I learned at a young age that priests were fallible.
One Sunday at Mass, our old Portuguese pastor got up to proclaim the gospel. Father Resendes read the whole Mass right out of the missalette including the gospel. That Sunday, the reading was from the last chapter of John when Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. In the missalette, the gospel reading was divided into two columns. Instead of reading down one column and then down the other, Father Resendes read straight across both columns. The effect was something like: “At the Sea of Tiberias Jesus when they landed saw a showed himself once again a charcoal fire, there with a....” You get the idea. Poor Father Resendes was always bumbling over some turn of phrase or failing to make sense in his sermons. But we still loved the little guy.
We were blessed at out parish to always have newly ordained priests assigned to us. Being the late sixties, we had curates with long hair and side burns wearing ponchos and listening to Santana. I imagine that many parishioners may have found this odd or disturbing. But I had no idea that priests should be any other way.
Over the years, my family became friendly with the priests who served us and even had them over the house. I saw them smoke, drink beer, complain about other priests and even swear. It seemed natural to me that they would act much as we do. However, I never lost the sense that there was something special about them. To this day, I still consider them to be among the most gifted and generous men I have ever met.
A lot has changed since the late sixties and early seventies. Any illusions that our priests were super-human or beyond being tempted have been shattered. Sadly for many Catholics who never saw the human side of the priests who served them, with that disillusionment has come a loss of faith. I really cannot think of anything worse that could have happened to the Church.
It is now a part of our collective history that we all have to learn to live with. It is not going to go away. If people keep drudging up the Inquisition and the excommunication of Galileo (not to mention the Borgias whose skeletons are being dug up by Showtime) we can expect to be hearing about the sex abuse crisis for at least the next five hundred years.
It is most especially painful when those who stand accused or have been dismissed from ministry are friends who have inspired you and taught you so much about God’s love. Many effective priests - many of whom I admired and loved - have been snared in the net. I have no idea where they are, what they did or if their punishment is just. They are simply gone.
But I am consoled in knowing that much of what they taught stays with me. It is part of the bricks and mortar of my faith life now, and it always will be. The messengers come and go - taken from us by scandal or by death - but the message rings out. No matter how many priests fall, it can never be silenced because its source is the One who cannot sin and cannot fail.
The latest priest to be accused, Father John Corapi, is stunning to many. Perhaps because we only saw him on television and were not exposed to his human imperfections like losing his temper with an altar boy in the sacristy or having too much to drink at the parish fair, he took on an air of infallibility. It will be devastating to many if the allegations against him are proved true. But isn’t it also true that the faith he stirred in us, the conviction he inspired in us and the truths he taught us will remain no matter how these accusations play themselves out? That faith will surely see us through any disappointment or discouragement we might otherwise experience if these allegations are proved true.
So I am hopeful. Those who have stayed around are true believers and those who have chosen to leave are opportunities for evangelization. We are chastened, but our faith is stronger because it no longer rests on priests who are fallible but on the eternal God who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.