It takes just a little common sense to grasp what is ultimately an obvious fact, and which therefore does not need to be shown and can be grasped by one and all, even if not everyone can explain the reasons: evil, whether physical or moral, is always a deprivation, or something due which is lacking. Unfortunately, however, often and willingly, we are more inclined to accept, to witness and underscore, first of all that which is lacking (the evil), and to neglect that good, that something positive in the light of which, on its own, would make sense speaking of evil. So, in this brief reflection on the priest’s figure (yet which in one way or another applies to every person consecrated to God), it seems important to me to start right from what a minister of God is called to be, and how he has always been seen by common folk, regardless of whether they are believers or not, as Church history reminds us of evangelizing missions. In other words: by starting from that something positive in whose light we can only try to understand the evil caused by failing to do good, and subsequently providing suitable ways to fight it.
Personally, I grew up in my parish seeing in front of me the figures of pastors, priests and seminarians, all committed to their journey of conversion and wholly dedicated to serve the People of God. Besides the talents which each one had received from God or one’s own frailties or personal characteristics, for me, like for the majority of the parish faithful, it has always been clear who the priest was: a man chosen by God to be his minister among his brothers, showing solidarity with them in moments of joy and sorrow, these being the instances marking the earthly pilgrimage of each person, of each family: the sacraments of Christian initiation, looking for a job, marriage, anniversary celebrations, family problems, sickness, death.
Conversely, mostly during the past twenty years, this priestly figure has been replaced by that of a true and real “monster”, a powerful person, attached to money and slave of the worst perversions. Soon enough this “belief” has become “public opinion” and has made its way into all strata: political, cultural, legal and even the Church itself. This may be confirmed even when seeing most of current film productions. Yet this, thank God, is not true, or rather it is not true in the expressions in which it is rolled out! Just as it is not true that all doctors, or nearly so, are incompetent and kill their patients, that all politicians are thieves, that all lawyers are dishonest, that teachers are unprepared or that parents do not know how to educate their children. As often happens, a falling tree makes more noise and more attention is paid to it than to the ever-growing forest! However, generalizations and labels are always dangerous and lead to making a sacrifice of the innocent in the name of a need for justice which, although it may be summary, it can never be true justice. Duly, over the last few decades, the Church has tried to give a credible response to the scandals but, in my humble opinion, on more than a few occasions, more out of fear or to give satisfaction to the mass media and public opinion than for the sake of truth and transparency. Running the risk, on more than a few occasions, to go from one extreme to another: from a complicit silence to an unmotivated impulse to denounce whoever was accused, this being done more to protect one’s position and interests than for the sake of justice and so for the good of all parties, none excluded. Somehow abdicating from always and in any case being a teacher of humanity and mercy, even towards those priests who may have been wrong. The bishop, let us never forget him, is and always will remain the father of his priests, whether good or bad, and can never be looked at as just an employer.
By accepting, many a time, a simple report as meaning guilt itself, we eliminate one of the fundamental principles on which a society and a legal system worthy of such a name is built: the right of defense, which is a natural right, with all that this means. Not forgetting that the essential element of the right of defense is undoubtedly the possibility of a worthy cross-examination, which must be as transparent as possible. This requires knowing the accuser and the charges laid, being aware that the burden of proof lies on the accusing person: “onus probandi incumbit ei qui dicit”. In fact, during the cross-examination, in particular, but not exclusively, in the criminal field, it is guilt that must be proven and not innocence, as someone might think today or how, unfortunately, it is allowed to be and implemented in some cases with doubt going in favor of the accused (in dubio pro reo!). This reaction to scandals is actually producing a real “witch-hunt” where no one can any longer feel safe and every priest can in fact be accused about anything and everything and for this fact alone, without a real appeal, see his life destroyed. All this encouraging, even unconsciously, someone to file any complaint even just to obtain some financial return or to gain notoriety or out of pure revenge. Obviously, we can all imagine the consequences of such a climate, in terms of public opinion and of the priest performing his mission.
So, what to do? It is necessary to start from a positive aspect and this can be done by clearly understanding the cause of the current situation: the crisis of faith! Using a phrase of Baconian memory, we can say that the pars destruens (destructive element) of the last decades, must necessarily be followed by the pars construens (constructive element) which must be imposed for the present and the future. It is necessary today to “reform” the figure of the priest and later to “form it” again bearing in mind that the mold, or model, is only Christ, inasmuch as the priest is an alter Christus! That same Christ who has given up his life for humanity and who asks some others also to give up their life for their brothers (see 1 Jn 3,16) and as we read in the Gospel of St Mark: “He appointed twelve: they were to be his companions…” (3,14). To be with Him: this is the secret! This means investing the best resources that the Church has at present, to help youth in discerning their vocation, in their initial formation in the seminary and after that in ongoing formation, an eloquent and irreplaceable expression of the paternal solicitude of the bishop and of the priestly brotherhood. However, it is important in a particular manner to help those at first who think they are hearing God’s call to the priestly ministry or to consecrated life, to verify whether it is a real call or only a mere and unfounded personal desire. Surely the way of living and organizing life during the years of initial formation at the seminary have to be reviewed, as many times these are felt and experienced more with the spirit of those living in barracks and must survive the duty sergeant, rather than a moment when to check, firstly for the good of the seminarian, whether it is indeed God who is calling him. By discovering that the vocation to the priesthood or to consecrated life is first of all a question of love: the discovery of God’s love for me in a plan of love for my life through consecration to Him and for the service of my brothers (see 1 Jn 4). In fact, I am convinced that it is precisely the lack of realizing one’s own vocation with love that explains so many crises in the priestly and religious life, as in the case of married life. Or on the other hand, if it is found that there has not been a real “vocation”. Every situation we live in, especially in every relationship, with God or with another person, in a friendship or love relationship, we are required to live it every day, with due anxiety and attention to the other, which alone build and strengthen the relationship. Without this daily commitment every relationship gets down-played and dies, and in the end only finds a stranger by his side. You cannot say anything has been accomplished once and for all or taken for granted in a personal relationship! This stranger may also be God for the priest and the consecrated person, and so one might imagine the consequences.
All this is being said in the realistic awareness, that those who feel the call are children of their own time, thus people who are convinced that they are entitled to all things and who do not know the true meaning of sacrifice and renunciation for someone or for a greater good. Chesterton pointedly noted in What’s Wrong with the World: “There are no uneducated people. [… but] most of them are badly educated”. To this we must also add the possibility, which is not so remote, of those who know quite well that they do not have a vocation (see Hb 5,4) and consequently the abilities, but desire, for the most varied reasons, to move along a path that will make them and those they come across unhappy. Not being aware of such a default or ignoring it is a serious dishonesty and omission by the seminarian or indeed by the person responsible for his formation. That is why it is necessary to have counsellors who are prepared from all aspects. The life of the priest of Christ has not been and will never be “simple”, the same way the life of Christ has not been: it has been and will always be a sign of contradiction for a selfish world which cannot accept self-giving (see Lk 2,34). At the same time, in the light of faith, it is important not to forget an uncontested truth that Cardinal Journet liked recalling: the Church is holy, sinners are the men of the Church who betray Her by sinning against Her Divine Founder, Christ Jesus and his plan of love for me!
I conclude this brief reflection by inviting you to read a beautiful novel by Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest. A simple priest, little esteemed by all, including himself, who finding himself ill with cancer moves in with a seminary companion, who has long since abandoned the priesthood, where he spent the last days of his life comforted by the unequivocal thought that his earthly existence was a grace of God. This includes the fact that he has just received absolution from his former companion, who regrets the circumstances, and to whom he answers with his last words: “… what is there to regret? All is grace!” Even that same crisis, if lived with the power of faith, will be a purification and therefore a grace for which to thank God (see 2 Cor 7,10). So, it is important not to remain prisoners of evil and presently to make our own St. Paul’s words: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rm 12,21). By adapting the Golden Rule that Christ has left us (see Mt 7,12), I think that every day the prayer of every priest should be: “Lord, help me to always be that priest or bishop whom I would like to find!”
Fr. Bruno, O. P.