Note to readers from Father Gordon MacRae of These Stone Walls: On June 5, I will mark my 35th anniversary of priesthood ordination. Two-thirds of my time as a priest has been spent cast into one of the dark peripheries to which Pope Francis points the days of the Church. I struggled, really struggled, to write a post for this week to make this occasion. I mailed it, but alas, eight days later it had not yet arrived. So my post will be featured here next Wednesday, God willing. In a pinch, I invited (begged is more like it) Father Stuart MacDonald to write in my stead this week. He had no idea of anything I had written about priesthood, nor did I give him a topic. On the night before this is posted, his guest post was read to me and it is perfect. It is powerful. And it is the truth. I humbly ask you on behalf of all priests to share this post, to pray for us priests, and to return next week for my voice from the wilderness. With Divine Mercy Blessings, Father Gordon MacRae.
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Satan has the upper hand with the Priesthood. It’s ordination time. With their eyes fixed on Christ, new priests can be a breath of fresh air in the Church.
It’s ordination season. Seminarians, having finished the final academic year of their theological studies, are generally ordained as priests in the months of May and June. Last week I had the honour of preaching at the first Mass of the newly ordained priest in my diocese. On such occasions, it’s quite common for a priest to receive compliments: everyone, after all, is excited about the newly ordained priest. Just like all newborn babies are the prettiest that anyone has ever seen, so a first Mass is the best that anyone has ever attended. Well-grounded priests don’t let themselves get carried away by the free-flowing praise. The reaction to my homily, however, gave me pause. It’s not that my homily was so scintillating; rather, what gives me pause is that people seemed to be deeply moved that a priest spoke the truth and spoke it from the heart.
In many ways, my homily was serious and direct about the responsibilities that the newly ordained had taken upon himself. It was not full of platitudes and congratulations. Playing on the name of the new priest, I compared that day to Boxing Day, when the Church focuses our attention on the martyrdom of St. Stephen as an antidote to the festivities of the previous day. I suggested that, in like manner, this first Mass was a sobering reality check to the joyous celebration of the young man’s ordination the previous day. Now he had to get down to work and be a priest, to carry on the work of redemption by giving his life to the service of Christ and the Church. That’s not terribly deep stuff. I expanded a bit and described how he must be full of hope, trusting in Christ for his solace, because suffering would inevitably come. I recounted how obedience, celibacy, indifference and jealousy among other things could cause him to become discouraged if he was not careful, if he ever stopped trusting in Christ and looked only to Himself.
I think that simple meditation on the priesthood was something new to the ears of priests and laity alike that day. I had a married man describe how he was brought to tears by what I said; his wife confirmed that she had never seen him react like that before. There were colleagues in the diocese who seemed taken aback, perhaps because I had spoken out loud things that they have experienced but never voiced before. In any event, it was highly unusual to experience the number of people who felt the need to seek me out in the large crowd to express their thanks for my words.
All this week I have been pondering what exactly had happened. For the most part, I don’t believe that lay people understand the life of a priest. At the same time, many presbyterates feel so beaten and broken by everything that has happened in the last fifteen years that priests don’t know how to communicate with each other, or with their flocks. That may seem too bleak to some. Perhaps it is, but I suspect that it is not too far off base, it if is at all. My laying it on the line with all frankness for a new young priest was something new for that group of faithful Catholics. That should give us all pause.
Why is it that priests are afraid to speak the truth? Why is it that the faithful have such a shallow understanding of priestly life? It doesn’t speak well of the Church. Nor does it bode well for her. It doesn’t speak well of her because it means that communication between the shepherds and the flock has broken down. It doesn’t bode well because young men have little to attract them to the priesthood. As I attempted to articulate in my homily, the priesthood faces the same crisis that the world does precisely because our priests are chosen from that same broken, sinful world that Christ wishes to redeem. So the Church and the priesthood may be a paler reflection of the culture around us, but a reflection it is.
We live in a world in which family life is corrupted and unstable. Religion and piety are considered irrelevant for the most part. Corruption, greed and selfishness are virtues if they help you get ahead in the world. Our priests are chosen from men who have been nurtured in that environment. Does it surprise us that Robert Cardinal Sarah recently wrote of bishops in this way: It can happen that a good, pious priest, once he is raised to the episcopal dignity, quickly falls into mediocrity and a concern for worldly success. Overwhelmed by the weight of the duties that are incumbent on him, worried about his power, his authority, and the material needs of his office, he gradually runs out of steam?
The same can be said for an idealistic, enthusiastic seminarian after he is ordained a priest. I think that’s what I tried to say in my homily at the first Mass. What exacerbates the problem further, is that Satan has succeeded in planting the tiniest seed of doubt about priests in the minds of everyone, even the faithful: every priest today is looked upon with suspicion. The result is that priests struggle to survive, receding to safe spaces of preaching that which will not discomfort, of administrative efficiency, of obedience that will keep superiors happy and of distance from their flock that will salve the suspicions. At the same time, the faithful are disconnected from their shepherds, bereft of soul-searching preaching and wandering in a world that lures them away from anything God-like.
To step into that and speak openly and honestly about the priesthood and its struggles is, simply put, a novelty, and, apparently refreshing. That should give us hope! The work of evangelization can be fostered just by being honest and truthful, in other words, sincere and orthodox. People need to hear the truth of their faith, with all of its challenges. Faith is serious business. Deep down, people know that. Sometimes, we as priests and bishops are so worried about keeping pews full, collections up and complaints down that we stop being honest and faithful in our preaching. I have openly told friends of mine, after attending Mass somewhere, usually while on holiday or something, that I would find it a real struggle to be faithful to the Sunday Mass obligation simply because there is so little out there that is nourishing. That’s a scandalous thing to say, to be sure.
So how did we get here? How could a simple, honest homily cause such a stir? The answer, I think, is to be found in the fear which grips the presbyterate. We are still reeling from the effects of the smallest and ugliest side of the priesthood rearing its ugly head and being exposed. The panic and fear that arose because people discovered that one of the ugliest sins around had been committed by priests is still with us fifteen years later. It doesn’t matter that only a small percentage of clergy are guilty; it doesn’t matter that the Church had legislated against this crime since at least the fourth century; it doesn’t matter that we live in a world where lust is a virtue; nor does it matter that the sin is more common among family members than it is in the clergy. The damage has been done. Satan has taken the upper hand, clouded our judgment and skewed our perspective. Fear and panic have driven us to a public image of perfection. There will be no more sin because we have all the programs to prevent it. There will be no struggle because that’s a sign of weakness. Or so we tell ourselves. Deep down, if we’re in the mood for it, as apparently some people were at a first Mass, we know that it can’t work that way.
I suppose that’s why so many of us feel acutely the suffering being endured by Fr. Gordon MacRae, who graciously invited me to write this guest column. He is one of the victims of the fear and panic. I simply cannot fathom what it must be like for him to endure this trial except to encourage him that he is being shaped into a saint. Part of my homily at that first Mass was about St. Peter’s exhortation to “be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3: 15) That hope comes only from Christ for everyone, but especially a priest. And that’s the point, there are priests undergoing the gravest of struggles, like Fr. MacRae, who remain beacons of light and hope. On the face of it, Fr. MacRae’s situation is hopeless. Like our Lord, he’s falsely accused as a criminal and enduring an excruciating punishment. Despite that, he teaches me from the pulpit of his cell what it means to be a priest. He is not afraid to write about his struggles, his own journey of faith. We see how he ministers to so many in prison, not through any rituals or prayers, but simply by being faithful and hopeful. It’s his honesty and frankness which refresh and nourish our faith. If only we could learn that lesson as an institution.
How sad it is that there is practically no one on earth with fewer rights than a priest. Fathers have turned on their sons in the face of public pressure, in the exact measure that Cardinal Sarah so bravely wrote about. It is no wonder a priest is afraid to be sincere and honest in his work – it might get him in trouble. Exacerbated by the suspicion in which priests are held in our culture, the smallest word or gesture to a suspicious listener or onlooker leads to the full weight of the law coming down on the priest ad cautelam pro bono ecclesiae (as a precaution for the good of the Church). And the suspicious world sighs in relief; the cowed bishop relaxes that he has done his job and the rest of the priests wonder if they will be next. Because it doesn’t matter if there is truth.
Accusation is now our indicator of truth. Does that mean that there is never any truth, or real punishable crime? Of course not! But what price are we paying for our insecure security? Well, Fr. MacRae can end up in jail, facilitated by the ready judgment of his confreres and superiors, scapegoated by those seeking financial gain, denied justice by the lady herself. We have created an atmosphere where priests are afraid to be priests, let alone human. We mirror the breakdown of family life when fathers become police officers to their sons. We suffer inwardly as brother distances himself from brother, and shepherd from his sheep.
In the week before I preached at that first Mass, a friend of mine who is a successful and competent professional, a faithful Catholic, when I told her I was preparing the homily, shared with me that she cannot understand why any young man would be attracted to the priesthood given the constraints that he now faces: namely not being able to count on the support of his bishop in the face of controversy, the lack of any true due process, unless one wishes to undergo a long and costly recourse that might win the battle but not the war, and the general disregard of the priesthood in the world. I was a little taken aback by what she said. Maybe that influenced me in what I preached about. The attraction, for those willing to look, is the joy that comes from knowing that one is doing what Christ has asked him to do. There’s the reason for any priest’s hope.
We may face a particular form of suffering in our modern world, and Fr. MacRae a particularly brutal form of it, but I wouldn’t trade any of it for something else. I don’t dare speak for him, but I suspect Fr. MacRae knows exactly what I am talking about. He is the one, I am told, who received a letter from a deacon who is about to be ordained priest in a few weeks. That man asked Fr. MacRae to pray for him to be a holy priest. Just think about that, and let that sink in. That’s a brave, hopeful priest who knows what he is about. I’m sure Fr. MacRae is, but I certainly will be praying for him. He knows what he is about. He’s going to make a fine priest if he keeps his gaze fixed on Christ.
We don’t need a lot of really smart intellectuals in the Church (although we do need them); we don’t need a lot of really good administrators either (but we do need some). We certainly don’t need priests seized with fear who are intent only in succeeding in the system (God spare us from those). We need men of hope, gaze fixed on Christ, who are willing to speak with honesty and frankness to the people entrusted to their care. Congratulations to all the men out there being ordained to the Priesthood. Be holy priests. Be hope-filled priests. Be for all of us, like Fr. MacRae from the stuffiness of his small, dank cell, a breath of fresh air.
Now, Fathers, let’s get down to work!
Fr. Stuart MacDonald has been ordained for twenty years for the Diocese of St. Catharines in Canada. He is a canon lawyer and has worked in various parishes as well as for the Holy See. Currently, he is settling into a new assignment to a parish in his diocese.