Repentance, Mercy, and Prudence

As I write this column, the Church is once again dealing with a personnel problem.  A Catholic priest who was found in a highly suspect personal situation has just been put back to work.  Some are calling for the man’s removal from all ministry, out of concern for public safety; others are making the plea for forgiveness and restoration.  Which is the prudent path? And how does evangelization fit in with this?

We can’t read souls.  We do need to make wise decisions about how to run our parish ministries. Part of that decision-making process includes making an educated guess about the kind of behavior we can expect from our volunteers and staff. Let’s take a look at different types of “repentance” and what they might mean:

1. Not really sorry.

To be blunt: Smart people know what side their bread is buttered on.  For a career cleric, failure to stick to company policy is a financial and personal disaster.  Without succumbing to jaded skepticism, we should always be aware that volunteers and staff have an incentive to ‘play nice’ and pretend to get along, for entirely understandable reasons.

Healthy skepticism reminds us there’s always a bigger story beneath the surface than on top.

2. Whole-hearted repentance.

Why am I, personally, so keen to see modesty and chastity taught in our parishes?  Because I’ve been the person who didn’t know better.  I’ve been the person sucked into the values of our wider culture, absolutely convinced that what I was doing was A-OK.  And now I know better.  I’d never want to live that way again, and I don’t want other people experiencing the sin and suffering that I did.  I’m utterly converted.  (Not perfected, but converted.)

One of the challenges of staffing a ministry is that the notorious-but-reformed sinner really is the most powerful evangelist.  Unfortunately, that’s an act a skilled sociopath can replicate to a certain extent. How to discern? With time, wisdom, and wide-open eyes.

3. I know it’s wrong but . . .

People who live and work with me can give you a catalog of my most obvious shortcomings.  The messy desk, the constant fluster . .  . my ultra-organized older sister has to keep a healthy distance for her own sanity.  You can probably rattle off the most annoying sins of every member of your parish staff.

The Church is a hospital for sinners, but common sense applies: You don’t put the typhoid patient on the cooking rotation.  Given that every single Christian struggles in the fight against sin, we have to ask:

  • Are these sins serious enough to make the person utterly unsuited to any ministry?
  • Are the types of sins this person suffers from “compatible” with the desired ministry?

This is basic.  Don’t put someone easily tempted to steal onto the collection-counting team. Don’t put the couple who uses artificial birth control on the marriage-prep team.  The parish needs at least one secretary who is highly organized, efficient, and attentive to detail, and at least one who knows how to smile and be friendly.  That could be a single package, or a team of two.

4.  What faith lacks, obedience supplies.

Recently a now-married cradle Catholic shared with me the event that turned him away from the Catholic faith: As a young man, he and his fiance had presented themselves to the local parish for marriage-prep.  The pastor learned that they were living together, and promptly ended the meeting and sent them packing.  The irony: The couple was sharing an apartment, but were in fact abstaining from intercourse until marriage.  The young man felt judged and cheated — he himself was no great scion of the faith, but he was abstaining out of respect for his future wife’s religious convictions, and the Church kicks him out?

Now before you weigh in, keep in mind that the pastor did not take the time to even suggest to the couple that they were causing scandal, and that the situation could be rectified by finding a suitable alternate living arrangement. The pastor never proposed the couple should take a course or two to prepare them for the sacrament ahead, so that they could make an informed decision before embarking on a lifelong commitment.

→ It is meritorious to obey, out of respect for the Church, those teachings we don’t fully understand.  Pastors, staff, and volunteers should indeed embrace the faith fully, without reserve.  And yet every single one of us, as we travel further and deeper into the fullness of truth, find ourselves at times challenged by a teaching that doesn’t square with all we’ve known thus far.

Again, the question to ask: How does this struggle fit with the ministry we’re proposing to lead?  Open acknowledgement and respect for the sinner’s struggle will always be more productive than insisting on a shiny veneer.

5. Caught with judgement down?

Finally, it’s important that we acknowledge the role of simple stupidity.  I have a friend who must wonder how I manage to get my own socks on in the morning, because every time I’m around her, I do or say something really dumb.  It’s not that I’m habitually that idiotic, it’s that for some weird reason, every single random act of stupid just happens to occur on her watch.

So we have to inquire: Was this or that public incident the inevitable result of a life of chronic sin? Or did the unlucky sinner just happen to be caught the one and only time that his prudence failed him, and he committed an act he’d normally avoid?  Or something in between?

Humans, Humans, Everywhere

At times I find myself wishing the Church were run by angels.  They’d be so much more competent and reliable.  But God has put us humans on the job. Why? Because our own salvation is worked out this way.  We are a mess of flesh-and-blood, and apparently this battle with ourselves is part of the process of our perfection.

What to do with the disgraced priest?  With the dissenting DRE?  With the jerk on the finance council embarking on wife #7 and counting?  Evangelize.

These are humans.  Turn your brain on and discern.  Know the person.  Find the balance between naive and jaded.  Find the balance between merciful and just plain dumb. Forgive liberally, but employ cautiously.

Copyright © 2013, Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications. She writes about the Catholic faith at her Patheos blog, Sticking the Corners.

One response to “Repentance, Mercy, and Prudence”

  1. […] 1. Up this morning at New Evangelizers, my thoughts on what to do with very bad priests, and other sinners who haunt our parishes.  You know you’ve done something right when this guy (the one at the top of the pile) e-mails you with his favorite quote from your column.  Happy day.  (I’ll leave you to pick out your own.) […]

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