It’s been a devastating year for the Church. The never-ending reports of abuse scandals reaching into the highest levels of the hierarchy have been agonizing. Many Catholics have either considered (or are considering) leaving the fold. There is a lot of frustration.
After months of dealing with each new scandal, the world was horrified to see Notre-Dame de Paris on fire on the Monday of Holy Week. The raging inferno lit up the sky and broke the hearts of Catholics, the French people, and all people of good will around the world.
As the fire burned into the night, concerns mounted about the damage done and the state of the holy relics and the Blessed Sacrament inside. How much was saved? Would it all collapse into ruin?
People gathered near the site in Paris to pray the Rosary and sing hymns. Christians around the world prayed for the cathedral to be spared and for the firefighters to be kept safe while they battled the blaze. At the beginning of Holy Week, the world gathered together in prayer.
In His great mercy, Our Lord heard our prayers. The Blessed Sacrament, holy relics, stained glass, and most of the interior remained intact. There is no doubt the damage is extensive, but the most important treasures of the cathedral were kept safe by Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier, a Catholic priest, aided by fire crews.
In a time when the priesthood is under attack, from within and without, it was a Catholic priest who demonstrated to the world what the majority of Catholic priests do each day of their lives in small ways. Fr. Fournier went into a burning building in order to protect the Blessed Sacrament and to recover priceless and irreplaceable holy relics from Our Lord’s Passion. It was a Catholic priest who made front page news this week for his bravery and sacrifice, not because of a new scandal.
After a dreadful year for priests, Christ chose to exalt His faithful priests through the brave heroism of Fr. Fournier. A reminder during Holy Week how vital the priesthood is for the Church and the world. These are the very men who each day give themselves over to Christ as a sacrifice of love for us.
With the onslaught of social media commentary and news reports, it’s easy to forget to see the priesthood as it really is and to see the men who give themselves fully over to their priestly vocation. We often focus on those who break their vows rather than the countless men who daily struggle to live in true charity, chastity, and obedience.
I didn’t find Fr. Fournier’s heroism surprising. I see that same heroism in the priests I know who are laying down their lives each and every day for us. What they do may not be as dramatic — and his courage should be lauded. However, to answer the call to Holy Orders is to choose the path to holiness that requires a total donation of self in the manner of spiritual paternity. It is to become a victim-priest united to the Eternal Victim-Priest.
A Vocation to Love
We in the laity give our lives over to our families in self-emptying love. In doing so, we learn to love others. The priesthood calls priests to a more expansive and inclusive form of love by virtue of spiritual fatherhood in the image of Christ. In so doing, their souls are opened up in charity to the whole Church and the world. Their lives are a complete donation to Christ and the Church, which means to us. They freely give up the gifts of married life in order to love Christ’s people as their spiritual sons and daughters.
This is a difficult and high calling, which is why Christ calls certain men to the priestly life. Like those of us in the laity, it is through their vocation that they become conformed to Christ in order to become the saints they are created to be. This means that they must contend with the flesh, the devil, and the world like the rest of us.
The majority of priests seek to wage the intense spiritual battle that is required of them in the process. There are also many who will fall and fail, even to the point of committing egregious sins against the Church and Christ’s People. This reality, coupled with the scandals, should not cause us to default to a position of cynicism. We are a people of hope and that includes a hope that the Holy Spirit will continue to renew the priesthood.
Instead of cynicism, we should keep in mind these words to his priests from Bishop Barry Knestout, who heads the diocese I reside in, the Diocese of Richmond:
“Many are skeptical of the ability of anyone, let alone average men, to live lives of holiness, devotion and chastity, in total gift to God’s people. They might not see us as very special or remarkable, in fact they may be quick to point out our flaws and our weakness and reject the possibility that we could also be instruments of grace. Yet, we are instruments of grace, not by any action of our own. We did not earn this role, and none of us can claim to even deserve it, but we receive it as a grace, through a call, and through the Church’s acceptance of that call, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, in ordination, in consecration with Holy Oil.”
All priests will fail to live up to their call at one time or another. All of us fail constantly on the path to holiness. This does not change the fact that as long as they choose to struggle and grow in holiness by God’s grace through their priestly vocation, they will be conduits of God’s grace and examples of a life of sanctity. The more they open themselves up to the Divine Love the more deeply they will be able to lead us into the mystery and love of God through the Sacraments, but the Sacraments themselves are not dependent upon the holiness of the priest.
The vast majority of priests are not going to be called to run into a fire to save the Blessed Sacrament and holy relics from Our Lord’s Passion while the world watches. Instead, they are quietly working out their salvation in “fear and trembling” while serving Christ and His Church. They are learning to give their lives completely over to Christ and His people in love. This is a task they will fail at many times in small and large ways. They will make mistakes and their sins will hurt the people entrusted to them by God. Even good priests will hurt those entrusted to them at times by their own struggles or failings. We will also hurt and fail them. This is why forgiveness is essential for all of us.
This in no way disregards the evils and horrors that have been committed by some priests, bishops, and cardinals. It is obvious that the priesthood is in need of purgation and renewal. The fact of the matter is, however, that we cannot aid in that renewal if we view the priesthood with derision or apathy as a whole.
Given the year the Church has been through, it is a great mercy and sign of Christ’s love for His faithful that one of His priests is front page news for heroically protecting the Blessed Sacrament and Crown of Thorns during Holy Week. This is especially as we celebrate the institution of the Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders on this Holy Thursday.