bishop Barron’s recently released Letter to a Suffering Church, is a call to stay and fight in the midst of great scandal and division within the Church today. He shares the startling statistic taken from a recent national poll that 37% of Catholics are considering leaving the Church because of the clergy sex abuse scandals. Many Catholics are asking why should they stay when the ship seems to be sinking?
An honest look at Church history
Barron’s letter provides a much needed overview of both Church history and the truth found in the Catholic Faith. He begins the letter by descending into the darkness and hell of the scandals. The letter is Dante-esque in its structure, beginning with a brief pilgrimage into the diabolical and evil aspects of the clergy sex abuse scandals, followed by a perusal of dark aspects of Church history, and ends on a hopeful note about what we can do in order to cooperate in God’s plan of renewal. He points out that this initial descent into the darkness and evil of the scandals and Church history is necessary ‘in order to inoculate’ against current and future scandals. He makes it quite plain that there has never been a golden age in the history of the Church.
It’s important for Catholics to come to a clear-eyed understanding of Church history, as well as who we are up against. The members of the Church—clergy, laity, and religious—are Fallen and prone to sin. Many choose evil over the grace Christ extends to us. Our age is not somehow worse, even though the scandal is horrific and has undermined the entire priesthood along with the Church’s evangelical mission. More than anything the scandal is clearly a work of the devil. Barron calls it “a diabolical masterpiece.”
He rightly points out that ‘the devil is not a mere symbol or literary device.’ He is a fallen angel who leads an army of fallen angels who seek our ruin. The devil is a rational supernatural being of a higher intellect than our own. Catholics need to abandon any impersonal view of the devil and come to understand that he is real and we are in a battle against him at all times. The principle target of the devil is the Catholic priesthood precisely because priests bring forth the Holy Eucharist through the power of the Holy Spirit. Without the priesthood, there would be no Sacraments.
Priests experience considerably more spiritual warfare than most of the laity, whether they are aware of it or not. St. Therese—who was a spiritual mother to priests—said: “Behind each priest, there is a demon fighting for his fall.” This reality should be apparent given the diabolical nature of the sins and crimes committed by some priests and bishops who chose to fall into temptation rather than keep their eyes fixed on Christ.
Holiness and the renewal of the priesthood
Bishop Barron’s call to arms focuses on the much needed spiritual renewal within the Church. Protocols and procedures are good and necessary, but they are not going to solve the problem entirely. The issues the Church faces are primarily spiritual in nature. If we solely focus on review boards and protocols then the spiritual festering will continue to take place because we have not sought to heal the infected wound itself. The scandal is the result of a profound spiritual crisis and the response must primarily be as such.
He focuses on two needs within the Church today: a call to universal holiness and the renewal of the priesthood. We are all called to holiness. It is not a path reserved for religious and the clergy. God wants each one of us to become the unique saint He has created us to be. This can only be accomplished through our own surrender to God and in cooperation with His grace working in our daily lives. We must seek to love Him above all else and to love our neighbor as Christ loves.
The renewal of the priesthood is of great importance. Many in the laity may be asking themselves how they can bring about this renewal since they are not called to the ministerial priesthood? Bishop Barron calls on all Catholic families to foster vocations and to be open to Christ calling a son to the priesthood. The vast majority of priestly vocations begin in devout Catholic homes.
A new movement within the Church
He also points out the need for new movements to rise up within the Church at this point in history. Stepping away from the text of Bishop Barron’s letter, in my opinion, one of those needed movements is a call to prayer, fasting, and penance for the priesthood. In fact, this movement is already occurring within the Church. Our Lady is quietly raising up an army of spiritual mothers and fathers within the Church today who pray and sacrifice for priests daily. It is a hidden vocation. The vast majority of priests will never even realize one of their flock—or more—has been given this call by God.
If we want to see a holier priesthood, then we must begin praying ardently for our priests. God works through prayer. This prayer may simply be remembering to pray for priests with other prayer intentions or at meal times each day, while for some, it is a secondary vocation that requires much more from the individual.
As a secondary vocation, it can encompasses more prayer, sacrifices, fasting, penance, and even a call to suffer in some way for the priesthood or for individual priests in union with Christ’s Passion. Redemptive suffering is transformative when it is done in a spirit of genuine charity. This is a specific call given by God and this call should be verified through a spiritual director or regular Confessor. Christ calls some men and women to deeper union with Him through a life of prayer and sacrifice for the priesthood in union with a primary vocation.
Praying for all priests
No matter how God calls us to pray for priests, the laity must make a concerted effort to pray daily for priests because the Enemy wants to see priests fall. Our willingness to battle for them in the spiritual life is an essential aspect of the communion that unites us to one another. We are meant to fight together in the spiritual life through the bonds of charity we share in Christ.
This is primarily a battle against powers and principalities, which means we must have recourse to spiritual weapons, especially frequent reception of the Sacraments. We must also rely on one another’s prayers for strength in the fight. In order for true Christian charity to flourish, we must be able to lean on one another through prayer. We don’t have to entirely understand what another person faces. All we need to do is pray.
Praying for priests is not only meant to be for those who fall into scandal. All priests need prayers. Even good priests who are trying to lead lives of holiness battle sin, weakness, temptations, spiritual warfare, and character flaws. At times they will hurt the flock entrusted to their care, and we must forgive them each time they fail us, while they must choose to forgive us when we fail and hurt them. Hurting one another is an aspect of living in communion with one another, but our love deepens the more we learn to forgive and to bear patiently with one another.
If you don’t already pray for your priest or for the priesthood, now is a good time to start. Pray for Christ, through the Immaculate Heart of His Mother, to call spiritual mothers and spiritual fathers to prayer and sacrifice for priests. A renewal of the priesthood will lead to a renewal within the Church because holier priests help the laity to seek holiness through their example. The holiness of priests is a reflection of the radiant love of Christ as they stand at the altar in persona Christi and as they live their priestly ministry of pastoral charity through which they offer themselves entirely for the sake of Christ’s flock.
Renewal within the priesthood will be born of prayer and through the earnest desire by priests to become the saints God is calling them to be. Priests are called in a special way to surrender themselves fully to Christ in trust, obedience, and charity in ordered to be configured more closely to the Eternal High Priest. Our prayers aid them in answering Christ’s call in their vocation.
In order to remain in the fight, all of us—priests, laity, and religious—must understand that the spiritual life is a life-long battle that will include many defeats. The scandals are proof of this on a grand scale, but our own spiritual lives also reveal this reality to us. Bishop Barron calls us to stay and fight. Pray that our priests may become saints. Pray that we all become saints.