Some might tell you that there has never been a harder time to be a priest. While I have to admit my head is spinning and my frustration level high, I am not sure I can agree with that. Let me share some experiences with you that have happened over recent weeks as all the weirdness and invective has swirled around the Church.
As you know, I was away two weekends in a row in late August; for the first, I flew to Birmingham for family events. As usual, I traveled in my clerics, though not without some trepidation about what reactions I might get. Because neither the trip south or the return north went smoothly, I spent hours upon hours in airports, clearly identifiable as a priest. I received nothing but positive nods, smiles, and greetings; even openess. As I sat in the Birmingham Airport composing my letter to you, I noted the following:
Just now as I sat here in the airport, a woman walking by did a double take, stopped and walked back, looked around the wall to make sure she had indeed seen a priest sitting under a Panama hat, smiled and waved. Just that; then she went on her way.
I just had another woman walk up to me where I sat typing and say, Father? I just wanted to let you know I’m glad you’re here and we’re gonna get through this and it’s gonna be alright.
And that was in Birmingham, Alabama, where almost nobody is Catholic. Even with all that was in the news, people who encountered a priest at a random point in their day assumed he was one of the good guys. It was a very humbling trip for me.
Even in Washington, also hardly a Catholic bastion, and a place where everybody is up on every scandal – I joined a college buddy at Nats Park this weekend, as the crisis only got wilder. As I moved through the crowds, I was baffled by how folks yielded to me, smiled or nodded at me, or even greeted me. Then I remembered – I had worn my clerics under my Nats jacket.
In 248 AD, the Deacon Saint Lawrence taught the Roman magistrate who would sentence him to be roasted on a gridiron before a raging mob that the Church’s true treasure is the poor, the lame, the disgusting, and the ones who depend upon her to live. Their vulnerability is her vulnerability, but also one of her likenesses to Christ. Her weakness is her dependence upon human beings, flawed mortals, not only to be her needy members, but also especially to be her provident ministers.
The Church’s strength is her weakness, and vice versa. Only the Church has a structure of authority that bears such responsibility and makes such a silhouette in the crosshairs. Her responsibility is authentic because her authority is authentic.
Priests are the Church’s strength, and her weakness. Being one has been a very humbling trip for me.
Thank you for your care and support. Amidst all the confusion, anger, frustration, disappointment, and everything else you have shared with me, you have simultaneously emphasized your concern for me. I am not worthy! But you know that, and you encourage me anyway. Thanks, and thanks be to God.
Somehow, I think it might turn out to be that there has never been a better time to be a priest.