The Getty Center in Los Angeles
A funny thing happened to me at the museum the other day. I was taking the fascinating “architectural tour” at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. At one point I had to leave the tour to meet some friends in another part of the museum. After I had rejoined my friends, I realized that four people from the tour were still with me. I had to explain how I had left the tour early to rejoin my companions; we figured out where the rest of the tour had gone and they hurried off to rejoin it.
Naturally, I was dressed all in black with a Roman collar, and naturally they followed the priest rather than the docent when we went in different directions. Secularists attempt to debunk the priesthood, but folks still recognize and follow priests as one follows a father. We want priests, unless we convince ourselves that we don’t want them. I trust I’m not saying this from self-conceit, because I myself yearn to know and to follow good priests. The media’s obsession with clergy scandals is not just an attempt to debunk the priesthood; it is an expression of angry disappointment on their part. If they didn’t believe in the priesthood to some degree, they wouldn’t make such a fuss about it. Even a hardened atheist yearns to call someone “father” and believe that someone can show him order in an apparent meaningless universe.
We were at the Getty to see two exhibits of medieval religious art. Both depicted the Christian and Catholic faith of the middle ages in vivid and balanced splendor. And while the audio commentary assumed that medieval piety was no more than the charming simplicity of uneducated people, even so the museum curators recognized its nobility and beauty. Secularists would like to believe in this “beautiful myth” if they could, and maybe—who knows, they think—it might have some bit of truth to it. I certainly didn’t detect antipathy towards Christianity at the museum, nor even an overt dismissal of faith.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo gave our College a beautiful commencement address last May. “You graduating students,” he concluded, “have been studying the philosophical transcendentals of unity, goodness, truth, and beauty over these four years. You are prepared now to bring them to a faithless world. I think you’d better focus on beauty, because they’re not buying truth and goodness anymore.”
Certainly, the Getty museum and the definers of culture still appreciate beauty, even if they have long since given up on truth and goodness. The beauty of the priesthood, the beauty of the Gospel and the Sacraments, still draws hearts and minds, even in the wasteland of our declining culture. “Beauty will save the world,” wrote Dostoevsky. The priesthood, a sacrament of Christ, is beautiful, despite the ugly distortions some priests make of it. I think most people still recognize this, or at least yearn for it.
St. John Bosco
From the Chaplain’s Laptop: Vows
One of my dear priest friends announced to his parish last Sunday that he would no longer be their priest because he had fathered a child. He told Channel 10 the next day that “it has been very hard to live a double life.” To some degree we all live “double lives,” hiding our big and small infidelities from others and attempting to hide them from God (it didn’t work for Adam and Eve). I am sure that my friend will receive all kinds of “support” in this difficult time. The news media will doubtless quote many people saying that priests should be able to marry, that the Catholic Church must change, that this priest did nothing wrong, etc.
But my friend does not need this kind of “support.” He needs true support, in the first place prayer, but also the support of friends who will tell him the truth. The truth is, he broke his vow of chastity. It’s not the end of the world, and not the end of my friend’s relationship to God and His Church. But it is a grave sin, calling for humble penitence and reparation. In breaking his vow, a priest scandalizes the Church (causes people to lose their faith) and scandalizes himself (compromises his relationship with God, for after all it is to God he made his vow). A priest can survive such a breach in fidelity, and indeed become a saint, but he will need to clearly admit his mistake and work to restore what he has stolen. This is the daily work of anyone’s spiritual life.
My friend said in the TV interview that he hopes the Church will change her teaching on priestly celibacy. He implies, I think, that to be true to himself, he had to violate his vows, since the Church expected something unnatural and unreasonable of him. But even should the Church change her discipline of clerical celibacy (I don’t think she will), we priests are bound by the vows we made to God on the day of our ordination. We all knew that to which we were committing on the day of our ordination (we spend 6-8 years preparing for it). We knew that we were committing to a mystical marriage with the Church, to celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We know very well that we cannot keep our vows without His grace.
Priests pray every day that God preserve them from violating their vows. I love my friend, and it is not easy for me to write this. We have shared many beautiful years as brother priests. I am sending this blog to him before I post it. But it must be said that the Church is not at fault in this case. Man’s weakness—his, mine, the woman’s, the bishop’s, the laity’s—is at fault. But Christ’s Church—she is not at fault. Celibacy is difficult, even impossible, for men, but the Church is not wrong in requiring this of her priests. God calls his priests to do the impossible, after the example of His Son, so that we will depend entirely upon his grace. If we fall short, we must simply and sincerely admit our failure and seek to rebuild what has collapsed. God will give us the grace to do so.
You may have heard that on January 31, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles informed his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties in the archdiocese. He did this after reading the files of abuse cases in the archdiocese under Cardinal Mahony’s watch. You may have also heard that Cardinal Mahony defended himself the following day in a public letter to Archbishop Gomez. The Cardinal wrote that sending abusers for counseling and then reinstating them was standard practice in schools and other youth organizations at the time.
Why is virtually no one accepting his defense? The reason is plain: when a priest commits sexual sin against a child, he has irrevocably violated his vocation; he has permanently lost the trust of the Church. This is the Catholic understanding of the priesthood, regardless of any “standard practices” in any culture.
Cardinal Mahony seems to have misunderstood the nature and identity of the Catholic priesthood. He seems to have managed the Church more as a civic organization than the Bride of Christ. And this is why even the Los Angeles Times finds his behavior indefensible. Everyone, even the Church’s enemies, expect the Catholic Church to act like the Catholic Church.
It is as plain as plain can be: if a priest preys on a child, he forfeits his role as spiritual father. No bishop need deliberate over a course of action—he simply needs to follow canon law and revoke the priest’s faculties. A significant number of bishops failed to oversee the Church in accord with her own nature. Rather, they managed the Church as one would manage a business, with lawyers and public relations agents. There is no excuse for this.
I for one, as a priest, long to be treated as a priest. I hope to be disciplined as a priest, not as an employee. I wish for my bishop to expect a clean heart of me, not merely a clean legal record. Priests need their bishops to expect them to be men of prayer, sacrifice, and sanctity. It seems that the priests of Los Angeles were called not so much to holiness as to professionalism, and this is why we find this story so disappointing. It would help all of us if Cardinal Mahony could see past events from this perspective.
It is time to say good-bye. This will be my last “Pastor’s Laptop,” the last in a weekly series that I’ve managed to keep up for 12 years.
What do I love most about St. Joseph’s, and what will I miss? I love the silence just before daily Mass—a good hundred of us quietly awaiting Christ’s Presence in Word and Sacrament. I love the fellowship after Mass, when adults catch up and children race around the fountain, and no one wants to leave. I love teaching PSR classes to eager sixth-graders, Christmas Eve pageants, and all our parish choirs. I love Wednesday staff lunches in the rectory with my dearest co-workers, and the joyful fellowship of Volunteer Appreciation Dinners in November. I love visits to your homes and visits to Memorial Hospital. I treasure reading and praying in the rectory backyard, a little paradise with gurgling fountain, chirping birds, bright flowers, and swaying birch trees.
I will never forget my 12 Lents at St. Joseph’s—KOC fish fry's, Stations of the Cross, Parish Missions, the Easter Vigil, and Sunrise Masses on the east lawn. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed altar server camping trips by the ocean, five World Youth Days, and Confirmation retreats in the Sierras. I will miss morning bike rides on the Briggsmore levy, palm trees around the campus waving in the afternoon breeze, a campus full of flowers, Thursday adventures with my brother priests, and the exquisite communal silence in our Adoration Chapel. I will dearly miss every one of you, whom I have known and loved over these 12 years. I will keep you all in my daily prayers, and ask that you please pray for your onetime pastor.
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It is time to say good-bye, but it is also time to say hello to Fr. Mark Wagner, our new pastor. I know he will love and cherish St. Joseph’s as much as I did. God bless you all!
“I told her not to ‘settle’,” a friend told me thirty years ago. “What does ‘settle’ mean?” I asked her. “It means settling for a man who does not meet her standards.”
A priest, it is said, marries the Church. Does the Church “settle” for priests that don’t meet her standards? Do you settle for a merely good man, or will you accept nothing less than a good priest? “A good priest is a very good thing,” wrote Victor Hugo in Les Miserables. How is a good priest more than just a good man?
A good man puts you at ease; a good priest puts you at ease, but often challenges you as well. A good man makes you laugh; a good priest makes you laugh, but sometimes makes you cry. A good man helps you reach success in life; a good priest helps you reach success, but he also prepares you for heaven. A Catholic priest must be a good man, certainly, but God calls His priests to a greater personal sanctity. A really good priest never ceases to call others, as well, to sanctity.
How much do we, the Church, settle for good men when we could expect of our priests that they be other Christs: men of prayer, of purity, of sacrifice, of obedience? Christ was “obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). Is your priest striving for this kind of obedience?
Do not be satisfied with your priest if he preaches dynamic, engaging homilies but does not preach difficult truths. Do not be satisfied if he shows you the world but does not show you Christ. Do not be satisfied if he teaches your children soccer but does not teach them the Gospel. I often hear laypeople saying how wonderful a man Fr. So-and-So is. They don’t seem to mind that he is not very priestly — that he doesn’t wear his collar, or flirts with women, or disrespects his Bishop or hardly ever prays. The erosion of priestly virtue is the real scandal in our Church, the source of all particular clergy scandals.
I don’t want to be just a wonderful man. I want to be a faithful priest. Please help me to be a saint. The Church, the Bride of Christ, should settle for nothing less in her priests.
A few weeks ago we priests renewed our vows before Bishop Blaire in the Cathedral. At this annual “Chrism Mass,” all of the priests process in and concelebrate the Eucharist with their Bishop. People who attend this Mass often describe it as the most striking liturgy they’ve ever seen. Catholics love the priesthood, and we love to see our Bishop together with all his priests at the altar. And yet, we know that the priesthood in America is in crisis.
I would say that our priest problems — almost no priests from our own parishes, clergy scandals, burnt-out priests, ineffective or out-of-touch priests, a significant drop-out rate (half of the men I was ordained with have left the priesthood) — these problems result largely from the depressingly low standards expected of us. Simple disciplines, such as wearing clerical attire (required by Church Law), are not encouraged. In 21 years of serving this Diocese as a priest, I have never been asked if I am faithfully praying the breviary. Many priests have given up on this very first vow that we make — to pray the entire Liturgy of the Hours every day. We priests receive little encouragement to strive for holiness. As a result, we tend to stop practicing even basic priestly disciplines, such as devotions to the Mother of God; study of Scripture and Church doctrine; service to the poor; commitment to the confessional; penance, fasting, and tithing; quality homily preparation. We priests need direction, encouragement, and accountability to maintain these difficult standards. I myself have never been evaluated on any specifically priestly duties. Am I making time for real prayer? Do I put in decent work hours? Do I have a problem with alcohol, or pornography, or gambling? Am I going to confession regularly? To be a good priest requires a greater personal sanctity. Priests are generally not getting the guidance and accountability to sustain that greater sanctity, and this is our fundamental crisis.
Please pray for your priests, as I know you do. Pray that we love God enough to obey Him, as He speaks through our Bishop and the Pope. Pray that we commit ourselves to becoming saints.
Homily: Is God still calling young men and women to consecrated life?
Have you ever wondered where all the priests and nuns are hiding? We have 34 parishes in our 6-county diocese. Of the 66 priests serving in those parishes, only 16 grew up in our area. Seven more, like myself, are Americans who came from another part of the country, and the remaining 43 priests are from other countries. In other words, only one in four priests in the Stockton Diocese is a local boy. Three out of four priests in our diocese are missionaries, so to speak, who have come from outside. To put it in another perspective, of the 300,000 Catholics in our diocese, only 16 men over the last 30 years have become priests for our local community. Isn’t God calling young men and women to consecrated life?
The answer is certainly yes. God is calling more than enough vocations from our local community. He would never leave his Church without priests. The priesthood is absolutely essential to our faith. Jesus called the four men in today’s Gospel: Simon and Andrew, James and John. He called them to the priesthood to provide the Eucharist for the People of God after he would have gone back to his Father. God still calls.
But for some reason, young men and women are not answering His call. Two weeks ago Fr. Dan from Russia preached all the Masses. He pointed out that Russia is extraordinarily vocations-poor, much worse than California. In 19 years they have been running the Cathedral in Vladivostok, not one Russian young man has been ordained. They have four seminarians, but all are from outside of Russia. Why? Fr. Dan said it was because the family in Russia lies in ruins. 92% of marriages end in divorce, and most Russian boys don’t know who their father is. So how can they become a spiritual father, if they have never learned fatherhood? We experience the same problem here, though not to that devastating degree. Strong families mean many and strong priests; weak families mean few and weak priests.
Where do nuns come from? Yes, I have to tell you, there is a nun-factory south of Fresno. They manufacture them with big solar collectors, and export to all countries, especially to Italy. No, of course, nuns and priests come from our families. Who will replace me, your beloved priest, when I die? Will you drive down to the priest factory and pick out another model? Of course not. The man who will replace me, and our beloved hospital chaplain Fr. Larry, and all our priests, is eating dinner at the family table this evening. You are tucking him into bed tonight. If you don’t see him at dinner tonight, and you don’t pray the rosary with him after tucking him into bed, and you don’t teach him the Bible today, then you probably won’t see him at this altar in 20 years.
Let me tell you my story. My mother and father, especially my mother, practiced the Catholic faith. They took us to Mass every Sunday and to confession every few weeks (with the promise of an ice-cream cone afterwards). They had six children, so giving one to God was not a big deal. Mom taught us to pray the rosary, and read the lives of the saints to us every night before turning off the light. We went on pilgrimages as a family, and we learned facts of life from our parents, not from some sex-ed curriculum at school. So when my call to the priesthood came, I heard it. I heard it loud and clear. I didn’t accept it right away, but I heard it. It was a viable proposition.
My call came in the following manner. I was living with three other guys in a student apartment at Penn State in 1982. We all had girlfriends, so when the hall phone rang we all came running (the days before cellphones). The phone rang one evening in April, and we all came running. Alex got the phone first, and announced it was “some man” for Joe. I took the phone, and the voice said: “Joe Illo? I’m Fr. Kelly from Our Lady of Victory. I’d like to talk to you about the priesthood, if you have a chance.” It was the voice, and the call, of God. I went to the church and spoke with Fr. Kelly about an hour. He told me about the priesthood, and said many folks thought I had that vocation. I told him I had a girlfriend, and wanted to be a teacher and have lots of kids. But I would think about it. Three years after that conversation, I entered the seminary, and I’ve never looked back.
Why did Fr. Kelly, and many folks at college, think I had a vocation to the priesthood? Because I loved the Mass. The Mass is the only reason a man becomes a priest. God calls priests through the Mass. Bring your sons and daughters to Mass. Teach them to love the Mass by loving it yourselves. Pray with your children at home, extend the graces of the Eucharist in your living rooms and dining rooms, and yes, even in your bedrooms. And you will see how God will raise up holy priests and nuns, right before your eyes.