It was a weekend in the last Lenten season and the strict lockdown for Covid-19 had just begun. I could not get my mind off of a friend of our religious community who was lying at home dying from a second massive stroke in a few months. The doctors said there was nothing more they could do for her. No matter how hard and fervently I prayed for her, I could not get my mind off her. I kept on experiencing the nudge of the Spirit to visit and anoint her but I resisted because of the strict lockdown.
I eventually could not ignore the nudge any more. Having taken the necessary precautions, I drove to her home and anointed her around noon on a Sunday. She passed away before midnight that same day. Her sister who was at her bedside said to me later, “It was as if she was waiting for that anointing because her restless mood changed to a peaceful resignation until she passed away peacefully.”
Why did I go to visit the sick and dying woman in a moment of lockdown when there was a red alert for the Covid-19 virus? Well, I reflect on what happened on the day that I was ordained a Catholic priest. On that day, the Holy Spirit imprinted on my soul the indelible character of Christ, the High Priest, the one who took the greatest risk to become one like us to deliver us from the bondage of sin and death and bring us into the Father’s kingdom as His children. By the consecration by this same Spirit, I too could say the words of St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20) Jesus speaks of this same Spirit’s freedom in these words: “The Spirit blows where it wills… So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Jn 3:8) This same Spirit moves us to forget our own safety and take risks for the eternal good of souls.
It is this same Spirit that nudged me to leave my native country and beautiful family in Nigeria and migrate to the United States. It is this same Spirit that moved me to abandon my lucrative job in the United States and embrace the vocation to the religious life and Catholic priesthood. It is this same Spirit that moved me to be open to become a missionary in the Philippines. It is this same Spirit that moves and sustains us in spreading the faith in aggressively secular cultures of our times. If there is any iota of maturity in my spiritual life at all, I owe it all to the promptings and grace of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
This is why the words of Pope Francis a few days ago about priests who chose to attend to the sacramental needs of the faithful at the height of Covid-19 was both painful and disappointing to me. He had this to say about those priests who tried to administer the sacraments despite the lockdown measures, “This priestly creativity has scored some ‘adolescent’ expressions against the [lockdown] measures of authorities who have an obligation to safeguard people’s health.”
I recall my deceased friend whom I had the privilege to anoint, the one who was patiently waiting for Jesus to walk with her through those dark and temptatious moments before death. This devout Catholic was waiting for one last encounter with Jesus Christ in the sacrament of holy anointing. This is the big picture from the Church’s sacramental system: she was waiting for the same Christ who was relentlessly nudging me to visit her no matter the risk involved.
If she was waiting for Jesus at that moment, what was the most supernaturally relevant thing for me to do? Was I to go and get a permit from the city’s mayor first to allow me visit and anoint her? Was I to visit her just to buy her grocery or do her laundry? What was I ordained for, if not to serve as a bridge to reconcile souls with Christ and to prepare them for their own particular judgement? I was ordained to bring Jesus in His sacraments of the Church, and that is exactly what I did, and I have no regrets or apologies for anybody.
After close to 1800 canons, the Code of Canon Law ends with this often ignored phrase, “The salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.” (Canon # 1752) Even in the Covid Era, the Church’s supreme law remains the salvation of souls, not the prevention of infectious diseases or the slavish acquiescing to secular government.
Besides, have we forgotten that we are in a secular climate now in which many people are practically atheists and often anti-Catholic? They thus lack that Christian faith that brings a joyful hope in the face of life’s hardships. Consequently, they have an excessive fear of any suffering and death. They have little or no concept of laying down one’s life for another. Many of them cannot see beyond the material and worldly aspects of human existence. Are these the secular leaders who should guide the Church in her pastoral response in moments of pandemics? To suggest we slavishly follow their directives is to gravely grieve the Spirit within us.
I must confess that my first response to such a provocative statement from the Pope was a purely natural one of counter-accusation. If we priests who risked our lives to provide the sacraments for those in need are being called adolescents, then what about the predator priests and their bishops who covered for them? What about the members of the hierarchy who covered the detestable crimes of their brother bishops all these years while continuing to promise accountability and transparency to their flock? What about the members of the hierarchy who promised us over two years ago a thorough investigation and report on the laicized Theodore McCarrick but have nothing to show us today?
What about the hierarchy in Germany who have defied the papacy and entered into a Synodal path that is proposing the most heretical teachings unabated? I think these clerics rightly deserve to be branded adolescents first before anyone else.
But my ultimate response cannot be purely human because God’s Spirit in us calls us to rise above that and show Christian maturity. The Spirit will not allow us to stoop to throwing invectives, name calling, and accusations because that is an adolescent attitude. Our response must be both charitable and supernatural.
When I look at Christ, His words speak to me at this time, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they malign those of His household?” (Mt 10:25) Jesus received many uncalled-for names from the religious authorities of His time and so must we His priest-disciples be ready to receive our names, even if it come from the Pope, our spiritual father, whom we look to for good example, encouragement, and support in our Christian life and ministry.
We Catholics have a great reverence for the Roman Pontiff and we freely adhere to his magisterial teaching with heart and mind. I must attest that this attitude of name calling of priests from Pope Francis is threatening the mutual relationship that should exist between him and the many priests around the world who are striving to live and teach the faith in these times. We have been branded as “rigid” and “intolerant” in the past, and now, “adolescent,” because our ways and priorities differ from his and he finds some of us objectionable. What ever happened to the mercy and compassion that this papacy touts? Don’t we have enough insults from our culture to deal with already? Isn’t the mockery of the devils and the shame of our past failures in the Church enough for us priests to deal with? Must we also be insulted by the person whom we see as the visible head of the Church and whom we pray for at each Eucharist?
At this time, barring any miracle of grace, I have resigned myself to receive unwarranted invectives from Pope Francis. I am not feeling the love at all but, what the heck, only the love of Jesus is indispensable for us. Christ’s love alone can console and strengthen us as we seek to act as matured Christians for His sake. I find my solace in this beatitude, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evils against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”(Mt 5:11-12) I want the reward that come from this beatitude so badly that I choose, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, to continue to offer the Pope the love and respect that his sacred office demands no matter if that love and respect is not reciprocated. That is not an adolescent attitude but true Christian maturity and for this, I remain grateful to the Holy Spirit for His inspirations and His bride, the Blessed Virgin Mary, for the grace to respond.
These words of St. Peter also assure me of the Spirit’s presence as we are insulted as Christ’s disciples, “Blessed are you when you are insulted for the sake of Christ, for then God’s Spirit in its glory has come to rest on you.”(1Pet 4:14) The Spirit has come to rest on us with power and He is moving us powerfully to bring souls to Jesus and face what comes, even the unwarranted insults of the Pope. We find our blessedness by following His inspirations faithfully no matter what.
By the grace of this Spirit of Jesus, I proudly bear my “adolescent” badge from Pope Francis for Christ’s sake. Christ bore more than that for me. I also beg Jesus to send us many more truly “adolescent” priests who will follow the inspirations of His Spirit for His sake and for salvation of souls today no matter the risks involved.
Glory to Jesus! Honor to Mary!
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