Priests say abuse crisis shows need for holiness and renewal in Church
Nov 6, 2019
US & World
In the wake of the abuse crisis that rocked the Catholic Church in 2018, panels that included abuse survivors, bishops, theologians and lay women and men were convened to analyze the problem and help the Church confront it by the Catholic Project, an initiative of The Catholic University of America.
On Oct. 29, the Catholic Project sought another perspective, from four priests serving in various ministries who were on the front lines facing the aftershocks of the crisis, and who also experienced it on a personal level as priests.
“These men have felt the same anger and betrayal in recent months as the rest of us, but they have also borne the sins of their brothers,” said Stephen White, the executive director of the Catholic Project who moderated the discussion on “Shepherds to a Wounded Flock: How our Priests See the Crisis” at Catholic University’s Heritage Hall.
The priest panelists included Father Paul Scalia, the vicar for clergy in the Diocese of Arlington who also serves as the pastor of St. James Parish in Falls Church, Virginia; Father Carter Griffin, the rector of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Saint John Paul II Seminary; Father Robert Boxie III, a parochial vicar at St. Joseph Parish in Largo, Maryland; and Father Matthew Fish, the administrator of Holy Family Church and School in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland.
“This has been a tough year for all of us,” said Father Boxie. Addressing how he dealt with the crisis, he said, “My ministry from the beginning was always to be a faithful disciple and to be a faithful priest of Jesus Christ… to be this instrument of God’s love, of God’s mercy, of God’s hope and of God’s nearness to the people I serve.”
The priest, said that since his ordination in 2016, he has tried to get to know and build relationships with the people entrusted to his care. The parishioners at St. Joseph, he said, are very faithful, but they were hurting as news of the crisis unfolded, and he said his ministry included “really trying to re-establish as best as I possibly can the trust that has been lost among a lot of our people.”
Father Fish described how he had grown up in an environment where he felt blessed to be Catholic and witness the faith-filled lives of many good priests and laity, and a desire to give back helped inspire his own vocation. But he said for him, “this last year has been a revelation of brokenness and disappointment in the Church that I had not thought possible before.”
The priest noted the sorrow he felt in learning how clergy sexual abuse had led to people having “not only their innocence, but their faith taken away from them.” Father Fish recounted how he had attended a prep school in Washington state and later learned that a Jesuit priest who had celebrated daily Mass there for students was later accused of being a notorious abuser in Alaska.
Father Fish, who like Father Boxie serves at a predominantly African American parish, said he thinks they have faced the crisis differently, and their faith has given him hope.
“They’ve known a lot of disappointment and brokenness. Seeing the hope that they had in the midst of the struggle that has gone on for much of their lives really taught me something, they taught me how to encounter Christ amidst that struggle and brokenness,” he said.
As a priest, this past year and one-half has been “incredibly difficult,” said Father Griffin, who added that as a seminary rector, he knows that the crisis has been especially hard for “young seminarians discerning a vocation to give their life completely to God… If there’s a crisis of confidence and trust in all of us, it’s sort of redoubled in the life of a young man discerning priesthood.”
But Father Griffin noted that he converted to the Catholic faith in college, when peers challenged him about scandals in the Church’s history, and he said that he has taken it as an article of faith, and come to believe it even stronger on a personal level this past year, that the Holy Spirit not only founded the Church, but continues to work in it, despite the sins and human weaknesses of its members.
“I believe it with all my heart,” said Father Griffin, who said he has a “deep sense of hope that the Lord is still in charge.”
Later, he noted how after the faithful suffered during the turmoil of the French Revolution in the 18th century, some of the Church’s greatest saints arose in France.
The time is now to engage the world with the Gospel and proclaim the risen Christ, the priest said.
“We have to take the opportunity to renew our confidence in who Jesus Christ is and in the Church he founded,” said Father Griffin. “Our vocation is to be faithful, to be saints… We never know what the Holy Spirit has in store, but that means we have to respond and become saints. That’s the answer.”
Father Boxie said the abuse crisis has crystalized for him the importance “of what our mission should be, that is, preaching the Gospel, going out and sharing the rich treasure of our Catholic faith.”
Another panelist, Father Scalia, noted that when the clergy abuse crisis surfaced in 2002, he was a young priest. In analyzing the challenge for the Church today, he too took an historical and spiritual perspective, noting, “The Church is always needing to be purified.” This time, he said, his brother priests’ response to the crisis seems to be “we have to be better priests,” as they suffer along with their people.
As a vicar for clergy, Father Scalia said that last year when the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report came out, he had to pore over it to make sure that none of those abusive priests had served in his diocese. One evening he came home and decided that he needed to walk down the street and pray at a nearby Adoration chapel. “That was the first time as a priest I ever hesitated to go out in public with my Roman collar on,” he said.
But on the day after that report was issued, Father Scalia said he gained hope when meeting with a man who was interested in becoming Catholic, who told him that he believed “the Catholic Church is the only body with the institutional integrity to withstand the problems of the modern world.” And when asked about the abuse crisis, the man responded, “One generation of holy priests will rid us of this.”
Father Griffin echoed that point, saying, “Priests have to rebuild trust by being good, faithful, generous (and) holy priests.”
The priest, who wrote the book “Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest” published this year by Emmaus Road Publishing, added, “This (the Church) is not just an institution. This is a spiritual family... It’s so essential to get back to the core of who we are as priests,” as spiritual fathers to those whom they serve.
All four priests emphasized the importance of priestly fraternity and the need for fraternal correction among brother priests.
Father Fish noted how he and Father Boxie and some other priests meet on a regular basis to pray together and talk about what’s happening in their lives.
“We (priests) are really our brother’s keeper. We do have to look out for each other,” said Father Boxie.
Father Griffin said a silver lining “in this terrible cloud” of the abuse crisis has been that “there’s been a greater clarity and understanding that we need to be more consistent in our priestly lives… We (as priests) have to hold ourselves more accountable than we have. Then our Lord will do what he’s done in generation after generation, bring great good even out of the greatest of evil.”
Father Boxie noted his respect and gratitude for priests who have kept the faith and served their people for decades, and he said that young priests with their zeal and enthusiasm can seek common ground with veteran clergy, “so we can both move forward and move our Church forward.”
An important part of that fraternal relationship involves encouraging fellow priests to remain steadfast in prayer, because so often when priests go down the wrong path, they have stopped praying, Father Fish said, adding a priest is in trouble if he’s “not coming back to prayer as the most important resource of priesthood.”
Father Boxie agreed with that point, saying, “As priests and clerics, we are called to be men of prayer. For us to move forward, the laity faithful need to help keep us grounded in prayer. The faithful have to be men and women of prayer… We are disciples of Jesus Christ, walking together.”
The priest said the abuse crisis has also brought home to him that there are other important issues that the Catholic Church needs to address, such as how “the racism that goes on in our country trickles down in our Church.”
Father Boxie noted, “From where I’m standing as an African American, as a black priest in this archdiocese, in trying to fulfill my mission… I’ve found what people do want is Jesus Christ, and how we have failed to do that among all of our brothers and sisters… People have not been ministered to, people’s needs have not been addressed, people feel they don’t have a voice or a seat at the table where they can be heard. We cannot discount our mission to go out to everyone, and we haven’t done a good job of doing that.”
When asked how priests can bring healing to Catholics wounded by the abuse crisis, Father Scalia said it is important for a priest “to just listen and allow himself to hear some very uncomfortable and difficult things” as people share their anguish.
Father Boxie said it is important for priests to accompany their flock in this crisis. “We also have to realize we as priests are wounded as well… Part of the healing process is simply being with them as fathers and shepherds,” he said.
Amid the sorrow and other emotions brought on by the abuse crisis, Father Fish said he has found inspiration in witnessing people’s faithfulness, and seeing signs of hope, like the archdiocese’s seminary full with candidates and expanding with new wings to accommodate them.
“I think this is how renewal happens. God works through communities that are faithful,” he said.
And Father Fish said his faith has been strengthened by seeing families teaching their children that faith is central to their lives. “This is how you change a Church. You have holy families who have holy children who are inspired to live their vocations heroically and become saints,” he said.
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