This past Monday, July 18, I took part in a Day of Recollection for the Clergy of this Archdiocese. Fr. Fran Hezel, SJ, was the main speaker. In his presentation, he expressed his great admiration for the Church in Guam, even though he sometimes felt like an observer, standing aloof. He affirmed that the faithful, in general, are good Catholics. Many are very fond of popular Catholic practices, such as novenas, rosary, and devotions to Our Lady and to the saints. Their love for the Church is unquestionable. On the other hand, Fr. Hezel noticed that when there is division among various groups in this local Church, the way that love for the Church is expressed also varies, to the point that the visible unity of the Church becomes precarious. Some people may even be unwittingly misled by false teachings rather than by faith. It is the duty of the clergy to restore the unity of the Church, by remaining visibly unified, consolidating friendships, and following the pastoral governance from the Holy Father through the person of the Apostolic Administrator.
There are many reasons that cause division, which is always painful, especially when allegations of sexual abuse against some clergy become added cause for further division. In this situation, as priests we naturally all feel somehow beaten, humiliated, and frustrated.
Everybody wants to have good and holy priests. There is no doubt about it. Unfortunately, when scandals break out, we priests appear suspicious of committing something bad or of covering it up.
The vast majority of priests are not sex abusers, but almost everyone feels deep down in his or her heart what was felt by St. Paul: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Rm 7: 19)
No one is immune from trials and temptations. Sometimes, priests do fall. Pope Francis once remarked that just like an airplane that falls from the sky makes big news, so does a fallen priest, but there are still by far many more planes flying safely and providing good service.
In recent weeks our Archdiocese is learning a lesson and is making great efforts to improve the policy regarding responding to reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by a church official, so as to create a safer environment and to protect the people we serve. The Archdiocesan policy is being revised by the experts and will soon be approved in a meeting of the Presbyteral Council. It will include clear provisions for the event of accusations against the Archbishop himself.
Hopefully the policy will heighten awareness and promote transparent and respectable moral behavior. But will it necessarily encourage priests to be more active in their ministry? Some priests or bishops, for the fear of committing errors or sins begin to hold back in their outreach to the people they are called to serve. To such clergy, St. Augustine offered a piece of advice by paraphrasing the loving call of the Lord in Songs 5: 2-3.
A lagging priest is similar to someone who falls asleep but his heart remains awake longing for a visit from the Lord, who, in fact comes knocking and calling him to work for the people. But the lagging priest manifests his reluctance saying, “I am now in bed, and I have bathed my feet and if I get up I might get dirt on my feet?” Then the Lord confirms him with love, “Just go to serve the people. They need you. If you dirty your feet, I will come to wash your feet again as I did in the Last Supper” (cf. Jn 13:1-17). True, we are only servant-priests, not inborn saints, and much less “sin-free.”
In St. Augustine’s days, there were some false teachings (Donatism), which claimed that priests and bishops, who betrayed their faith, even in times of persecution, automatically lose their holiness and no longer convey grace of God through their sacramental celebrations. Augustine corrected this error by reaffirming that God’s grace remains pure and limpid by the power of Christ in the sacraments, even when sinful priests and bishops administered them.
Although it is true that sinful priests and bishops can validly celebrate the sacraments, does this necessarily mean that they should continue to be active pastors? Not at all, it all depends on the gravity of the matter and the situation of the pastor concerned.
It has been a long practice in the church that pastors, who because of their wrong doings in grave matters or because of poor health, spiritual weakness, or a very bad reputation, should choose to renounce their pastoral responsibility in public and to serve the people of God by prayers alone. Then there are others who, though having sinned, yet after due penance, healing, and reconciliation could be restored to public service. It is Christ who calls, but it is the Church that discerns.
My dear brothers and sisters, please do pray for our bishops, priests and deacons, so that they may remain with Christ, who is continuously purifying them so that they might be sent out to serve by Him (cf. Mk 3: 13-14).
+Savio Hon Tai Fai, SDB
Archdiocese of Agaña
Sunday, July 24, 2016