Saturday, August 03, 2002

An Occasion of Joy!

Fr. Jeffrey Keyes at The New Gasparian rightly laments that the conversation at St. Blog's about the priesthood has centered around the admittedly-dismal topic of what to do about those priests who have sullied their vocations by the crime of sexual abuse. The topic is painful for Fr. Keyes, as it is indeed for myself, my brother priests, and most Catholics. I hope in this post to provide something of an antidote to that pain and disappointment.

Today and tomorrow are days that give me hope, and I hope will be a source of encouragement to my readers. For tomorrow is a day of particular joy for me, as it is the 1-year anniversary of my priestly ordination. By God's good grace, one year ago tomorrow, Bishop James Murray laid hands upon me and imparted to me the gift of priestly ordination, making me a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, and giving me the awesome privilege and responsibility of acting in Persona Christi.

I feel particularly favored to have been ordained on the feast of St. John Marie Vianney, patron saint of parish priests. On that day I adopted him as my special patron: I have asked and will continue to ask for his intercession, that I can have some share of the zeal and love for souls that marked his priesthood. I feel especially close to him in regards the sacrament of reconciliation: St. John Marie was renowned for his skill and insight as a confessor. He had the gift of reading souls and people would come from all over France to his humble parish in Ars in order to go to confession with him. He was known on occasion to spend 18 hours in the confessional at a stretch. While I certainly do not claim anything like his gifts or sanctity, I do feel a kinship to him in that I truly love hearing confessions, and dispensing the healing mercy of Christ in that sacramant. The joy and wonder of being a confessor, of seeing souls cleansed and made whole, of seeing the redemptive grace of Christ at work through myself as priest, is something that the seminary didn't (and really couldn't) prepare me for. It is an awesome privilege. It is also a source of great edification to me, for in the sacrament of reconciliation I have been privileged to encounter people who, I am certain, are saints. They are people who look, on the outside, like "ordinary" Catholics, but the depth and richness of their interior lives is a source of wonder to me.

I ask all of my readers to say a prayer for me on my anniversary day, and join me in asking for St. John Vianney's intercession on behalf of all priests.



Another Occasion of Joy!

But today is a day of perhaps even greater joy, for it is a day of joy not only for me but for my whole diocese, and indeed for the whole Church. For today a new priest was added to Christ's Church, and I was privileged to participate in the ordination of Fr. John Fleckenstein to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Every time a new priest is ordained the Triumph of Christ over sin and death is made that much stronger. Every time a new priest is ordained the Kingdom of God is brought to a fuller realization. Every time a new priest is ordained the boundaries of the kingdom of this world are pushed back a little farther. So it is a day on which all Christians should rejoice. I tell you that the Angels and Saints in heaven are rejoicing!

In spite of the scandal of The Situation and the dismal failure of our bishops I am very hopeful, and I think you should be as well, because the rising generation of young priests and seminarians, like Fr. Fleckenstein, are men of zeal for the authentic Catholic Faith: they are men inspired by, loyal to, and eager to imitate our Holy Father. They not only assent to Church teaching and discipline, they willingly embrace it. And their numbers are growing. I encountered this phenomenon in microcosm, as many recently-ordained priests and seminarians were there at the ordination. I had the good fortune of meeting Fr Raymond D'Souza, about whose First Mass several bloggers wrote a couple of weeks ago. It was an impressive gathering, and something that should give hope to all Catholics.

Let us pray for more such men to follow Christ in the priesthood, and see to it we give these men our support and encouragement.


Friday, August 02, 2002

The Critics Weigh In

Greg Popcak and Woodene Bricker-Koening at the Heart, Mind, & Strength blog voice their objections to the issues raised by Mark Shea and myself yesterday concerning Zero Tolerance. Greg is nothing if not witty: he compares Mark and I to a "Scalia/Thomas tag team". Woodene asks "Do we keep priests around after they've abused someone until they do it a second time and then get rid of them because a second fall indicates they haven't been redeemed?"

Mark Shea answers them brilliantly, and reiterates the problem that Zero Tolerance is not a suitable instrument for balancing mercy and justice, because of its inflexibility.

Now that Mark has said it better than I could have hoped, I have to re-think what I am going to say, since he stole more than a little of my thunder. Not that I mind, of course...

I'll have to get back to the subject later: I have to go and do like, "priest stuff" now, and then I get to go to a birthday party!



Rising Above Lawlessness

I'm going to blog more on the repsonses I've had to my posts about Fr. DeVita later today, but first I'd like to share this with you:

No doubt by now most of you have heard about the senseless and primitive outbreak of mob violence in Chicago that led to two men being beaten to death after a traffic accident Tuesday. Two men whose van ran off the road into a house, injuring three girls, were, within moments, set upon by a mob of angry onlookers and beaten to death with stones and bricks. According to witnesses, the perpetrators were egged on by the crowd with shouts of "kill them" and "bash their heads in" and the like. Though more than 80 people witnessed the beating, police have been stymied by a wall of silence in the neighborhood, as people, either fearful or mistrustful of police, have refused to come forward and provide evidence.

I'm from Chicago: I was born there, grew up in the suburbs, and lived there for a couple of years after college. The parish I'm assigned to is almost directly across Lake Michigan from Chicago: we get Chicago TV and radio stations here, and culturally we're very much in Chicago's orbit. The city (when locals here refer to "The City", they mean Chicago) is only an hour and 15 minute drive away. So this story hits home, it hurts to see something like this happen in the city I love and still consider my home.

But there are still people determined to rise above the lawlessness demonstrated by that mob on Tuesday. In a story in today's Chicago Tribune, community leaders are trying to mobilize local residents to fight back against mob violence:

"It will be devastating if the community does not rise to the challenge and address this," [Najee] Ali said as he slipped fliers under the windshields of cars calling for cooperation with police."

Another resident said "This community is trying to get better but there are people who just don't care. You have to get rid of these bad apples."

I for one am glad to see people are still trying to make things better: to rise above lawlessness and vigilantism to promote a more human city. I want the city I love to be a city I can feel proud of loving.



Thursday, August 01, 2002

More Thoughts on Fr. DeVita and "Self-Aggrandizement"

A couple of bloggers and their readers, among them Amy Welborn and Greg Popcak, have remarked on what they see as evidence of Fr. Tom DeVita's "self-aggrandizement" or "showmanship" in the article on him in today's New York Times. I take a different view of it in my blog below. I am glad that someone like Mark Shea is in agreement with me, but a recent glance at Amy's comments shows more readers who question everything from Fr. DeVita's "exquisite" (the word used by the Times reporter) planning of his "Last Mass" to his decision to cooperate with the press in the first place.

Firstly, it seems that critics of Fr. DeVita's planning of his last Mass at his parish are getting hung up on a word. Shouldn't every Mass be "exquisitely" planned? The fact is, because the Mass in question was his "last", it was de factonot going to be ordinary. Therefore extra (special) planning was needed to deal with such questions as "Will I remain after Mass and let maudlin "good-bye" scenes proliferate?" No. "Will I allow this Mass to take on a somber "funereal" tone?" No. Will I reiterate my hopefulness and trust in Christ?" Yes. To get hung up in criticizing planning seems to me to strain at gnats.

And to those, such as a commentor on Amy's blog called "mary-m", who question his decision to allow himself to be interviewed or photographed in the first place, and take that of evidence of his search for "self-aggrandizement", I submit, as someone who has been interviewed by various organs of the press from time to time, that things one says or does with complete innocence can be transformed by a reporter with an agenda. Last year I was interviewed by a local paper looking for a "Catholic" perspective on the war in Afghanistan. My remarks that the campaign there was substantively self-defensive and limited, and therefore justifiable, was boiled down to "Fr. Johansen favors an aggressive campaign against the Afghans."

For those seeking to understand possible motives for Fr. DeVita's cooperation with the press, I point out that Fr. DeVita is originally from New York (Long Island), and that is where the incident of his abuse took place. I think that fact alone is sufficient to explain the Times' interest, and Fr. DeVita's willingness to cooperate with the press. I suppose he could have told the reporters to "get lost" and not cooperate with them, but that usually only makes them more aggressive and antagonistic. Everyone knows that when a newspaper prints things like "no comment" or "Fr. X refused to grant an interview" it creates the impression of cover-ups or other more sinister activities under the surface, and induces reporters to tear people's lives apart trying to find those things. I think Fr. DeVita can be forgiven for wanting to avoid that situation.

Furthermore, the more I think about the charge that Fr. DeVita is seeking notoriety or self-aggrandizement, the more the charge appears to be patently absurd. Why? Because Fr. DeVita's notoriety is as an admitted priest-abuser. Forever after, Fr. DeVita will be known across the country as "one of those pedophile priests" (Not that he is in fact a pedophile: he is not). That is a very strange form of self-aggrandizement.

The fact is that neither mary-m nor I knows Fr. DeVita's motivation for cooperating with the press. What I know of the man makes me doubtful that he is seeking fame or
self-aggrandizement. As I showed above, the charge is absurd on its face. It is unjust to attribute motives to the behavior of people we don't know. That is precisely the sort of thing Our Lord was talking about when He said "Judge not, lest you be judged". We can make moral judgments about behavior, but we tread on perilous ground when we start ascribing motives to that behavior.



Zero Tolerance Hits Home

I haven't published anything about this so far, since, frankly, I haven't been sure what to say. Today's New York Times ran an article on Fr. Tom DeVita, (LRR) who stepped down as pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Parish in New Buffalo, Michigan, yesterday. Fr. DeVita was the subject of an earlier NYT piece shortly after the Dallas conference, when it became apparent that Fr. DeVita would have to leave under the "Zero Tolerance" guidelines.

Fr. DeVita is a priest of my diocese, and in fact, his parish neighbors my own. As I have watched this drama unfold, I have had many conflicting reactions, hence my reticence to write on it. But I have several observations to make which I think are relevant to Fr. DeVita's situation. I don't claim to know Fr. DeVita well, but I have talked with him on a number of occasions, and I know he has been well regarded and respected by my brother priests.

Firstly, I would point out, that though the story is written in a style characterized by Amy Welborn as "self-aggrandizing rot", the aggrandizing is being done by the Times and its reporter, not Fr. DeVita himself. Fr. DeVita didn't write the piece. The reporter did, and she clearly has an agenda, as she demonstrates by using words like "secretive" to describe the canonical process by which Fr. DeVita is appealing his removal. Being acquainted with Fr. DeVita, the last word I would use to describe him is "self-aggrandizing." He is a soft-spoken, quiet, and humble man. The Times may be trying to turn Fr. DeVita into a "poster boy", but that has much more to do with the Times' agenda to portray the Big Bad Church as the heavy than anything Fr. DeVita intended.

Secondly, back in June, after the original Times article came out, Nightline ran a segment about Fr. DeVita, which included a rather lengthy (by TV standards) interview. Fr. DeVita's humility and resigned acceptance of my bishop's judgement were apparent to me. He spoke movingly of his willingness to accept his punishment, if that was what the Church required of him. "I did something terrible 25 years ago," he said, "and I have to pay the price for it now." Fr. DeVita has never encouraged parishioners to lobby or agitate for him, as some others have done. In fact, he has done the opposite: he has encouraged parishioners to accept the bishop's judgment and acccept his replacement willingly. He said at one of his Sunday Masses, "This isn't about me, it's about Him," as he pointed at the crucifix.

Thirdly, by every evidence I can see, Fr. DeVita is one of those perhaps rare cases where a priest fell terribly, did something grievously wrong, but then repented, did penance, got help, and has genuinely straightened himself out. Fr. DeVita's priesthood has been exemplary since then, especially since he came to my diocese about ten years ago. To say these things is in no way to diminish the wrong that he did, as he himself has readily admitted (and is the reason he has publicly stated his acceptance of the Church's judgment).

If the issue is one of strict justice, removing Fr. DeVita is just, and there is an end of the matter. But as Catholics, the issue cannot be solely about strict justice. As the Holy Father himself said, we must also take into account repentance and the restorative grace and mercy of God. Under that standard, it becomes more problematic to decide what to do with Fr. DeVita. I am not qualified or worthy to make that judgment. Fr. Andrew Greeley has rather insightfully observed that the brother priests of an accused or offending cleric cannot be the ones to render judgment about him, as they will be tempted to give in to a "false compassion." So I will not suggest what could be done with Fr. DeVita. But I will suggest that satisfying the demands of "justice" cannot be the end of the matter.

If the issue is about more than strict justice, then a logical question is, "is the priest a further threat?" My bishop's judgment on that matter, when he reviewed the matter shortly after becoming bishop 4 years ago (Fr. DeVita came to my diocese before our current bishop took office, under the reign of his predecessor), was that Fr. DeVita was in no way a danger to anyone (having served 20-plus years in a fruitful ministry). He reaffirmed that judgment this spring when, under criticism by the local press, which demanded Fr. DeVita's removal, he stated that he had full confidence in Fr. DeVita. Now some may howl at my bishop's judgment in this circumstance, but my bishop was actually doing what bishops are supposed to do: He examined the circumstances personally, weighed the facts, and came to a judgment, which he put his name to and stood behind. And the fact is that I trust my bishop's judgment. I know my bishop, and his care for his office and his flock. I know his orthodoxy and love for the Church. So I trusted his judgment about Fr. DeVita, as I do on other matters. It is a great misfortune and scandal, that because some bishops misused or abused their discretion, most people no longer trust any bishop to make such judgment calls. But the fact the some bishops made bad or self-serving judgments does not mean that my bishop did so in deciding to keep Fr. DeVita before the Dallas conference norms (seemingly) precluded that possibility.

Is removing Fr. DeVita just? Yes. But, as I wrote above, justice is not the only consideration. The fact that the wrong-headedness of the bishops' Zero Tolerance policy plays into the New York Times' agenda is unfortunate, but the bishops are the architects of that situation, not Fr. DeVita. If the case of Fr. DeVita leads the bishops to re-work their "Norms" and come up with something that is actually Catholic, then that will be a good thing. If Fr. DeVita's situation remains merely one more thing that the establishment media can use to flog the Church, that will be unfortunate, but that outcome will not be of Fr. DeVita's doing.

I don't have any fancy comment function (yet), but I welcome your feedback or observations. E-mail me! I'll publish relevant comments on my next blog.


Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Some Thoughts on Clerical Celibacy

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance about celibacy in the priesthood. This person (a friend of a friend that I met at a party), a non-Catholic, rather innocently, out of his ignorance, suggested that the way for the Church to "get past" the scandals would be for the Church to drop its celibacy requirement. I was able to pretty handily lay that idea to rest by pointing out to him that allowing priests to marry would in no way alter the disordered sexual desires of pedophiles who had made their way into Holy Orders. Priestly Celibacy and The Scandal only seem related because both have to do with sexuality.

But, unfortunately, it is not only non-Catholics who labor under the misapprehension that if the Church were to drop clerical celibacy, that would in some way lead us to a solution to the problem. Most recently, a debate has been raging about this issue in the comments to one of Amy Welborn's posts. Those arguing in favor of abandoning clerical celibacy seem to me to have an insufficiently formed understanding of the nature of Church discipline and on the nature of the priesthood.

Firstly, I have to clear up an illusion commonly held by many people, Catholics and non-Catholics. The illusion is that celibacy is the "make or break" issue for those discerning a vocation or in seminary formation. This is, in my experience, simply not the case. Most seminarians do not spend sleepless hours agonizing over whether they can live with celibacy or not. And that is not because they are immature or sexually maladjusted, either. I was continually impressed during my years in seminary at how extremely well-adjusted and "normal", on the whole, my brother seminarians were. They do not agonize over celibacy because, for the most part, by the time they reach the Theologate they have made a decsion to embrace celibacy. Much of the talk about dropping clerical celibacy seems to me to implicitly contain the assumption (taken as an unquestionable precept) of our hyper-sexualized post-modern society that sex is a fundamental and almost uncontrollable drive, and that suppressing it is potentially psychologically dangerous. This is pseudo-Freudian claptrap. I say "pseudo-Freudian" because not even Freud actually subscribed to this twaddle. The Catholic understanding of the human person is that our drives and emotions are subject to the will. Part of embracing celibacy is training yourself to subject your drives and desires to your will, which has made a decision to embrace celibacy. I know this is do-able by personal experience: I am much better at doing this now than I was, say 10 years ago. Part of it is growing in maturity, part of it is growing in holiness, part of it is learning to recognize one's own faults and weaknesses.

This disciplining one's drives and desires to be subject to one's will is not easy. In fact, it is difficult. But so is acquiring any kind of discipline. And learining this discipline is essential to any Christian vocation, not just priesthood. Living in marital fidelity is difficult. Forgiving those who injure us is difficult. But all of these things, in different ways, call us to place our drives and desires in subjection.

Secondly, those who advocate dropping the celibacy requirement are frequently ill-informed about the history of celibacy. There is no evidence that any Church of Apostolic origin has ever allowed those in Holy Orders to marry. It is true that in the very early Church, and in some of the Eastern Churches today, married men have been ordained. But once ordained, marriage has always been barred to those in Orders. Furthermore, appeals to evidence such as "St. Peter was married" are not on-point. St. Peter could not have been expected to leave his wife. St. Peter himself nowhere counsels the Apostles or their successors to take wives. In fact, the only apostolic treatment of the issue is from St. Paul, who makes it quite clear that for those engaged in Apostolic ministry, celibacy is best. Since it was recommended as best, it is not surprising that the Church quickly adopted celibacy as normative. Celibacy was seen as normative and binding (by local legislation) within most of the Churches of the West by the 6th century. The frequently-adduced canard that "celibacy was mandated in the Middle Ages to protect church property" is simply false. A reading of local Church synods and councils from the 4th-6th centuries will shred that contention to tatters.

Finally, it seems to me that those who advocate dropping celibacy frequently have bought into the "dogmatic minimalism" foisted upon us by "progressives" in the wake of Vatican II. Dogmatic minimalism is the attitude that anything not explicitly defined as dogma by a council or ex cathedrapapal pronouncement is somehow extraneous to the Faith and therefore easily dispensed with. Those arguing that because celibacy is a matter of discipline and not dogma we can get rid of it are operating from the dogmatic minimalist assumption. But just because something hasn't been defined as de fidedoesn't mean it isn't from the Holy Spirit. Just because something is a matter of tradition doesn't mean it isn't spiritually good or useful. For example, the use of vestments by priests at Mass is purely a matter of tradition and discipline. We could dispense with vestments tomorrow and it would not change the content of the Faith by one iota. But does anyone (70's liturgical goofiness aside) seriously think it would be a good idea for priests to start celebrating Mass in Dockers and Polo shirts? I don't think so. The use of vestments, while perhaps not integral to the Faith in the way that the Trinity is, is nonetheless not peripheral.

And so, I think that priestly celibacy, while not being a matter of dogma, illustrates something that is. In that sense it is akin to a sacramental: it points an article of Faith, though is not the article of Faith itself. Priestly celibacy points to the identity of the priest as the Alter Christus, the "Other Christ". For Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church, and as such He takes the Church as His bride, in a mystical marriage. For this reason it was fitting and proper that Christ had no earthly wife (it wasn't just an accident). The priest, by his ordination, is configured to Christ and made the Alter Christus. For this reason I think it makes perfect sense that priests be celibate. It is a sign of the mystical union of Christ and the Church. A married priesthood would obscure this sign and witness. I think that the realization of the importance of this sign is what has kept, even in those Eastern churches that allow married priests, the office of Bishop reserved to those men who are celibate. For the Bishop, as the high-priest and chief shepherd of his Church, is even more a sign of the the mystical union: he holds the fullness of Sacred Orders.

In short, I think that celibacy is the work and a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. It is a sign and witness of great power and importance, whose full meaning has yet to be explicated.


New Acquaintances

One of the ways that the St. Blog's virtual "parish" is like a real parish is the wide variety of personalities (dare I say characters) within it. And like a real community, one finds oneself meeting new people from time to time, and being really impressed.

Two bloggers that I have recently discovered and really like are Gerard Serafin at Blog for Lovers and the Brothers Schultz at Catholic Light. Gerard seems to be an inexhauastible blogger, and his commentary on WYD was inspiring and excellent. Steve and John Schultz seem to comment mostly on liturgical or musical matters, and do so with great insight and wit. John' post on wedding preparation is very funny, and right on target.

Both have been on the web longer than I have, but they're new to me. So if you haven't yet, check them out!


Sunday, July 28, 2002

The Pearl of Great Price

Some excerpts from my homily for today:

Matthew 13:44-52

The history of our church is filled with people who, upon encountering Christ, and coming to have faith in Him, gave up all they had, sold all of their possessions in order to posess Him, the Pearl of Great Price. These are people who made spectacular sacrifices, like St. Matthew or St. Francis of Assisi.

So our Lord poses a challenge for us in His parable today: what is our Pearl of Great Price? Is Our Lord and his Kingdom truly the great treasure for which we would give up, forsake, all else? How many of us would be willing to give up all that we have in order to follow Christ?

But you know, before we can take up such spectacular sacrifices we have to start small, start with more manageable ones and "work our way up". So let's start with something a little more modest: How many of us are willing to forego the newer, bigger, faster car, and keep driving our "old" car for another year or two? How many of us are willing to skip going out for dinner this weekend, and give the money we would have spent to a homeless shelter? Or, to make it a little smaller, how many of us are willing to give up an evening sitting in front of the TV drinking a beer, in order to go visit an elderly person in a nursing home, who's lonely and in need of companionship?

Or, to make it even a little more manageable, how many of us are willing to make small, everyday choices for God, and denying ourselves? We show what we really believe our Pearl of Great Price is by countless small acts: For example, and I recognize I'm mostly addressing the men here: How many of you have ever skipped Mass on Sunday because you've got a 9:00 tee time, and you really want to get out on the course with the guys? What are you making your Pearl of Great Price then? Or how many of you have ever left Mass early because you want to get back home in time to catch the kickoff? Aren't you saying, at that moment, that the game is your Pearl of Great Price?

These are small things, no doubt about it. Insignificant, you might be tempted to say. But each of our individual paths to redemption or perdition is made up of small choices like those I mentioned. Like a cobblestone road, our journeys to heaven or hell will be made up of countless choices, where we say either Yes or No to God in seemingly insignificant ways. But if we cannot learn to say Yes to Christ, to make Him our Pearl of Great Price in small things, how can we think we'll be able to do so in the big things?

Make no mistake, if there is nothing else I want people to understand, it is this: God does not want just some of your time, an hour or two on Sunday, and few minutes here and there duirng the week. God does not want part of your life: this bit here or there. God does not want some of your talent or treasure. He wants nothing less than all of you! He will not rest until He posesses you completely. He wants all of you because he doesn't want just part of you, this bit her, or that bit there, to be redeemed. He wants all of you to be redeemed, and dwell with Him, truly whole and entire, for eternity.

But if we are to belong God, whole and entire, we must give Him ourselves, all that we are, all that we have. He must be our Pearl of Great Price, for which we are willing to sacrifice all else. If God is to completely posess us, we must desire nothing better than to posess Him, and Him alone.