Babylon Comes Knocking: What The Church Must Do Now

These have been sad weeks for Catholics across the globe and especially in the United States, as more and more headlines have spilled forth a seemingly endless stream of failures in the Church’s handling of sexual abuse, of clerical power, and of topics pertaining to sexuality in general.

Our present mega-storm is composed of several tempests all drawn together.  First came the revelations about Archbishop McCarrick’s behavior, then the Pennsylvania report, and then the uproar in my own Archdiocese over a retreat for gay priests.  The escalation of the debate about the nature and acceptability of same sex attraction, in and outside of the clergy, was taken to new levels.  As if that were not enough, there came the bombshell testimony of Archbishop Vigano describing a web of protection and cover-up surrounding Archbishop McCarrick that ensnared, by name, several prominent prelates, implicating even Pope Francis himself in the sheltering of a known sexual pervert. What we are left with is a mess of epic proportions.

What’s worse has been the explosion of a civil war, out into the open, among some of the bishops, the varying wings of the Catholic and secular press (along conservative and liberal lines predictably enough), over the need for the Pope to give an answer to these claims.  Several voices of the laity have added their voices to the same cry for transparency and accountability. Meanwhile, it appears to us on the outside that Rome fiddles while the Church burns.  The Holy Father is said to be calm and serene in the midst of the firestorm, rather like Nero playing his fabled fiddle.

Many of the laity and clergy who have no means of influence feel the sickening sense of helplessness as this drags on with no clear movement toward resolution, and no end in sight. Even if Pope Francis were to resign, as some have demanded, it is not clear what that solves in light of the questions now swirling around so many others in the College of Cardinals and in the hierarchy.

This is what it feels like to be drowning in spiritually violent seas.  Our teachings on the very important matters of human sexuality have been emptied of any power or coherency. Our leadership has zero credibility. Our survivors of sexual abuse are still in pain. Our laity are feeling ignored and abandoned by the thousands.  Our Church appears to be tumbling down. This is a spiritual and moral heartbreak of epic magnitude.

The Cry of the Righteous One Who Waits for Justice

The Scriptures offer key insights on how to understand the causes, the meaning, and the remedy for our current situation. The psalms and the prophets poignantly articulate the cry of the righteous one who cries out to heaven for justice and feels ignored. The righteous one suffers violence and pain at the hands of the wicked and the powerful.  These are cries of lament in the face of forces that seem intransigent and well outside of earthly control.  Where is God?

The most poignant Scriptural laments express the sad realization that calamities have been occurring at the hands of fellow Israelites. The worst hurts are caused by those within the chosen fold, by the anointed leaders, while the priests and professional prophets (the clergy) stand by.

The same psalms and prophets also speak of confidence in God’s saving power, trusting that in the end the righteous and the innocent will be vindicated, while the wicked will be punished and brought to justice.  If it does not happen in this life, then it will happen in the next. These days we, who have no official authority to make changes, find our voice echoed in that of the righteous one who painfully waits God’s justice.

The Destruction of the Temple Was Permitted for a Reason

The Scriptures gradually coalesced around the understanding that the destruction that befell the Israelites, most devastatingly with the Babylonian destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, was the result of the infidelity, hubris, and self-satisfied smugness of the chosen nation itself.  God himself permits necessary suffering to come to the people He loves in order to teach them to repent.

Babylon has been knocking at the gates of the Church for a while now under a guise of many faces, brought on by multiple layers of infidelity and hubris.  The prophets speak of an abandonment of the covenant. In our day there is the infidelity of decades of gradual watering down of the Scriptural and theological teachings about sexuality, especially the sensitive subject of homosexuality, during which the Church and the wider culture became slowly unmoored from the rock of Divine Revelation.

The prophets condemn the shepherds who prey on their sheep. In our era, over decades, the shepherds preyed on the vulnerable for the twisted sexual gratification of the clergy, fueled by the abuse of clerical power. Such evil rots the Church from the inside out.

The prophets speak of faithless leaders. In our era, over decades, there has been an abject failure of judgment and leadership on the part of the hierarchy who did not act to correct the offenses against doctrine, or the offenses against the vulnerable.

The prophets speak of bad politics and the forming of camps in favor of divergent agendas. In our era there has emerged, over decades, “conservative” versus “liberal” fault lines in the Church, causing earthquakes throughout our seminaries, our parishes, our dioceses, our presbyterate , and even between our recent popes. What gradually became more important than protecting young people was the question “which side of the theological battle are you on?”  Little else can explain how it is possible for Pope Francis to, allegedly, ignore the warnings of the leadership of the prior regime other than the suspicion that a member of the “conservative” theological camp was trying to smear a member of the “liberal” camp, and therefore he was dismissed as a zealot.  Similar arguments have been advanced to explain how Saint John Paul II became blind to the grievous sins of Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ. This type of ideological filtering that leads to tragic misjudgments of facts is occurring these days at all levels of the Church.

The abuses of power by the clergy do not confine themselves only to sexual abuse of minors, teens, and seminarians.  It is an abuse of power for clerics and theologians, especially those who make the popular media circuits, to set themselves over and above the revealed tradition of the Church by seeking to make murky our doctrines on sex, sin, and grace.  Those who suffer most are those who need clear teachings to sort out the muck of their own moral messes.  They are the vulnerable who are led astray by clerics on power trips.

The parallels of our own day with those of the prophets are clear.  Therefore we should not be surprised if our current strongholds and structures, like the Temple of old, are allowed to burn down.

The Necessary Transparency of the Gospels

Not only are the psalms and prophets helpful to understanding our situation, but instructive also are the Gospel narratives and the writings of the New Testament.  In the ancient Church, whose picture is painted in the divinely inspired writings of the Bible, we are given a model of how to handle the reality of a failure of judgment on the part of the Church’s leaders, namely, the Apostles themselves.

The Apostles, and their close followers, are the ones who told the story of their encounter with the Lord during His life, on the last night of His life, and in the days of His death and resurrection.  It is a very unflattering picture of themselves that they paint for all the world to see. There is no attempt to protect their reputation by papering over their own bad judgment and failures.

Their transparency intentionally serves to demonstrate the Savior’s power. God saves, not us.  It is His message, not ours.  His Sacraments have power not because ministers are holy, but instead because God is holy.  His Church is true not because men have kept it going, but rather because God pushes her forward, through storm after storm, allowing with great care all the buffeting that she must endure for her good.

What We Need to Do Now

In the light of the Scriptures, I propose the following remedies for the epic mess in which we currently find ourselves.

First, the Church herself, as an entity, needs to go to Confession.It is true that the majority of the abuse cases roiling the news and the public now occurred a long time ago.  However, our attitude about this fact should be the same attitude any good pastor has when someone approaches him in Confession, explaining that it’s been 40 years since his or her last Confession.  The answer from our side of the screen is always: “Confess it all, even the things that happened 40 years ago. Then you will know healing and peace.” The Church needs to go to Confession, and we need to confess everything.

Secondly, we need to confess to the civil authorities.We need to request that every attorney general, in every State, and also any international authority with any teeth, conduct a full investigation of every American Archdiocese, and of the Vatican, of how the issue of clerical abuse has been handled.  For a complete picture, those same civil authorities also need to be given an accounting of our handling of finances and contributions right down to the local parish level.

Sadly enough, I do not think we are capable of making a full confession without the assistance of an external agent. For the record, I do not trust the secular and anti-Catholic agenda of many of the civic powers that will no doubt have to carry out this embarrassing exercise, but the fact is that if we are honest then we have nothing to fear.  If we are dishonest we need to suffer. Did not the Lord freely place himself into the hands of his enemies for the salvation of the world?  What else is there to say?

Thirdly, I join my voice to others who have already called for an inclusion of the lay faithful in the process of making priest assignments within dioceses and bishop appointments throughout the world.  I also echo the recent calls for the creation of a lay review board for accusations against bishops.There are challenges with this to be sure, for example, who decides which laity are included, but nonetheless there is immense benefit to seeking the wisdom of professional lay leaders in evaluating the suitability for clerical leadership within the Church.

Lay professionals offer a vital extra pair of eyes on the judgments of clerics. One occupational hazard of the priestly vocation comes from the “power of the keys,” or of “binding and loosing” that is of the essence of Holy Orders itself.  All bishops and priests exercise this role of discernment and judgment within the confessional.  It is the weighing, with hopefully tender heart and sound theology, of the gravity of a person’s sins, as well as their sincerely expressed desire to change, in order to extend absolution.

This duty of priests hearing confessions is unique on the face of this earth.  After years and years of it, we run the risk of developing a mistakenly high tolerance for the failures of others, as well as an overly optimistic view of how some situations may change with time. Priests see miracles of grace and transformation all the time in the personal lives of our flocks, and we do accept God’s awesome power to transform even hardened sinners into changed men and women. One can see how an overly optimistic mentality about conversion could have been applied to personnel decisions of priestly assignments, especially when there were no professional laity involved to check our reasoning about difficult cases.

Lastly, the laity and the clergy need to be inspired to take up true, internal reform. This requires embracing the fullness of the Scriptures, the fullness of our teachings especially those pertaining to sexuality, returning to penance and fasting, increasing our prayer, embracing simplicity, assisting the needy, and being ardent in devotion to the Lord Jesus. From such reform movements new lay sodalities grow, and new clerical associations are born. From those groups, new bishops are chosen, new cardinals are named, and authentically reforming popes are elected. This all takes generations.  It will come again.  I dare say it must come soon.

Only a New Generation Will Move Us Forward

Until the reforms I speak of come about, we find ourselves in the psalms and with the prophets.  We find ourselves as well on the long journey out of Egypt, a time of real testing and trial.  None of the Egypt generation were allowed to see the Promised Land, including Moses, because of their sins.  A new generation had to move forward with God.  Similarly, a generation or two were lost in the Babylonian Exile, and the Temple was burned, and the priests were taken captive, before God would again allow them all to return home.  If we end up losing it all, then one must conclude it was time for it to go.

Such things are necessary in every era.  It is how God purifies His chosen people.

On Twitter:  @FatherReesman

 

 

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Audio of the Homily: Holy Hour of Purification and Reparation

Some sins run so deep, that only blood can remove them.

Click HERE for the link to the audio file of Father Reesman’s homily for the August 19th, 2018 Holy Hour for the Purification of the Clergy and in Reparation for the sins of clerical abuse of power, and for the healing of the Church.

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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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