From The Vigil special issue 2002
"Simon, Simon, behold Satan desired to have you
that he might sift you like wheat,
but I have prayed for you
that your faith may not fail;
and when you have turned again,
strengthen your brethren"
Fr. Roger J. Landry was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Fall River,
MA by Bishop Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap., in 1999. After receiving a biology
degree from Harvard College, Fr. Landry studied for the priesthood in
Maryland, Toronto and for several years in Rome. After his priestly
ordination, Bishop O'Malley sent him back to Rome to finish graduate
work in moral theology and bioethics. He is presently parochial vicar
at Espirito Santo Parish in Fall River Massachusetts and chaplain at
Bishop Connolly High School.
By Father Roger J. Landry
The headlines this past week captured the very sad news that perhaps up to
seventy priests in the Archdiocese of Boston have abused young people whom
they were consecrated to serve. It's a huge scandal, one that many people
who have long disliked the Church because of one of her moral or doctrinal
teachings are using as an issue to attack the Church as a whole, trying to
imply that they were right all along. And so, today, I'd like to tackle the
issue head-on. You have a right to it. We cannot pretend as if it didn't exist.
And I'd like to discuss what our response should be as faithful Catholics to
this terrible scandal. The first thing we need to do is to understand it from
the point of view of our faith in the Lord. Before he chose his first disciples,
Jesus went up the mountain all night to pray. He had at the time many followers.
He talked to his Father in prayer about whom he
would choose to be his apostles, the twelve he would himself form intimately,
the twelve whom he would send out to preach the Good News in His name. He gave
them power to cast out demons. He gave them power to cure the sick. They watched
him work countless miracles. They themselves in His name worked countless others.
Yet, despite all of that, one of them was a traitor. One, who had followed the
Lord, who had had his feet washed by the Lord, who had seen him walk on water,
raise people from the dead, and forgive sinners, betrayed the Lord. The Gospel
tells us that he allowed Satan to enter into Him and then sold the Lord for
30 pieces of silver, handing him over by faking a gesture of love. "Judas," Jesus
said to him in the garden of Gethsemane, "Would you betray the Son of Man with a
kiss?" Jesus didn't
choose Judas to betray him. He chose him to be like all the others. But Judas
was always free, and he used his freedom to allow Satan to enter into him, and
by his betrayal, ended up getting Jesus crucified and executed. So right
from the first twelve that Jesus himself chose, one was a terrible traitor.
SOMETIMES GOD'S CHOSEN ONES BETRAY HIM. That's a fact that we have to confront.
It's a fact that the early Church confronted. If the scandal caused by Judas
was all the members of the early Church focused on, the Church would have
been finished before it even started to grow. Instead, the Church recognized
that you don't judge something by those who don't live it, but by those who do.
Instead of focusing on the one who betrayed, they focused on the other eleven,
on account of whose work, preaching, miracles, and love for Christ, we are here
today. It's on account of the other eleven - all of whom except St. John was
martyred for Christ and for the Gospel they were willing to give their lives
to proclaim to us - that we ever heard the saving word of God, that we ever
received the sacraments of eternal life.
We're confronted by the same reality today. We can focus on those who betrayed
the Lord, those who abused rather than loved those whom they were called to
serve, or we can focus, like the early Church did, on the others, on those
who have remained faithful, those priests who are still offering their lives
to serve Christ and to serve you out of love. The media almost never focuses
on the good "eleven," the ones whom Jesus has
chosen who remain faithful, who live lives of quiet holiness. But we, the Church,
must keep the terrible scandal that we've witnessed in its true and full perspective.
Scandal is unfortunately nothing new for the Church. There have been many times in
the history of the Church when the Church was much worse off than it is now. At each
of the times when the Church hit its low point, God raised up tremendous saints
to bring the Church back to its real mission. It's almost as if in those times of
darkness, the Light of Christ shone ever more brightly. I'd like to focus a little
on a couple of saints whom God raised up in these most difficult times, because their
wisdom can really guide us during this difficult. time. St. Francis de Sales was one
saint God raised up after the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was
not principally about theology, about the faith - although theological differences
came later - but about morals. There was an Augustinian priest, Martin Luther, who
went down to Rome soon after the papacy of the most notorious pope in history, Pope
Alexander VI. This pope never taught anything against the faith - the Holy Spirit
prevented that - but he was simply a wicked man. He had nine children from six
different concubines. He put out contracts against those he considered his enemies.
Martin Luther visited Rome soon after his papacy and wondered how God could have
allowed such a wicked man to have been the visible head of his Church. He went back
to Germany and saw all types of moral problems. Priests were living in open
relationships with women. Some were trying to profit from selling spiritual goods.
There was a terrible immorality among lay Catholics. He was scandalized, as anyone
who loved God might have been, by such rampant abuse. So he founded his own Church.
Eventually God raised up many saints to combat this wrong solution and to bring
people back to the Church Christ founded. St. Francis de Sales was one of them.
At the risk of his life, he went through what is modern day Switzerland, where
the Calvinists were popular, preaching the Gospel with truth and love. Oftentimes
he was beaten up on his way and left for dead. Once he was asked to address the
situation of the scandal caused by so many of his brother priests. What he said
is as important for us today as it was for his listeners then. He didn't pull any
punches. He said, "Those who commit these types of scandals
are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder," destroying other people's
faith in God by their terrible example. But then he warned his listeners,
"But I'm here among you to prevent some thing far worse for you. While those
who give scandal are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder, those who
take scandal - who allow scandals to destroy their faith - are guilty of spiritual
suicide." They're guilty, he said, of cutting off their life with Christ,
abandoning the source of life in the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist.
He went among the people in Switzerland trying to prevent their committing
spiritual suicide on account of the scandals. I'm here to preach the same
thing to you. What should our reaction be then? Another great saint who lived in
a tremendously difficult time can help us further. The great St. Francis of Assisi
lived in the 1200s, which was a time of terrible immorality in central Italy.
Priests were setting horrible example. Lay immorality was even worse. St. Francis
himself while a young man even gave some scandal to others by his carefree ways.
But eventually he was converted back to the Lord, founded the Franciscans, helped
God rebuild his Church and became one of
the great saints of all time. Once one of the brothers in the Order of Friars Minor
asked him a question. The brother was very sensitive to scandals. "Brother Francis,"
he said, "What would you do if you knew that the priest celebrating Mass had three
concubines on the side?" Francis, without missing a beat, said slowly, "When it came
time for Holy Communion, I would go to receive the Sacred Body of my Lord from the
priest's anointed hands." What was Francis getting at? He was getting at a tremendous
truth of the faith and a tremendous gift of the Lord. No matter how sinful a priest
is, provided that he has the intention to do what the Church does - at Mass, for
example, to change bread and wine into Christ's body and blood, or in confession,
no matter how sinful he is personally, to forgive the penitent's sins - Christ
himself acts through that minister in the sacraments. Whether Pope John Paul II
celebrates the Mass or whether a priest on death row for a felony celebrates Mass,
it is Christ who himself acts and gives us His own body and blood. So what Francis
was saying in response to the question of his religious brother that he would receive
the Sacred Body of His Lord from the priest's anointed hands, is that he was not
going to let the wickedness or immorality of the priest lead him to commit spiritual
suicide. Christ can still work and does still work even through the most sinful priest.
And thank God! If we were always dependent on the priest's personal holiness, we'd
be in trouble. Priests are chosen by God from among men, and they're tempted just
like any human being and fall through sin just like any human being. But God knew
that from the beginning. Eleven of the first twelve apostles scattered when Christ
was arrested, but they came back; one of the twelve sinned in betraying the Lord
and sadly never came back. God has essentially made the sacraments "priest-proof,"
in terms of their personal holiness. No matter how holy they are, or how wicked,
provided they have the intention to do what the Church does, then Christ himself
acts, just as he acted through Judas when Judas expelled demons and cured the sick.
And so, again, I ask, "What should the response of the Church be to these deeds?"
There has been a lot of talk about that in the media. Does the Church have to do a
better job in making sure no one with any predisposition toward pedophilia gets
ordained? Absolutely. But that would not be enough. Does the Church have to do a
better job in handling cases when they are reported? The Church has changed its
way of handling these cases, and today they're much better than they were in the
1980s" but they can always be perfected. But even that is not enough. Do we have
to do more to support the victims of such abuse? Yes we do, both out of justice
and out of love! But not even that is adequate. Cardinal Law has gotten most of
the deans of the medical schools in Boston to work on establishing a center for
the prevention of child abuse, which is something that we should all support.
But not even that is not a sufficient response. The only adequate response to
this terrible scandal, the only fully Catholic response to this scandal as
St. Francis of Assisi recognized in the 1200s, as St. Francis de Sales recognized
in the 1600s, and as countless other saints have recognized in every century - is
HOLINESS! Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world
faces, is a crisis of saints. Holiness is crucial, because it is the real face
of the Church. We all have the vocation to be holy and this crisis is a wake-up
call. It's a tough time to be a priest today. It's a tough time to be a Catholic
today. But it's also a great time to be a priest and a great time to be a Catholic.
Jesus says in the beatitudes "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of slander against you falsely because of me. Be glad and
rejoice, for your reward in heaven is great. But while we all might have to suffer
such insults and slander falsely on account of Christ, we should indeed rejoice.
It's a great time to be a Christian, because this is a time in which God really needs
us to show off his true face. In bygone days in America, the Church was respected.
Priests were respected. The Church had a reputation for holiness and goodness. It's
not so any more. One of the greatest Catholic preachers in American history, Bishop
Fulton J. Sheen, used to say that he preferred to live in times when the Church has
suffered rather than thrived, when the Church had to struggle, when the Church had
to go against the culture: It was a time for real men and real women to stand up and
be counted. "Even dead bodies can float downstream," he used to say, pointing that
many people can coast when the Church is respected, "but it takes a real man, a real
woman, to swim against the current." How true that is! It takes a real man and a real
woman to stand up now and swim against the current that is flowing against the
Church. It takes a real man and a real woman to recognize that when swimming
against the flood of criticism, you're safest when you stay attached to the Rock
on whom Christ built his Church. This is one of those times. It's a great time
to be a Christian. This is a time in which all of us need to focus ever more on
holiness. We're called to be saints and how much our society here needs to see this
beautiful, radiant face of the Church. You're part of the solution, a crucial part
of the solution. And as you come forward today to receive from this priest's anointed
hands the sacred Body of your Lord, ask Him to fill you with a real desire for
sanctity, a real desire to show off His true face. One of the reasons why I'm
here in front of you as a priest today is because while I was younger, I was
underimpressed with some of the priests I knew. I would watch them celebrate
Mass and almost without any reverence whatsoever drop the Body of the Lord
onto the paten,
as if they were handling something with little value rather than the Creator
and Savior of all, rather than MY Creator and Savior. I remember saying to the
Lord, reiterating my desire to be a priest, "Lord, please let me become a priest,
so I can treat you like you deserve!" It gave me a great fire to serve the Lord.
Maybe this scandal can allow you to do the same thing. This scandal can be something
that can lead you down to the path of spiritual suicide, or it can be something
that can inspire you to say, finally, "I want to become a saint, so that I and the
Church can give your name the glory it deserves., so that others might find in you
the love and the salvation that I have found." Jesus is with us, as he promised,
until the end of time. He's still in the boat. Just as out of Judas' betrayal,
he achieved the greatest victory in world history, our salvation through his
passion, death and resurrection, so out of this he may bring, and wants to
bring, a new rebirth of holiness, a new Acts of the Apostles for the 21st
century, with each of us - and that includes YOU - playing a starring role.
Now's the time for real men and women of the Church to stand up. Now's the
time for saints. How do you respond? .
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