Another Lent, another dispiriting round of Catholic heroes brought low by their own sins, either actual or alleged.
It seems we are always confronting anew the wisdom of the Psalmist’s admonition “Put not your faith in princes,” to which St. John Chrysostom would add, “…even princes of the Church.”
We know this in theory. Each Lent our congregations swell with people eager to receive ashes and be reminded they are dust. Why are we always so shocked to see the truth of it?
Let me not be misread in what follows to be dismissive of the marvelous variety of Catholic ministries nor anything but admiring of the dedicated people who make them work.
Nor am I suggesting that “do as I say but not as I do” is sufficient morality for catechists, evangelists and consecrated souls. Of course Christians should make every effort to behave in ways worthy of the Savior they proclaim. Those are givens.
Reading through peoples' strong reactions when persons we’ve admired are shown to have feet of clay, though, I’m wondering what good might be drawn out these negative situations. And might there be something to learn from the rapid succession of cases in the past few years?
Do we place a weight of expectation on our Catholic heroes that is more than a human being can bear?
It’s obviously not unreasonable to expect a priest to uphold his vows: more like a bare minimum! But if we are looking to human beings to be perfect, aren’t we looking in the wrong place? Why do we think a gift for exegesis or catechesis equates to personal holiness? Do our own personal gifts prevent us from being tempted or falling into sin?
St. Claude Colombiere advises:
“Really humble people are never scandalized: they know their own weaknesses too well; they know that they themselves are so close to the edge of the precipice…that they are not at all astonished to see others do so.”
It is natural to love and feel gratitude towards the people who show us Jesus, and it is fitting for hearts drawn to the same spirituality and mission to form Christian communities. But there has only ever been one perfect man: Christ himself.
The rest of us, whether our lives are hidden or public, walk by fits and starts toward Him. We advance for awhile, then fall, repent, and advance again.
When a particular teacher’s words chasten my conscience and liberate me from sin or help my soul draw closer to Christ or simply encourage me in a difficult moment, that’s the grace of God at work through a human instrument.
It is a joy when God uses our gifts and talents to help others, but it’s mistaken attribution if our admiration only goes as far as the person who helped us.
As my confessor likes to say when I thank him, “Praise the Lord and pray for the priest!”
Our champions, gifted as they are – and may God bless their generosity and guts! – don’t need us to be their disciples or groupies. They need us to be their brothers and sisters in Christ: uplifting them in prayer, appreciating their talents, collaborating – but also doing them the favor of keeping those gifts in perspective.
We must also correct them fraternally if they go astray, and forgive and encourage them as we are forgiven and encouraged when we fall and repent.
Knowing from the doctors of the Church that the Lord is a “jealous” God who will ask us to detach ourselves from anything at all – even wholesome things – that are not Him, I can’t help but wonder if the Church is not going through a purification that entails more than purification of the sacramental priesthood.
Perhaps the Church at large is having its heroes publicly dropped a peg or two because it has been too much looking for champions in the first place, and the Lord wishes us to go to only Him as champion.
Loving the right causes or being moved by eloquent homilies is not the same thing as being united to the vine ourselves by our personal prayer. However wonderful the instruments of grace that bring us to Christ, they are only that: instruments.
Perhaps this profound experience of our weakness is an opportunity to grow a more humble and united Christian community, painfully aware that we’re all in the battle for holiness together. And trusting in God alone.