In his “Letter to a Suffering Church”, Bishop Robert Barron discusses the need for a spiritual renewal within the Church in order to heal and move forward from the clergy sex abuse scandals. On page 87 Bishop Barron states: “But much more is needed than tightening of protocols, as crucial as that is. What is especially needed is a deep and abiding spiritual reform. And this ought to begin with the priesthood.”
The question that came to my mind upon re-reading this passage the other day is: What is it going to take for the men who Christ has called to be His priests, who agreed upon their ordination to be configured to Christ on the high altar of the Cross, to once more embrace the gift that God has given to them in the Sacrament of Holy Orders?
Love is hierarchical. God loves certain souls He creates more than others and He loves His priests more than most. There are a lot of good priests in the Church today who give themselves entirely over to their priestly ministry. Unfortunately, there are also quite a few bishops and priests who seem to have abandoned their calling or become too worldly.
Much of the frustration in the laity comes from decades of being subjected to bland, banal, and sentimental versions of Catholicism. This isn’t simply about liturgy wars, political issues, or morality. The People of God are hungry for authentic teaching and the radicality of the Gospel. Instead, many of us spent our childhoods making felt banners and singing songs, many of which were outright heretical. We joke about it, but the reality is that a good many of us feel cheated by the very men who were called by Christ to lead us.
The clergy sex abuse scandals are the ugliest part of an even deeper problem: a crisis of faith, hope, and charity. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI discusses the crisis of faith plaguing the priesthood and the world in his letter in response to the latest sex abuse scandals. Part of this lack of faith is that some bishops and priests have utterly lost their way or they have become so worldly in their understanding that they have given the faithful cheap counterfeits that can never satisfy. They have left the People of God largely ignorant of their Faith. Many Catholics are wholly unaware of the universal call to sanctity and what this means for their lives. Being a disciple of Christ requires every aspect of our lives.
Many Catholics do not understand that, yes, the path to holiness is deeply difficult, but the rewards are more than we could ever hope for in this life. It is through this path to holiness that we become radiant in the love of God and love of others. This ignorance is largely because so many leaders in the last few decades have convinced us that becoming a saint is too difficult even though the Church teaches that we are all called to holiness. This betrays an utter lack of faith in God, a hope that borders on despair, and an unwillingness to seek the deep abiding love of God.
It is in the suffering and sacrifices asked of us by God that we are conformed to Christ on the Cross, which is where our ultimate happiness lies. We cannot learn the depths of love without sacrifice. We cannot will another’s good, if we do not relinquish something we desire for the sake of the other. Love can never mature if it stays largely self-centered, closed in, and distant from others or if it remains at the level of feeling. Our love for God will never mature and deepen if He is not the very center of our lives.
Why are so many of our leaders not seeking holiness and calling us to holiness? The happiness we are made for can only be found in a life of sanctity, that is, a life completely dependent upon and given freely over to God in love. This necessarily means coming face-to-face with our own sinfulness, the temptations of the flesh, the world, and the devil through the very real spiritual warfare going on in our own lives and around us.
Conversion is a daily process that requires a radical dependence upon the grace that can only come from God. Through this surrender and willingness to die-to-self a little more each day, we are slowly transfigured into the radiant saint God has made each one of us to be, but the process doesn’t always feel good and it requires tremendous perseverance.
It is this lack of honesty about the true demands of holiness that leads me to believe that some of our leaders doubt that sanctity is worth the effort or that it’s more important to keep the demands from the faithful because it might upset them. It also demonstrates an acceptance of mediocrity that could place souls in peril.
Many Catholics have never even heard this call preached to them in a homily or taught to them in catechesis. It is understandable considering that many of us have been spoon-fed a form of moral therapeutic deism since infancy—a belief that we only have to be a good person, what ever this even means, and He loves us the way we are, even in our persistent sin—or worse, a form of sentimentalism that a priest-friend of mine calls “Hallmark spirituality”. This reduces the spiritual life to warm feelings and places no demands upon us. We are all saved through platitudes and as long as we haven’t killed anyone on a given day then we can feel good about ourselves and pat ourselves on the back.
This flies in the face of the reality of our sinfulness and our daily failings as Fallen human beings. We are made for more than sentimental clap-trap. We are made for communion with the Most Holy Trinity and deep intimacy with God born of His great love for us and our willingness to love Him in return. Love places high demands on us since we are called to love as Christ loves. The love we are called to emulate is shown to us on the Cross.
It is clear that some of our leaders are failing us in their sacred office and their call to teach, to govern, and to sanctify the Church. This failing is already apparent through the horrific revelations that continue to pour in worldwide of clergy sex abuse of children, men, and women, as well as the cover ups. It is clear from the recent Pew Study that came out reporting that a staggering 69% of Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence of the Holy Eucharist. This leaves many of us in the pews wondering what exactly it is going to take for our leaders to wake up? The sex abuse scandals have not seemed to rouse many of our leaders from their slumber and the numbers on the Real Presence were reported with a few outcries from certain bishops and then deafening silence.
The Holy Eucharist goes to the very heart of the priesthood. How can there not be more outrage and utter shame that the vast majority of Catholics are presenting themselves for Holy Communion without believing that they are receiving Our Lord’s body, blood, soul, and divinity that has been made present through the priest by the power of the Holy Spirit?
The men Christ calls to be alteri Christi are given the greatest possible gift of love in this life. He allows priests as sinful, weak, broken, tempted, and imperfect as all of them are, to bring forth His body, blood, soul, and divinity. Priests are given the power to bring souls who are dead in sin back to life in the Sacrament of Penance. What an incredible gift.
I’m a woman. That calling was always ontologically impossible for me. And yet, so many priests and bishops have forgotten their sacred office and this awe-inspiring gift that they have been given by God. A gift that is meant to lead them to boldly proclaim the Good News and radiate the love of Christ to the faithful and to the world so that all peoples down through the ages can be conformed to and enter into communion with the Most Holy Trinity. Some priests and bishops have not only forgotten it, they’ve betrayed Our Lord in the manner of Judas and collaborated with the devil.
How is spiritual renewal supposed to begin in the priesthood if so many of our leaders are failing to lead by example and call us to sanctity? Until the day comes when more of our leaders are ardently seeking holiness and proclaiming the Good News with zeal, we will have to rely on the priests and religious who are dedicated to holiness, as well as the laity who—by God’s grace—understand that the entire meaning of this life is to become a saint. For our part, we must pray and fast for our leaders. God is always at work sanctifying His Church, so we must hold fast to Him in faith, hope, and charity.