There is no doubt that there are a great many good and holy Priests. These noble men give everything of themselves, sparing nothing for the people who are entrusted to their spiritual and temporal care. They made public promises and they faithfully uphold these – sometimes despite great difficulties – in the service of those around them. Their interests lie not in themselves – indeed, often they could not be more forgetful of self – but in their flock and in living out the Gospel message, which they proclaim loudly not only in what they say, but by how they live day after day. These men are many and they exist in every corner of the world. I know, because I have met many of them and I know other people whose lives have been greatly enriched by such men.
But not all Priests are in this mould.
There is a second group of Priests and it is comprised of those for whom the Church is a career rather than a vocation. For these men, it is not about the people – it is about self; the people are little more than ways of achieving their own ends. For some of these men, the goal is power and it’s use and abuse; for others, it will be sexual misconduct; or it may be a means of attaining whatever deep-seated psychological needs drive them forward – often, into very dark places.
In one current and very high profile case, for example, it is difficult not to conclude that the Priest in question has always been driven by an intense need to be perceived as ‘useful’ or ‘indispensable’ – in short, a need for adoration. For many of these men, the institution of the Catholic Church is an end in itself; they have forgotten what the Church actually is and what their relationship is to the ordinary people who are the body of that Church. The have forgotten that Priesthood is about service, not being served. In other words, they have sought superiority over others.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has a word for this – clericalism.
Speaking during the annual Chrism Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica on Holy Thursday of 2018, the Pope said this to the Priests gathered that evening to re-dedicate themselves to the service of the Church –
“Here, I believe, was the beginning of clericalism: in this desire to be assured of a meal and personal comfort without any concern for the people.”
And in a morning meditation given two years before, at Santa Marta, the Holy Father had already outlined the root of this particular weed and the poisonous flowers which grow out of it –
“There is that spirit of clericalism in the Church, that we feel: clerics feel superior; clerics distance themselves from the people. Clerics always say: ‘this should be done like this, like this, like this, and you – go away!’” It happens “when the cleric doesn’t have time to listen to those who are suffering, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned: the evil of clericalism is a really awful thing; it is a new edition of this ancient evil [of the religious ‘authorities’ lording it over others].. the victim is the same: the poor and humble people, who await the Lord.”
Needless to say, I have read many comments from Priests in response to the views of the Holy Father on clericalism – and these were almost exclusively negative. What I noticed about these Priests, as a general rule, was that they could easily be described as ‘traditionalist’; in fact, many of them described themselves openly using precisely this word. It seemed to me that for them, often despite their protestations to the contrary, there was indeed a sense of clericalism present.
This appeared to be most notable in their attachment to a particular way of dressing and to the use of Latin, as well as to the celebration of Mass in the old rite; now, the celebration of Mass in this way is certainly permitted under particular circumstances, but always with the proviso that it is not done is a way that gives the impression that it is a rejection of the present rite of Mass – but to me, it seemed that this was exactly what it was intended to represent, although this was only my own impression and I may well be wrong and commenting unfairly. But broadly speaking, I often felt that for these particular men, ‘Church’ was synonymous with ‘theatre’.
However, the Holy Father also notes that the laity can be filled with a spirit of clericalism.
For us, it manifests as that tendency we sometimes have to put the Priest on a pedestal. This comes over in many of the things we then go on to do, and the language we use in relation to Priests, and our belief that they are in some way ‘superhuman’ and perfect.
This is reflected in a comment contained with the footnotes of the McCarrick Report; describing early events in the Report, a lay man stated to the investigators that it simply never occurred to him that the former Cardinal could possibly do anything immoral or wrong, simply by virtue of his being a Priest. His wife (referenced in the Report as ‘Mother 1’) saw things differently – including the former prelate touching the thighs of her two young sons quite inappropriately whilst the father sat there, completely oblivious. His sense of clericalism blinded him. His wife attested –
“I almost dropped the casserole dish I was holding in my hands. And my husband was sitting directly across from him in a chair and appeared to be oblivious to Ted’s behavior. And when I came to the doorway from the kitchen and I saw what was happening, I nearly fainted. I was shocked and really felt I was going to collapse from what I was witnessing.” (McCarrick Report, page 39)
As an explanatory footnote (no.142) comments –
“16 ACTA 13644-45; see also 33 ACTA 27032. One of Mother 1’s sons noted that his father’s “not seeing” McCarrick’s strange behavior was due to his “inability to even imagine that a priest could do something improper; a priest was ‘anointed’ and he could not possibly fathom a man who seemed to be giving so much positive attention to his family doing anything to harm his children.” As Mother 1’s son stated, “My father knew three things: faith, family and work. I think it was inconceivable to him that Ted could be harming his kids.” 33 ACTA 27023.”
This is an effect of clericalism. It is a two way street, requiring that not only the Priest but also the lay person walks along it, in order that it can exist and continue to exist.
Something else that struck me powerfully in reading the McCarrick Report was the language used by – and directed to – those at higher levels within the Church. This was generally deferential to the point of being obsequious. Similarly, the use of phrases such as “reduced to the lay state” in reference to a man removed formally from the Priesthood. This clearly implies that the lay state is in some way beneath that of priesthood. Language is really important in this matter as in every other – it sets a tone and it throws light on the value system upon which we are operating.
Meeting with seminarians at the Vatican in November 2018, the Pope warned them –
“Clericalism, my dear ones, is our ugliest perversion. The Lord wants you to be shepherds; shepherds of the people, not clerics of the state,”
The irony, unfortunately, is that it is often in the seminary that the seeds of clericalism are planted; these then germinate quickly unless pulled up and recognised as being the weeds they truly are.
Within Saint Peter’s Basilica stands the famous statue of our first Pope, and it is pictured at the top of this page. I took this photo a few years ago and it seemed appropriate to use it here. Peter was a simple man, called by the Lord. He was certainly not perfect – like every one of us, he had his faults in various areas. But when he was given that call, his whole life changed – in some way he was transformned, such that he became the Rock.
The Lord loves us in spite of our weakness, our human frailty and misery, and our sinfulness. Indeed, He is able to use these to bring out the very best in us – He ‘writes straight with crooked lines’, as the Portugese proverb says. Similarly, even the most clericalised Priest is – like every one of us – capable of interior transformation. It simply requires our willingness to respond to the divine grace offered to us. That is the case for all of us.
The Priests mentioned in my first group have the assurance of my prayers, that they might continue to be good and holy. And any Priests who belong to the second category are similarly also assured of my prayers, that they might be granted the necessary graces to allow them to become something new.
As for us laity – may we do all we can to support our Priests in every way, but recognising always that they are the same as us, with all that entails; and recognising, too, that by the very nature of what they are called to do, there is a greater danger for them in some respects.