Through Crisis to New Life
In the Image of Christ
by Bishop Donald Wuerl

Recent polls show that even in the face of a widely publicized scandal involving a number of priests, the Catholic people remain unshaken in their faith. The findings – reported by the New York Times and based on polls from ABC News/The Washington Post, CBS and Gallup – indicate that the recent scandals have not caused Catholics to question the basic tenets of the faith and, perhaps surprising to some, that a majority of Catholics said they would still seek their priests guidance in personal matters and would be comfortable if their children did so. "Catholics said that they were worried about the damage to their Church from the recent scandals but it would not affect their attendance at Mass."

What is at the root of the fidelity of Catholic people to their Church even when we are aware that a small number of priests have betrayed their ordination promises and have sexually abused young people? What is it that allows Catholics to see the goodness of the Church even while recognizing the personal failure of a few priests? Put another way, do we put our faith in the individual priest or in what he represents – the priesthood?

At the heart of our Catholic faith in the Church is the recognition that it is both Divine and human. It is a glorious gift contained in an earthen vessel. Nearly 2,000 years ago Jesus established the Church. This was to be the institution, the structure that would carry on not only His mission and ministry but His very presence in the world until the end of time.

Jesus determined that His Church would look a lot like Himself. Every Christmas we celebrate the mystery of God coming among us in Jesus Christ – "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Transcendent divinity took on human flesh with all its frailty. God embraced both our human nature and human condition so that precisely as one of us, His word could renew us.

Men, Not Angels, are Our Shepherds

Out of His followers Jesus picked the Twelve Apostles upon whom He would build His Church. Through them and their successors the Gospel would be continually made present generation after generation. It is clear that Jesus was aware that He was dealing with frail humanity. He chose men, not angels, to shepherd His flock.

The Apostle Peter, chosen by Jesus to be the "rock" on which he would build His Church, failed. Peter denied he even knew Jesus. From the cross Jesus could only see one apostle faithful to Him at the end – John. Scripture recounts that of the twelve weak men, one, Judas, actually betrayed Christ and stepped aside from his allotted role.

Researchers have pointed out that the incidence of abuse of a minor is no greater among Catholic priests than it is in any other sector of clerical life in the United States and certainly no higher than the incidence in the general population. This is not a defense of clergy abuse but simply an indication that we need to keep perspective when we hear all around us cries for the abolition of the priesthood as we know it today.

The problem is not with priesthood celibacy or the demands of priestly ministry. All of these are positive and in some instances God-given gifts. The problem is with the failure to live up to the challenge. Pope John Paul II reflected this in his remarks at the meeting of the US cardinals in Rome last April: "Like you, I to have been deeply grieved by the fact that priests and religious, whose vocation it is to help people live holy lives in the sight of God, have themselves caused such suffering and scandal to the young."

Instruments of Christ

Our Catholic faith has always distinguished between the Divine element of the Church, the Holy Spirit at work in it, and the human agency by which God’s grace touches us. We bear truly wondrous gifts in earthen vessels.

We ask how is it that Catholics continue to remain firm in their faith even in the face of the failure of some priests, and perhaps even a breakdown in leadership among some of us bishops. The answer rests in the realization that we believe that Christ is at work in His Church even if it is marred by some who have betrayed their ordination promises. In the same way we believe that Christ is at work in the sacrament of marriage even though some have betrayed their marriage vows.

We do not go primarily to Eucharistic liturgy – the Mass – to hear the priest, to experience his god given gifts, to bask in his personal accomplishments. We go to Mass because Christ is present at the celebration. We go to be with Him. It is the Lord Jesus who comes to us in the Eucharist. It helps if the priest is an eloquent preacher, a kindly person, a compassionate pastor, and a wise and gentle guide. But ultimately when all is said and done, the priest is an instrument of Christ.

Christ promised that His Holy Spirit would be with His Church until the end of time to preserve it in all truth. He never assured us that every believer, including priests and bishops, would be sinless. But he did guarantee that His teaching would not be adulterated, falsified or lost. It is a wondrous gift passed on in earthen vessels.

Years ago, as a young priest, I visited a Vincentian nursing home and spoke with a very old priest who was, in his words, "simply waiting to meet the Lord." I asked him if his priesthood – his life of self giving as a priest – was worth it. He replied with a story that I remember to this day. He said: "Father, a thousand years ago there was a priest somewhere who faithfully carried on his duties day in and day out. Today no one knows who he is. His name has vanished from the face of the earth. But because of him and others like him I got to hear the story of Jesus and I too was baptized. A thousand years from now a young couple will bring their baby to a baptismal font somewhere to have that child introduced into the new life of Christ. It will be because of me." Hyperbole, yes! But also rooted in truth.

Why do Catholics remain firm in their faith even in the face of clerical scandal? Because we know the Church is both divine and human. Christ continues to be present in and through frail human beings. Much of the sense of betrayal and even anger among bishops, priests and faithful directed at those who have caused this scandal comes from our own deeply held conviction that the priest is ordained to be an image, an icon of Christ.

At the installation of every pastor in the diocese of Pittsburgh, I speak to him and to the parishioners present reminding them that the priest is to stand in the midst of that faith community as the image of Christ. The priest is to teach, to be the spiritual leader and to administer the sacraments especially the Eucharist by which we participate in our salvation. Yes, this is an exalted image Catholic priesthood. It is the image painted by Jesus.

Lessons We are Learning

We have learned in this tragedy that we must always be vigilant in every age and at all times to see that we do our best to live up to our calling. When a priest fails in his duty there must be adequate safeguards to see that no one else is ever harmed because of human weakness.

What we are witnessing now, I believe, is a strengthening of the Church. More than ever we recognize clearly that there is a real distinction among forgiveness, wholeness and consequences. Forgiveness is something we are called to practice. It is a part of our Catholic identity. Even in failure we need to brace one another in mercy and forgiveness. Wholeness is something we all seek. We need to make available the means necessary to try to restore a priest in difficulty to wholeness.

I applaud the efforts of the Knights of Columbus to promote holy and sound vocations from within their own families and councils. I also look to you for your continued support for me and my brother bishops and priests through your "In Solidarity with Our Bishops and Our Priests" campaign and related efforts.

Yet today it is absolutely necessary to realize that forgiveness and wholeness are distinct from consequences. Our actions carry with them consequences. Sometimes a consequence of our actions can be to limit – even severely curtail – our ministry. All actions have consequences. This is one of the things our Holy Father implied when he noted that there is no place in the priesthood for someone who abuses a child.

I am persuaded that the polls which speak of the fidelity of the Catholic faithful do in fact reflect their conviction. "Catholics and Americans in general said they saw the sexual abuse of children as a persistent and tragic problem in many walks of life, not something more pronounced among the Catholic clergy." The great majority of Catholics indicated that "the recent scandals, however, caused no notable questioning of the basic tenets of the faith."

The one thing the polls cannot truly assess is the depth of faith in the mystery of the Church, which is a divine reality at work through human agents. Only living faith can recognize the great treasure borne in earthen vessels. Belief sees beyond the failure of a few men and holds fast to the mystery of God’s goodness at work in this world.

History teaches us that from the beginning there have been Christians, including priests, who have not lived up to the call. But with our Holy Father we proclaim: "So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate and a holier Church."

Yes, there were failures. Yes, there are scandals. But there is also the deep abiding conviction within the heart of each believer that God continues to be with us and to make Himself manifest in His Church, built with frail and fragile bricks but on its one true foundation – Christ the Lord.

Copyright © 2002 Columbia Magazine (Knights of Columbus)

Bishop Donald Wuerl is bishop of Pittsburgh


For Further Study

Scandals in the Church (Free)
Books - Light Of The World a conversation with Pope Benedict XVI


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