I’ve been thinking, recently, about the impact of bad priests on the Church. No, not on the Church – but on the lives of particular members of the Church, on the family and friends who have encountered them, who have been verbally or physically hurt, who have been let down, who have lost their faith in the Church. What can we make of this? What can we say to them?
Right away, I recall one particularly bad parish that I’ve read about. One of the priests was skeptical about the resurrection and the real presence of Jesus, while another publicly rejected Him. Another of the priests stole from the church treasury and ended up committing suicide. Two more of them had once suggested burning an entire town to the ground!
What a mess of a church. What a terrible example. And yet, you probably recognize the very first priests – the apostles Jesus chose and taught.
Why are there bad priests? It seems like there have been some from the very beginning.
In fact, they have been from the very beginning, from the very first man. Adam himself was a priest, of sorts, instructed to keep and guard the garden. He failed at his task, and we have failed – in large and small ways – ever since. Noah, and Moses, and David. Peter, Thomas, James and John, and Judas. Father Tom and Monsignor James. The church is rife with sinners, not just in the barque but at the helm.
Why would God accept this? Is he powerless to call only the purest of men? Is he unable to know what will happen?
No, of course not. God is far greater than any sin or sinful man.
But He gives us freedom. A man is free to become a priest for the wrong reasons or with hidden struggles with grave sin. A priest is free to choose to sin after ordination. A seminary is free to choose the wrong criteria or to ignore problems. We can choose, and sometimes we have chosen poorly, yet God is greater than our poor choices. His grace is not defeated by sin!
God works through the sacraments, not through the state of grace of the priest. The sacraments work by the power of God, not by the power of the priest. (CCC 1375) This, too, is God’s provision for sin and his mercy on all of us.
God wills that even the worst priests can consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This is not based on the priest’s personal holiness, or we could never have faith in any particular reception of communion. We could never be sure we’ve been forgiven, or that our child has been baptized.
He allowed His body to be profaned by evil men before, during His passion. He allows it now — and for the same reason. He allows it out of love, out of His unbelievable mercy toward all of us.
Is that an excuse? Certainly not, but it tells us how we should handle a bad priest – even one who has done truly evil things – when it comes to our faith.
Bad priests hurt the public perception of the Catholic Church, when they are meant to be living icons of Christ in the world. (CCC 1142) They hurt the faith of the members of the Church. They offend God.
But they do not change the truth of the Catholic faith. No sin I, or anyone, can commit is great enough to overcome God’s power or His grace.
Bad priests do not show God’s loving fatherhood to the world, but they neither restrict it. They do not provide counter-examples to the great saint priests but instead show how desperately we all need them.
God finds channels of grace, He makes them, to reach each of us. He makes them out of us, when we convey Christ’s love and mercy ourselves. When we support and love those who have been hurt. When we encourage and support those great priests who truly image Christ – and direct people to those examples. And His grace, sometimes conveyed in spite of those who should be ministering it, is always sufficient. Always.
Copyright 2014, Joe Wetterling