By Msgr. Owen F. Campion
The clergy sex abuse scandal came back. It is no wonder. For weeks, every major newspaper and every broadcast or telecast news report was filled with stories of priests who sexually abused youth in Europe, and of how — at least in the opinion of many — bishops, from Pope Benedict XVI on down, failed to do enough to stop the problem.
I have a great respect for journalism, and precisely for news writing, in this country. A vigorous free press has kept the national characteristic of freedom and rights for all alive for all the years of this republic. Nevertheless, the news-reporting media are imperfect, as are all our institutions, even including the management of the Church, because human beings are active in them.
All this being said by way of urging everybody to take a long and hard look at some of the more stunning things said about the Holy Father and other Catholic leaders, an ultimate fact emerges. It is this: priests, and more bishops than we freely admit, either actually abused children, or they mishandled abuse cases.
No one is more intent upon polishing the Church’s image than I. It deserves to be polished. At the theological level, the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. It is the instrument founded by the Redeemer, the Son of God, to bring salvation and life to all people. Priests are its servants. Bishops are its leaders. This is the way it must be. The many readings from the Acts of the Apostles, and the feast of Pentecost itself, summon us to this ecclesiology.
Still, young people have been abused. They have been exploited!
Let me tell this story to show where I am in considering this entire matter.
A few years ago, I gave myself an Easter present. I went to Rome for Holy Week, an unforgettable experience.
Planning to return home on Tuesday following Easter, I decided to visit one of Italy’s oldest Benedictine monasteries on Monday. The warmth of the monastery’s welcome did not surprise me, since hospitality is very important for the Benedictines. I was not surprised to be invited to lunch, and at lunch I was seated between the abbot and the retired abbot.
The abbot, probably then in his 50s, had attended school in Britain. He spoke English fluently. We easily communicated. The elderly retired abbot, clearly a gentle man who had seen much in his many years, knew no English. As a result, we did not converse, but I caught his name.
As I was leaving the monastery, the abbot gave me a history of the monastery, written in English. On the train returning to Rome, I began to read the book. There, I learned that the retired abbot with whom I had lunched at the abbey was quite a man.
When he was a young monk, a young priest, World War II was raging. The German army occupied this part of Italy. It was a very bad time. Tense about an anticipated allied invasion and probably sick of war, plus being overloaded with stories of German superiority, the troops could be quite offensive.
One evening two German soldiers saw three local Italian girls walking home from the fields. They began to chase the girls. The soldiers’ intentions were not altogether noble, if you know what I mean. Terrified, the girls ran to the monastery and frantically pounded on the door. A young priest, later the retired abbot whom I met, opened the door, but before he could hide the girls, the soldiers thundered onto the scene.
The soldiers demanded the girls. The priest stood in front of the girls and told the soldiers to leave. The soldiers persisted. The priest stood firm. Finally, one soldier pointed his gun at the priest. “Step aside!”
Calmly, but clearly meaning business, the young priest refused. He told the soldiers that to touch the girls, they would have to step over his dead body. After a standoff, the soldiers left. The young monk then escorted the girls to their homes.
What a hero was the kindly, quiet old priest with whom I had lunch! How I wished that I had known the story earlier and could have spoken Italian well enough to express my admiration.
The clergy sex abuse scandal overlooks priests such as this Benedictine monk. In itself alone, this is very sad. Just think of the many, many good, hard-working, caring, and loving priests who bring hope and peace to people.
The current scandal smears all priests. The good priests suffer. Along with enduring suspicion that, somehow, in some way, they too might be perpetrators, or enablers of perpetrators, priests must cope with one other slam against the life to which God has called them. I am referring to the charge that priestly celibacy contributes to the abuse, or at least to indifference about abusing children.
Actually, celibacy — if truly embraced — should be the other way around. It should lead away from abusing anyone, and certainly children. Instead it should call up for a priest great caring and great respect for morality and for all the processes of life, and it should vest in the priest nothing but disgust for anything that even resembles exploitation of another.
At a Lenten Day of Recollection a few months ago, I heard a bishop say that celibacy is very freeing. Freeing? Liberating? Indeed. Even Catholics rarely, if ever, see it this way, regarding celibacy as denial and repression. Actually, celibacy is freeing, or it should be. It stands utterly within the powerful admonitions of St. Paul to cast off anything that restrains the process of being one with Christ.
Ideally, in the priestly context, celibacy is the opening of self so more perfectly to do God’s work on earth. Much more than excluding marriage and sex, celibacy frees the priest to be what this Italian Benedictine was, a father not just of children whom he might beget, but of all children.
Priests who abuse children betray celibacy, but hardly just in sexual terms. Such priests fail to love children as if all children were their own flesh and blood. They fail as fathers.
Priests aspire, or should aspire, to imitate Jesus in every way. Loving children is part of the priestly vocation. Christ, as the Gospel recalls, loved children. It was part of a pattern. The Lord loved all people. This, for me, is where stories such as the one about this Benedictine monk come into the picture. The story thrills priests.
So, as we move ahead in these days, in this culture with its morbid fixation on sex, but more deeply upon self and self alone, and as we hear again and again challenges to the old, and in my mind the historically proven, discipline of priestly celibacy, I pray that I myself, that all priests, and indeed that Catholics by and large, will come to better understand what celibacy is, and what it provides. If assumed as the Church presents it, celibacy is freeing, and it is empowerment.
This June, Pope Benedict XVI concludes the “Year for the Priest,” the Church’s concentration upon priests and priestly ministry. Since June 2009, The Priest has published a series of articles about priests and priestly ministry to join in observing the Year for the Priest. We have delighted in the opportunity, but quite frankly, for the staff of The Priest , as for the priests who subscribe, every year is the Year for the Priest, as every day is the Day for the Priest.
One aspect of planning has been to include throughout the year in these pages biographies of great priests. So, we featured St. Damien de Veuster, SS.CC., the priest of the poor and abandoned on Molokai, Father Emil Kapaun, the military chaplain who died with his priest’s stole on, literally, in a POW camp in North Korea, and Father Augustine Tolten, the first African-American to be ordained in this country, and whose priesthood was marked by great fortitude on his part and by insensitivity and even hatred on the part of people whom he wished to serve.
They are models. True, not all priests are in similar circumstances. I am not. However, all priests are as human as were they, and all priests are called, through whatever circumstances, to be, as were they, in persona Christi .
Concluding this year, this edition features the thoughts of a transitional deacon who, by the time this column is read, God willing, will be a newly ordained priest of the Diocese of Charlotte.
The author is John Eckert. In May, he completed theological studies at the Pontifical College Josephinum. I personally met the new Father Eckert last year when I visited the Josephinum. He impressed me as a very mature and intelligent seminarian, quite dedicated to the thought that the Lord was calling him.
He also has a contagiously upbeat, although not at all unrealistic, outlook on life. This will serve him well as he serves the Church in booming Western North Carolina. (Alas, time is marching on for me, but thanks be to God in another perspective, I can recall when the Diocese of Charlotte’s population was little more than a tenth of what it is today.) As, with ordination, Father Eckert begins his priesthood, this staff prays for him. Oremus pro invicem. Ad multos annos, Joannes, pater in Deo, frater in Christo !
The seminarians of today are the priesthood of tomorrow. So, on this month’s cover, we feature a picture of an ordination not long ago. In as all, in the priests just ordained, the Lord is with us always. May we be worthy.
On page 14, a layman from Florida, James A. Doyle, writes about the impact priests have had upon his life and the lives of his family.
Columnist Father Patrick M. Carron writes on page 30 about those little things that confront parish priests everyday, and how they can seem to be big things for a moment, and how seminary formation, however sound, failed in the task of preparing future priests to cope with pastoral realities.
Pontifical College Josephinum Rector Father James A. Weiner, on page 35, writes about a topic critical to the future of the Church and of the priesthood, and a matter of great interest to priests already ordained, namely the purpose and programs of contemporary American seminaries.
On page 39, Msgr. Edward V. Rosack gives us food for thought, providing a meditation for priests on their vocation as priests.
Then, James Keating reflects on priests as fathers. It is a reprint of a talk he gave at the North American College in Rome. TP
MSGR. CAMPION is the editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.
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