Holy Hour for the Purification of the Clergy and In Reparation

This Sunday, August 19th, I will lead a Holy Hour from 12:30pm to 1:30pm at Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, 1025 South 7th Avenue, West Bend, Wisconsin, to pray for the purification of the Church’s clergy and ministers, and to pray in reparation for the sins against chastity and the abuse of power that have been committed against our people.

Please join us in prayer.

 

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The Mixed Message of a Retreat for Gay Priests in Milwaukee

Registrations are now being taken for the upcoming October retreat for “gay priests, brothers, and deacons,” that is sponsored by New Ways Ministry, which is to be held in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and will be led by a brother Archdiocesan priest, Father Bryan Massingale.

I wish to briefly speak as a member of the Catholic clergy, and as someone with pastoral experience in helping men and women who experience same sex attraction, about the problematic nature of this upcoming retreat.  I also wish to offer what I think are needed words of honest contrition to our lay faithful, as well as an invitation to my brother clergy in our era of ever-present scandal.

The Incoherence of the Term “Gay Priest”

It is of great importance for the Church to maintain our precise language of distinction between the experience by men and women of same-sex desires on the one hand, as opposed to the term “gay” on the other hand. More often than not, a man or woman who chooses to define himself or herself as “gay” is doing so because they believe their same-sex inclination is their defining attribute, and this belief allows them to live a lifestyle that normalizes same-sex relationships, either on a merely emotional level or also on the physical level.  “Gay” generally means a mirroring of the behaviors, lifestyles, and patterns of heterosexual persons, only doing so with a person of the same sex.

The best pastoral experience of the Church, as well as our consistent teachings about who we are as persons, point to the reality that it is never healthy or holy to act out on same-sex desires, even in the realm of the merely emotional.  Much healthier and holier is the attitude that our sexual desires are simply one facet of who we are as persons, rather than making them our dominant marker of identity with a term such as “gay.”

When it comes to ordained Catholic clergy, the same important distinction between “gay” and “experiencing same sex desires” becomes even more crucial because of the unique sacramental identity that is involved.

It is one thing for an ordained man to deal with same sex desires, doing so in a similar way that any man (ordained or not) has to learn to integrate his sexuality in a healthy and holy manner, consistent with the Gospel call to joyful respect of human dignity.  It is a very different thing for a priest to identify himself as, and see himself chiefly through the lens of “gay,” because doing so means that this one facet of his personhood has the potential to become the dominant way that he, as a priest, will shape his behaviors and lifestyle, over and above his sacramental identity.

For the ordained Catholic priest, or for a man in vows, or also for a deacon, our most fundamental identity is our union with Christ’s own ministerial mission.  Nothing else can get in the way of that core reality.  “Gay priest” is a confusing and incoherent label that is heavily laden with potentially dangerous internal contradictions as well as external mixed messages for our Catholic faithful.

I do not know the nature of the content that is going to be offered during this upcoming retreat for “gay priests, brothers, and deacons.”  However, I find it difficult to believe that any retreat that intentionally adopts such a misleading title, a title that is also in contradiction to our most effective pastoral practices, can bear positive fruit.

The healthiest sexually integrated persons that I know who experience same sex attraction, reject the title of “gay” because they believe it is a diminishment of their full personhood, and of their joyful freedom in the grace of Jesus Christ.  Any cleric who experiences same sex attraction is wise to adopt the same reluctance about such an unhelpful, and limiting term. Any retreat that encourages the embrace of that term is in great danger of operating in opposition to the authentic message of the Gospel.

Very Poor Timing

The consistent message of the Scriptures and of the teachings of the Church has been a rejection of any attempts to normalize active same-sex behavior.  This teaching of ours was as counter-cultural in the ancient world as it has again become today, and therefore we should not be surprised if we face opposition for it.

Nerves are understandably very raw at the moment on the part of the lay faithful about any behavior on the part of the clergy that even remotely hints of a normalization of what is immoral, protective, secretive, or abusive.  Once more we are living through the horror of frequent headlines about the deviant behaviors by male clergy with younger men or boys, and we are coming to grips with the sad truth that for all of the house cleaning we were supposed to have been doing in the last two decades, there were some glaring and intentional omissions. At the moment, no one wants to hear about our clergy being anything other than eager to embrace the fullness of the Church’s teachings on sexuality and joyful celibacy.

In such a delicate climate, one wonders why any extra attention should be drawn to the reality of same sex attraction in the Catholic clergy under such an ambiguous title as this upcoming retreat for “gay” priests.  To the laity in the pews who want iron-clad assurances that our priests will be faithful, and that their children will be protected, the idea of a retreat such as this is mortifying.  The message it sends, quite frankly, is that the clergy are incapable of getting our act together.

An Apology and An Invitation

As an ordained priest I want to offer an apology for our ongoing inability, as the clergy, to fully grasp the reality of the scandal that not only our immoral behaviors, but also our incoherent teachings on these important topics has caused. I hope my brothers in the clergy will be open to considering the possibility of undertaking public and meaningful acts of penance and prayers of reparation in order to bring about the holy clerical witness that is so badly needed in our era.   We would be wise if we ourselves embraced the same remedies for sinful behaviors that we prescribe to everyone else.

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Of Clergy and Prophets: Ending Unholy Silence in the Church

Throughout all the Scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments, there is frequent mention of priests and clergy-type figures.  Interestingly, many of these Scriptural references to the clergy, probably even the majority of them, are negative.  In the long list of persons, places, and things that God condemns in our holy texts, the priests are given some of the most withering critiques. It seems that in every era of our religious history, there has been a problem with the condition of the clergy.

Granted, not all the Scriptural mentions are critical.  There are some heroes, who are the reformers, like Elijah, or Ezekiel, or Ezra.  Saint Paul speaks with affection of some of the “elders” (bishops/priests) who he has been associated with.  The apostles were flawed men, as was Saint Paul himself, but it is clear from the New Testament that their status after the Resurrection as shepherds of the flock was held in high regard.  These are the handful of the good ones that stand out anyway.  Otherwise, when the clergy are spoken of generically, or when the temple leaders (scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees) are mentioned as a group, it is clear that they are a pretty unimpressive group, always in need of reform.

One would think that a role, or office, that is so consistently criticized by God in His Scriptures should simply have vanished for lack of need.  If the clergy are so bad, why do we keep having them after all? Sort of like dandelions, us priests keep popping up in the yard of religious piety, in every tradition and in every era, which suggests that we are needed for some reason, even if we are typically a lukewarm lot.

As recent headlines about clerical abuse of power show, the clergy continue to be a real problem.  We have been through waves of Catholic Clergy sexual abuse headlines and the surfacing of heinous acts for decades now, but what seems especially upsetting about this latest batch, centering-in on (now-resigned) Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, DC, is the unavoidable conclusion that a culture of mutual protection and silence among the priests and among the bishops continues to persist IN SPITE OF the last couple decades of hard revelations and costly lessons.

Have we learned nothing? Must we ask if such a culture of mutual protection and secrecy about unholy behavior is endemic to, or inescapably a facet of, clerical existence? One hopes not.   As Catholics we do believe in the changeless teaching that even for all of its problems, the Catholic priesthood is desired by God for the world, and that it originates in His call to men to follow after Him in every generation. God would not will something that is intrinsically unholy or even permanently broken to persist.  Therefore, unholy secrecy cannot be integral to the priesthood, despite all outside appearances at the moment.

Are good and holy clergy rare then, considering again that the Scriptures are full of stark corrections to the clergy?  This is harder to say, especially when so many of us who lived life thinking we knew Father “so and so” to be a good holy man were shocked to discover bad things about him as secret deeds came to light. After awhile, this steady stream of double lives come to light breaks down our unshakable certainty in the goodness of the clergy.

There is something about an overly institutionalized view and approach to priestly formation and priestly life that carries within itself its own strong tendencies to protectionism and silence that can make it very difficult for individual men to speak up in the face of all that might work against them.  In such a climate, the generally good priests and bishops who a lot of us know can be self-deceived into a widespread sense of silence, reinforced also by the knowledge that each of us as priests have of our own failings. “Who am I to judge?” many of us priests internally say to ourselves as soon as we hear of some other priests failings, knowing full well that the private details of our own behaviors would be embarrassing if brought to light.  This is a failure of confidence in God’s mercy as well as a fear of the necessary just punishment that God permits to come to us all as a result of our bad choices, so that He can shape us for the better.  Behind all of the unholy silence is, at root, unholy fear.

So it is perhaps not so much good priests that are rare, but rather what is truly rare are prophets: those who speak boldly, because they see clearly, and do not care that it means the end of their career to say something.  Prophets are fearless.  “The priests,” on the other hand, as the Scriptures show, are indeed called, are needed, and can be somewhat lukewarm, and in a state of unholy, institutional and personal fear become rather ordinary.  Yes, the rarer case is the true prophet, or even the saint.

Sadly enough I do not separate myself from the general category of average, ordinary priests who, while needed and called, are also in need of reform and who fade into the general woodwork of what might be called “the institution,” doing so out of fear.  I am no prophet and I also have many moral failings, none of which I am proud to admit.

That said, I do know we could use a true prophet or two right now.  True prophets are those who not only respect the unbending elements of the Church’s salvific structures, of which the ordained priesthood is one, but who also can see clearly what has become deficient in our approach to those same structures in order to bring about needed changes to the way we practice our priesthood and our faith.

Please continue to pray for priests and for our bishops.  We are necessary and flawed creatures for the work of salvation, and God wills that his priesthood should continue in the world until He comes again. Pray more fervently for true prophets; for those who are not afraid of the light. We are lost without them and we need them now as much as ever.  Only God can send them.

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Epiphany: Right Worship vs “Trending Now”

There continue to be no shortage of ideas about how to increase Mass attendance that cross my desk on an almost daily basis. As you might imagine, priests get email alerts all the time advertising “amazing” new programs for parishes, new books on how to attract the whole world to church, as well as new programs to increase participation, etc.   In addition to the steady email stream, priests hear ideas from many other sources as well about what we need to do differently or change in the liturgy to grow our crowds at Mass.

A lot of the ideas are very interesting. Many of them, it seems to me, are mainly about copying what the Evangelical churches do in their heavily entertainment-based services. Certainly there is merit to some of those concepts, but they also come with risks that are rarely considered at first glance.

Today’s Solemn Feast of the Epiphany offers its own timeless perspective on this ongoing conversation in the Church today about what worship should look like.  Saint Matthew describes it in his Gospel as the act of “doing homage.”

The Magi give as their reason for traveling in search of the newborn King of the Jews the desire to do Him homage and to worship. They are drawn to Bethlehem for this purpose.

It is important to remember that they did so in an era when most worship consisted of pagan rituals of nature deities, including star-worship, and that included very tangible uses of fabricated images, sacred poles, statues of gods, and rituals that centered on eating, drinking, dancing, uses of narcotics, ecstatic emotional escape, wild costumes, animal figures, live animals, and unbridled sexual orgies. Yes, all of that was “worship” in the ancient world, and historical records show that it was all VERY exciting. For comparison, just think of the contemporary allure of NFL Football games on Sunday which contain much of the above.

How interesting, therefore, that the Magi were drawn to leave all of that behind upon their encounter with what would have been a highly unusual sight for that time period: a child king in the most impoverished of surroundings, completely lacking in any fanfare or ceremony.

They did Him homage because they knew He was, and is, truth itself. And, because they knew that He intentionally set aside all the trappings of earthly entertaining grandeur to inaugurate a whole new way of being, of living, and of offering worship.

The new way of worship would not be smitten with the glitzy allure of the passing world but would instead rest on the subtleties of shedding power and attention, as opposed to amassing those deadly things. The Magi’s worship of someone, and something, so, so different than the customs around them was highly unusual and countercultural.

The homage of the Magi that we recall today tells us that the answer to right worship is not located in superficial attractions and clever new ideas. It is found only in correctly understanding what the heart of Catholic worship is: total homage to our God who operates in subtleties and wants us to love Him precisely because He is plain and simple. He does not appear grand on our altars deliberately, just as was the case in Bethlehem.

If we knew just who was on the altar in every Catholic Church at Mass, no one would ever think of praying elsewhere. As with the Magi, that is a decision of faith, and it is one that involves a rejection rather than an embrace of what is trendy and popular.  Only if we hold to those principles that are timeless and of the essence of the faith will we maintain right, even if not always crowded, worship.

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Homily: Learning from the Holy Family

Click HERE  to listen to the audio file of Father Reesman’s homily for the Feast of the Holy Family, Year B, given at Saint Frances Cabrini Parish on Sunday, December 31st, 2017 at the 10am Mass.

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On “Coming Out” From the Pulpit

A Healthy Approach to Same Sex Attraction

For a few years now I have had the privilege to walk with men and women who experience same sex attraction, and who desire to live an integrated life of wholeness and joy, in fidelity to the demands of chastity.

They do not like the terms “gay” or “lesbian” because they understand that whole, healthy persons do not reduce themselves to their mere parts, or to labels that can put them in boxes for years to come.

These same men and women also understand the pitfalls of sharing their own sexual struggles and attractions with wide audiences. Occasionally some of them may prayerfully discern the need for a carefully delivered witness talk about their story in support of the Church’s teachings, but such situations should be the exception rather than the norm. In our modern culture where the prevailing approach to sexuality is to speak without restraint, the people that I walk with attempt to take a very different approach that treats such topics with the delicacy, modesty, and sacred veiling that they deserve. We are not meant to live as though we are turned inside out, and doing so is not necessary for healthy integration.

There is wisdom in their approach, and it is one many of them have learned the hard way. Their approach is also the recommended pastoral approach of the Catholic Church, grounded in centuries of careful study of the human condition, and guided by the unbroken truth of revelation.

The men and women who experience same sex attraction, seeking to live life in the way that Divine revelation clearly points out to us, are aware that it is very easy to awaken unhealthy desires in themselves, and others, when they dwell on the topic of sexuality too openly and too often. Doing so feeds the appetite for stimulation and unchastity, glamorizing ways of acting and thinking that blur our reason and vision.

The men and women I walk with are keenly aware of the deep emotional wounds that frequently accompany their particular situation, which means they spend a great deal of time working to avoid attention seeking behavior. They know how tempting it is to make their sexual struggles or personal wrestling into a focal point.   Their self knowledge leads them to work hard at focusing on the countless other facets of life that do not directly intersect with their sexuality.

They are also wary of being used and manipulated for other people’s agendas, especially that of the gay lobby. Many of them have been used already in life due to sexual wounds, and they have no desire to become a pawn in the manipulative game of identity politics that is sweeping the culture and now the Church as well.

“Coming Out” Makes Healthy Integration Even More Difficult

For all of these reasons, and many more, these men and women do not make a point of identifying themselves as “gay.” It is precisely because they wish to be known as more than a label, and known as son or daughter of God first and foremost, that they quietly choose to deal with their struggles in the protected and appropriate zone of private spiritual direction, the confessional, and a trusted support group.

This is why the best pastoral approach that the Church can suggest to people who experience same sex attraction is NOT to “come out” as “gay.” Doing so only leads to more confusion, pain, and emotional frustration. It is not in accord with the virtue of chastity, or the dignity of discretion that we are all called to. It does not lead to wholeness, joy, or healing but rather the reverse.

Is there such a thing as a “Gay Celibate?”

All of the above is adequate reason to be troubled whenever a Catholic priest chooses to “come out” at Mass, from the pulpit, to his congregation. Doing so is a wildly unhealthy thing for any man who experiences same sex attraction as our pastoral practice over the years has shown again and again.

In the case of a priest, however, the situation is even more acute.

Priests should know that the people in the pews have the right to receive, at Mass, the unbroken teachings of the Catholic Church, rather than being forced to make a false choice between supporting or abandoning a priest who willfully makes the occasion of a homily about his own interior struggles that are best left dealt with in the internal forum of spiritual direction and pastoral counseling.   Being forced to make a judgment about the needs of a priest of God, their shepherd, causes deep wounds to their faith and unleashes wave upon wave of confusion.

Granted it is easy to get confused about why we might want to be supportive of a priest, or any man, to do something so public. After all, the Church does recognize that people struggle, and we know that God has infinite patience for us as we strive after the life of goodness and virtue. Priests are weak men, too, that much is clear.

But, the priesthood, and a life of celibacy by its very unique and beautiful calling, can never be about exercising authority in order to meet the emotional needs of the minister. That is not the radical other-centered behavior that all priests (and all fathers, mothers, consecrated men and women) are called to.   The love and acceptance that any priest who “comes out” is seeking is never authentically discovered in such a radically self-revelatory act.

Only Christ can calm our restless inner need for earthly affirmation. And he does so most keenly as we strive to assent to the truth of his revelation about human nature. For married couples this assent to revelation finds its proper context in the marital embrace and in the daily lived sacramental reality of married life, and even then the Church recognizes this state to be only a temporary one, confined to this life.

The celibate priest, on the other hand, must find the healing and affection his heart desires in the context of radically other-centered shepherding, as he is conformed more and more to Christ the priest who offers himself as a pure sacrifice for the salvation of all. And even then, at the core of celibacy is an intentional ache that priests must rest within, deliberately, so that they can realize most deeply that it is Christ for whom they, and all humanity, longs.

To speak of a “gay celibate” is theologically, pastorally, and emotionally confusing and incoherent. One term, “gay,” is about an identity reduced to categories and misplaced emphases. The other term, “celibate,” is about a calling to the highest levels of other-centered integration and wholeness. The two terms are fundamentally incompatible.

If an ordained priest does happen to experience same sex attractions, then there are some essential points to abide by based on the Church’s pastoral wisdom. Firstly, the answer for him is not to adopt such a reductionist label as “gay.” Also, it is unwise for him to satisfy his emotional thirst for acceptance by forcing his flock to minister to the minister. The priest must also know that the path to wholeness can never take the form of strident rejections of the Church’s teachings. Wholeness comes only by embracing them. Lastly, a priest should not adopt a public label that will follow him for the rest of his ministerial assignments causing no small amount of confusion, questioning, and conflict as he lives out the remainder of his ministry.

Essentially, a priest who experiences same sex attractions must do what any other man with his same inclinations must do. He must handle it in a subtle, gentle, prayerful, discreet, and private network of healthy support, in accord with the Church’s best pastoral practices.

Advising a priest not to “come out” has nothing to do with rejecting struggles. It has nothing to do with some refusal to accept people. On the contrary, it has everything to do with the best of pastoral practices that we have learned are essential for fostering the healing and wholeness that God desires for us all.

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Homily: Getting Past the End

Click HERE to access the link to the podcast for Father Reesman’s homily for the 32nd Homily in Ordinary Time, Year A, given at Saint Frances Cabrini parish on Sunday, November 12th, 2017 at the 10am Mass.

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