The following article was originally published in Oremus, a small, family-run Catholic newspaper that serves traditional parishes across the US. If your parish doesn’t have a subscription to this paper you should fix that.
One of the truths of the faith that seems to have been lost in many places today is the concept of not sinning. If you’re reading this newspaper then this likely doesn’t apply to your parish or yourself, most likely. That’s not to suggest that you’re a walking saint. I’m certainly not a walking saint by any stretch of the imagination. It’s merely to suggest that one of the central themes of the Gospel, a theme so key to the Gospel that Jesus spoke the words ‘go forth and sin no more’ many times are often not spoken to us in homilies or in the confessional. In many parishes in the Church today priests are often to remind us of a truth as simple as the need to not sin that homilies are often accused of being empty and meaningless. People often blame the priests for this, and maybe they share in the blame, but it’s unfair to place all of the blame on them.
The typical lay person shares in that blame. We share in the blame for priests being afraid to teach traditional truths of the faith. To be sure, the hierarchy shares some blame as well, if any media stories about bishops punishing priests for delivering homilies on the Four Last Things are true, but ultimately the blame is on the lay faithful. Why do I say that? Simply because many priests are terrified to give a homily that says something as blatantly obvious as abortion is murder because in many places the priest who gives that homily will soon face the wrath of their parishioners who will threaten them with a withholding of funds or with letters to the Bishop or any manner of other arrogant responses. I once had a priest tell me explicitly that very thing once when I another parishioner mentioned a homily he gave once where he mentioned Planned Parenthood in a negative but passing way, to which he replied that was about as explicitly anti-abortion as he could get for fear of the wrath that would be visited upon him if he were to actually dare to say something pro-life. Think about the implications of a priest being in fear of taking a pro-life stance from the ambo today.
It’s unimaginable the stress the typical good, faithful priest is experiencing today. For the entire careers of a great many priests a cloud of social distrust has hanged over the heads of the clergy, following them wherever they went. The rumors of priests abusing children began to emerge in the late 1980s. By the 1990s the stories were almost commonplace, yet the media hadn’t turned the issue into a weapon to bludgeon the Church into submission with quite yet. That would of course happen in 2002 and 2003. If you consider that time frame and then look at the priests serving the Church today, the bulk of our clergy have been ordained since the late 1980s. Even if there is a plurality of priests nearing retirement at 70, if they were ordained at the age of 30 then they were young priests themselves when the stories started trickling into the media in the late 80s.
Many, not all, parishioners suffer from a sort of pathological narcissism. I suppose it’s part of the universal human condition. We often think that we are more important to the parish than we really are, and it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Church. One could, also, say it comes from the sudden proliferation in recent decades of the adult laity being involved in the liturgy and the management of the parish and chanceries. Perhaps it is, but whatever the cause, the problem is that we, the typical layperson, has forgotten our role in the Church, illustrated perfectly in the Mass when celebrated ad orientam: the laity are the body of the Christ and the priest is the head of the Body when he stands in persona Christi. This isn’t to suggest that the priest can order the individual person around on a whim. It is, however, quite disordered to think that the head should live in fear of the body. When we forget our place in the Body of the Christ we bring even greater pressure to bear on the clergy who serve us tirelessly. The typical parish priest has many tasks they perform for the diocese or the society they are part of, including prison ministry, working with local Catholic lay organizations, hospital work, and the list goes on and on. They are worked to the bone away from the eyes of their parishioners, who often enough then criticize them when they are being too orthodox. It’s deeply disordered when this happens.
The best things we can do for our priests is to support them. Good, faithful priests are being held in the same contempt by the broader society now as the ones who have failed to remain faithful to their vocation. It’s a sad state of affairs and we don’t need to be adding to it as the lay faithful. The next time your pastor gives a homily that is likely to offend some people, quietly thank him for it after Mass, and always pray for your priests. Pray for the priest who heard your confession, who drove long distance to bless your home, who brought you Holy Communion in your hospital bed, and pray for those priests who, out of the public eye, continue to work diligently in the various unglamorous ministries of the Church. Without them we are lost.