I have known many priests and a few bishops throughout my almost 59 years of life in the Catholic Church, and all of them have been good men. In fact, some of them are counted among my dearest friends, and the witness of their lives is a continuous inspiration to me in my walk with God. The current scandals are torture for them, as they suffer the degrading and humiliating backlash that comes with such revelations.
But while most priests are sincere men who have sacrificed the comforts of ordinary life to help us and draw us into heaven, it is also true that there are wolves among them, causing terrible harm to the Church. There is much of worth being said about this in other places: about how we can respond, how we can help purge the guilty from their powerful perches, and how the laity can and must be a part of this process.*
But I would personally like to focus on something that is just as important for parents and catechists to understand, especially as our children and our students start to ask hard questions:
We can and should have great hope in Christ, through the sacraments of the Church, in spite of the unworthiness of some of its ministers.
It’s horrific when our shepherds betray our trust and do grievous harm to those they are ordained to serve. It is the worst kind of betrayal: setting themselves up as examples and guides in the spiritual life and then abusing their access and influence to exploit innocent victims. Our disgust is both appropriate and understandable, and swift legal action should be taken against every one of them. Their victims should be treated with tireless and committed care and consideration, wherever we find them.
I met one of the victims, not long ago, and her suffering was palpable, but a simple teaching of the Church was a great help to her.
About two years ago, after giving a presentation to a gathering of Catholic women, an attendee approached me and asked to speak privately. Flushed and emotional, she confided something dreadful: a priest had harmed her, years before. She gave me no details, but she was traumatized and deeply hurt by what had happened, trapped in an agonizing struggle between her love for the Church and her legitimate fury at the way she had been used by one of its ministers.
I expressed my sincere sorrow, sympathy, and disgust, but as we talked, I could see that she had been unable to start the necessary process of healing her own life. She had not even considered the possibility of forgiveness, so her wounds were still as raw, at that moment, as if the offense had just occurred. Her own authentic and much-deserved freedom was being held ransom by her choice to live in bitterness.
(Full disclosure: I myself suffered a sexual assault in college, though it had nothing to do with the Church. The perpetrator was a trusted friend, someone who callously took advantage of me in a moment of vulnerability. As a result of that lived experience, I was able to truly empathize and be present to this dear lady, with both a sense of sisterhood and a desire to challenge her–for her own sake.)
As we talked, an important and related issue surfaced. She adamantly denied the validity of the offending priest’s sacramental ministry. He was unworthy, clearly. He had lived a double life. He had betrayed, not just her, but countless people who had come to him to be nourished in the sacramental life of the Church. His leadership was false, she pointed out, so his duplicity had voided any good that might have come from his priesthood.
But that’s not necessarily true. I’m not God, so I don’t have the ability to weigh the ultimate fruits of any life, including my own. But I do know something that all Catholics should know, and I offered it to her in a spirit of encouragement.
Here goes: It is Jesus, not the priest, who makes all of the sacraments efficacious (CCC 1120). I’ll say it another way: the priest’s worthiness has no bearing on the validity or spiritual value of the sacraments themselves. Therefore, a priest who has just committed a murder, for example, can validly baptize an infant, consecrate the Host, anoint the sick, confirm a new Catholic, marry a couple, or even give absolution in the confessional! In each case, because of his ordination, the priest stands in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). Therefore, it is Jesus who baptizes, Jesus who consecrates, Jesus who marries, Jesus who anoints, and Jesus who forgives (CCC 1088). As long as the sacramental actions are done in the correct way by a validly ordained priest, they are completely valid, efficacious, and beautiful. Isn’t that incredible?
In other words, right after betraying Jesus, Judas could have validly consecrated the Host and provided the Holy Mass for himself and others! He could have baptized and absolved, and his actions in persona Christi would have blessed and nourished the souls of the people he served. His worthiness would not have been an impediment because it is always, always Jesus who acts, in every single sacrament.
I guess we shouldn’t be shocked that the Church has such great trust in Our Lord’s power to overcome evil. Jesus brings redemption from our suffering, just as he purchased eternal life for each of us from his own gruesome, scandalous death. Our Lord even brought a thief who repented at the very last minute with him to heaven, and some of our greatest saints started life as champion sinners.
As I explained this teaching of the Church, the suffering lady protested, her hands coming up in a defensive pose, so I spoke these words to her, very gently: “This should give us all great hope because even when we ourselves are unworthy, God can still do great good through our lives, too.”
I watched her eyes widen in amazement, as she staggered backward. I steadied her by lightly grasping her arms, and she teared up as her eyes took on a warmth that had not been there before. She was shaken, but the beginnings of gratitude flooded into her expression, as the liberating reality of this truth took hold.
The gist is that God can work through all of us, in spite of our sins, in spite of all the ways that we betray our love for him and for each other. Yes, we need repentance and sacramental healing to truly walk with the Lord and live our best lives, and criminals should be prosecuted and removed from active ministry. But Jesus can bring beautiful fruit from even the darkest of circumstances.
He can overcome our sins, resurrect our lives, and make all things new (Rev 21:5).
He can redeem our past, at any moment, and fill our lives with hope (Joel 25:2).
The weight of unrelenting bitterness and unforgiveness seemed to abate, as the wounded lady was graced with a vision of hope in Christ’s mercy. In Christ, she was alive, and through Christ she had truly been strengthened by the Sacraments that He gave so lovingly to the Church. No unworthy priest could take that from her. We parted warmly and I never saw her again, but to me, it was an unforgettable encounter.
I hope this teaching brings peace and courage to our readers and to those we teach and evangelize. In the midst of an extremely hurtful and complex crisis, let’s all pray hard and stay close to Jesus in his Word, his sacraments, and in grateful friendship with our many, many good priests. Our beloved church needs us to be strong, well-informed, and ready to boldly and compassionately minister to those who are reeling from these terrible revelations.
Be assured of my prayers. God bless you all.
*Here are some great pieces that address the laity’s potential role in the housecleaning to come, by one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Scalia, and this link will bring you to a superb article by Dan Mattson, regarding a common thread that runs through the vast majority of the Church’s sex scandals.)
Enjoy Pat Gohn’s latest podcast episode about the crisis and a new book by Alexis Walkenstein about a wonderful bishop who lived out his mission faithfully: Fulton J. Sheen.