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Sermon: A Purified Priesthood

“Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.”

Over the past few weeks, we have been reading at Mass from the Bread of Life discourse, this beautiful passage from St. John’s Gospel where our Lord explains to us the mystery of His flesh and blood that He will give to us and will make us live forever with Him. As Catholics we know that our Lord is talking about the Eucharist, the sacred banquet from which we are invited to partake in order to have Christ’s life within our souls. However, at the same time that we have been reflecting on these incredible promises from our Lord, we have been bombarded with revelations about how many of the very men entrusted with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper have betrayed the members of the Lord’s flock.

Several weeks ago, news starting mounting regarding then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose predatory behavior upon seminarians, young priests, and other young men repulsed and disgusted us. Worse yet, we heard reports that dozens of other clerics and even bishops knew about his crimes and failed to report them.

But it got worse. This past week, a grand jury in the state of Pennsylvania released a report detailing credible allegations of abuse by 301 priests of more than 1,000 victims in four dioceses of that state. The report goes into details that can barely be described – horrific, dark, and unimaginable stories of abuse by those who ought to have been the guardians of the Lord’s sons and daughters. “The days are evil” indeed.

How did this happen? Surely this is the question for many of us. How, and why? How could those men who were consecrated to Christ, whose hands were anointed for handling the Body and Blood of Christ, inflict so much pain? How could they have ascended day after day to the sacred altars of the Church to commit sacrilege after sacrilege, mocking Christ’s holy Sacrifice by their conduct? How could they continue to open the gates of paradise to repentant sinners while sealing their own doom? At the root of everything is that they forgot who they were, and they forgot whom Christ had called them to be.

Over the past few months I have been reading the diary of a very different sort of priest, an anonymous monk with whom our Lord has been sharing special revelations over the past several years. Here is what, according to this priest, Christ has to say about those priests who have forgotten Him: “Why have so few of My beloved priests turned to Me in the present darkness and in the crisis that afflicts My Church in nearly every place? They are like the sick who refuse to see the physician. They are like the lonely who refuse to open the door to the friend who desires only to visit and comfort them.”

And what of the Bishops who so often enabled these abusive priests? Again, in the words of our Lord to this anonymous monk, “I have not set bishops over My flock to govern, to teach, and to sanctify out of their personal abilities and by making use of the wisdom of this passing world … Woe to those bishops who trust in purely human solutions to the problems that beset My Church! They will be grievously disappointed, and many souls will fall away because they have neglected to take up the supernatural weapons I have prepared for them in this time of spiritual combat.”

Put more simply, many bishops forgot the reason that they becames shepherds in the first place. They acted like CEOs of corporations, hiding behind statutes of limitations and non-disclosure agreements rather than remembering their call to lead with courage and to place Christ at the center of everything.

How could we possibly respond to such a moral catastrophe? The United States bishops have invited the Vatican to conduct a full investigation of the case of Archbishop McCarrick, together with a review board composed predominantly of lay people with competency in these areas. It is my hope, and I am sure yours too, that this investigation will determine who knew what and when about McCarrick’s behavior and punish those who failed to act with severe consequences. Further, the Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has stated, “I apologize and humbly ask your forgiveness for what my brother bishops and I have done and failed to do. Whatever the details may turn out to be regarding Archbishop McCarrick or the many abuses in Pennsylvania (or anywhere else), we already know that one root cause is the failure of episcopal leadership.”

While I certainly appreciate Cardinal DiNardo’s apology, I hope that I will not be out of line to call it incomplete. What has happened here is not a failure of leadership on the part of bishops. It is a failure of holiness. A shepherd with a deep and abiding love for Christ cannot look the other way while other shepherds abuse the flock. This is moral bankruptcy.

I do wish to echo the words of our own Bishop, who said on Friday, “To the victims and their families, I offer my heartfelt sympathy and support. No words can return what was taken from you. The Church failed you. For that, I apologize.” The Bishop went on to elaborate that while the Diocese has publicly released the names of all individuals who have been credibly accused of abuse during his tenure as Bishop, he will now be conducting a full investigation with the end of releasing all names of any Diocesan priest who has ever been credibly accused of abuse. This will doubtlessly be a painful process for our Diocese, as it has been for the four dioceses in Pennsylvania included in last week’s grand jury report, but the events of the past week have shown how important this process is for the healing of the victims, whose pain must be publicly recognized. Our first concern must be for them.

So what do we do now? In the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, we hear how many people walked away from the Lord because they could not accept His challenging teaching that He is the Bread of Life. And so our Lord said to the Apostles, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, I am not a Catholic because of Cardinal DiNardo, or Bishop Rhoades, or Pope Francis, or any other priest. I am a Catholic because of Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist. We are here because Jesus Christ promised us that He has the words of eternal life, that His flesh is true food and His blood is true drink, and that He will never abandon His Church to the powers of Hell. Since the very beginning, the Church has included the faithful and the unfaithful. John and Mary were at the foot of the Cross while Peter and the others cowered in fear and Judas hung himself in despair. Leaving is not an option. Leaving only means depriving ourselves of Christ.

So what do we do, then? How can we stand and fight to purify God’s holy Church? First, we must heed the warning of that so-called “failure of leadership.” So many of our shepherds failed by being men of the world, by cowering behinds statutes of limitations and legal secrecy. We must not listen to the world, which would tell us that this crisis means that we must re-make the Church after the world’s image, abandoning Christ’s saving truths and the authority that He has given to the Church. If we are enraged at the moral bankruptcy of so many of the Church’s shepherds – as so many of us so rightly are – then we must not make the exact same mistake of worldliness.

Rather, we must recognize this crisis for the spiritual battle that it is. Satan is on the attack, but we must not let him prevail. He has entered the hearts of so many priests and bishops, and he wants to enter your heart as well by provoking you to despair. You must not allow him in! Instead of giving in to despair, we must take the offensive.

We can take the offensive by committing ourselves to doing reparation for the sins of these priests and bishops. What do I mean by reparation? Reparation is when one person voluntarily takes upon himself the punishment due to another, when one tries to restore the balance of goodness in the world for so much evil that has been done. It is what Christ did when He took upon Himself the punishment due for our sins, of which He was completely innocent. Most of us will never have the chance to meet these victims of abuse. But we can still offer our prayers and sacrifices for them. We will probably not get the chance to meet the priests who committed these atrocities, many of whom have passed on from this world, but we can still pray for their conversion.

This moral crisis in the Church will not be stopped by new policies or procedures. It can only be stopped by a renewal in holiness. I return again to the words of Christ to that anonymous monk: “Until My bishops and My priests allow Me to wound them with the fiery arrows of My divine love, their own wounds – wounds of sin – will continue to fester and to spread a filthy infection of corruption and of impurity in the Church.” My brothers and sisters in Christ, we must pray for the conversion of these priests, that they will be wounded by Christ’s love and that their souls will be healed, lest the filthy infection of their sins continue to poison the Body of Christ.

To this end, I want to commend to you today a prayer called the Chaplet of Reparation. This prayer was given by Jesus to the anonymous monk about whom I have been speaking. There is a stack of cards that have the prayers at the end of your pews. It is designed to be prayed on a rosary, with prayers to replace the normal Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be prayers. I hope that you will join me in praying this prayer every Thursday – the day upon which our Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist and the Sacred Priesthood, these two interconnected sacraments. I hope that you will also join me in many other acts of fasting, sacrifice, and prayer that I intend to offer in reparation for the sins of my fellow priests and for the healing of their victims. Many of you have already mentioned to me that deep pain and sense of betrayal that you are experiencing because of these revelations. That pain is not without purpose. It is part of the fire that is purifying God’s Church. Offer that suffering in reparation for these sins and for that needed purification.

Now, of course, you don’t have to do this. This scandal was not your fault. But that’s entirely the point of reparation. Jesus did not deserve to die for our sins, but he did so willingly and lovingly. Satan has desired to enter the hearts of Christ’s priests. As we have seen all too clearly in recent weeks, he has corrupted many of them and used them to attack Christ’s faithful, especially those little ones so precious to the Lord. We must fight back! We must not allow Satan to win the day. Yes, these days in which we live are evil, but Christ will ultimately have the victory.

Over two thousand years ago, the Lord foretold through the prophet Malachi that the Messiah would “purify the sons of Levi (that is, the priests) and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.”

In that book of our Lord’s words to that anonymous monk, amidst the frank recognition of the sins and failures of priests and bishops, there is a surprising message. Christ promises that He will renew the priesthood, that the priesthood will emerge from the crisis of our days resplendent with the power of God’s love. As I read about the pederasty of Cardinal McCarrick and the disastrous failure of certain bishops in Pennsylvania, I couldn’t help but think, “You’ve got to be kidding, Lord. You can’t seriously pick a time like this to promise a renewal of holiness in the priesthood.” God abhors the evils that have been committed by these men. If they do not repent, they will be punished unrelentingly by God’s eternal justice. But He only allows evil to exist in this world because in His infinite power He can still bring good from the ashes of the worst sins.

If you and I will commit ourselves to doing reparation for these terrible sins, God will indeed purify the sons of Levi to once again offer right sacrifice to the Lord. Not the sacrilegious offerings of hands stained by the tears of the innocents, but the righteous offerings of hearts made clean by your prayers.

At this time, we must also remember to turn to our beloved mother Mary. She is the Mother of the Church and the Queen of the Clergy. We must beg her to obtain the grace of conversion for our priests and bishops. She has the power to heal Christ’s body on earth, the Church, if we will turn to Her in our hour of need.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, after these terrible revelations, you owe us – the Catholic clergy – nothing. We come to you simply as sinners dependent on your prayers. The battle for the soul of the Catholic priesthood is now just as much in your hands as it is ours. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen XX Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVIII

This is the book I was referencing:

Image: Jesús de la Redención en el Beso de Judas by Antonio Castillo Lastrucci (1959).

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