Once a Waldensian challenged St. Francis of Assisi on his unshakeable reverence for priests, by pointing out the local pastor who was living in sin. “Must we believe in his teaching and respect the sacraments he performs?”
In response, Francis went to the priest’s home and knelt before him saying,
“I don’t know whether these hands are stained as the other man says they are. But I do know that even if they are, that in no way lessens the power and effectiveness of the sacraments of God…That is why I kiss these hands out of respect for what they perform and out of respect for Him who gave His authority to them.”
The Bible has never been shy about the revealing the sins of God’s leaders in the Old or New Testaments. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), Humans sin and need a Savior. The reality of sin, it’s deceptions, dangers and ultimate resulting death is a constant warning throughout scripture. We are all guilty and there’s no casting stones of judgment, but what are we to do with those among us who sin grievously against others, especially children? What do we do when the behavior of spiritual leaders in authority betray the very words of God? How do the faithful not lose faith in God, when His Church and Ministers that represent Him, falter, fail or prey on the very ones they are called to care for?
What do leaders do in such times? How do we navigate a culture that is growing more and more disillusioned, dismissive, resistant or even rebellious to any type of authority? What do we do when our religious communities are increasingly made up of broken people who have been used and abused or have learned abusive behaviors themselves? How can we survive in this stormy relational climate where there’s so much interpersonal betrayal, slander, gossip, offense, rejection, judgment, divorce and skepticism of each other?
The Bible warns of these challenges, especially when it comes to leaders:
Ezekiel 8:12-13: “Then he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of pictures? He said also to me, “You will see still greater abominations that they commit.”
Acts 20:29-31: “I know that after I’ve gone, dangerous wolves will sneak in among you, savaging the flock. Some of you here today will begin twisting the truth, enticing disciples to go your way, to follow you. You must be on guard, and you must remember my way of life among you. For three years, I have kept on, persistently warning everyone, day and night, with tears.”
Romans 16:17-18: “And now, dear brothers and sisters, I’d like to give one final word of caution: Watch out for those who cause divisions and offenses among you. When they antagonize you by speaking of things that are contrary to the teachings that you’ve received, don’t be caught in their snare! For people like this are not truly serving the Lord, our Messiah, but are being driven by their own desires for a following. Utilizing their smooth words and well-rehearsed blessings, they seek to deceive the hearts of innocent ones.”
Paul’s writings are evidence that sometimes such dangerous and destructive people, who have been compelled to change and won’t, need to be sometimes named.
1 Timothy 1:18-20: “This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
2 Timothy 2:16-18: “But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some.”
2 Timothy 4:9-10: “Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica…”
I have been wrestling with these issues on two fronts lately. One has been seeking to understand, mourn and respond to the latest uncovering of sexual abuse and cover up in the Roman Catholic Church. The other is dealing with people in my pastoral circle who have issues with me or the church. It’s a struggle to figure out how how to respond to people, how to protect and defend innocents or the truth of some matter in a manner that is loving and authentic and yet, firm. All Christians, especially leaders, have to maintain a balance of personal and public accountability.
Acts 20:28: “Keep watch, then, over yourselves, and over God’s Church, in which the Holy Spirit has made you bishop’s; you are to be the shepherds of that flock which he won for himself at the price of his own blood.”
As part of my work to be prayerful and purposeful in my understanding of the issues, I have been reading some examples of reformers of the past in Church history. Since the family tree of the faithful extends back past the 15th century of the Protestant Reformation, I’ve been reading Catholic reformers. One has been St. Catherine of Siena who lived and wrote in the 13th century. One of her works called ‘The Dialogue’ contains some enlightening, challenging and assuredly controversial material to the average Evangelical.
One of the things that captured my attention was that before all the discussions about the subject of how to deal with ungodly leaders, was passages about being a person of prayer. The posture of all who seek to be engaged in any aspect of reform, should be motivated by the love of God for his people, including sinful leaders. A person of prayer talks to God about people, way before they talk to people about God. People of prayer know that all change must first begin in our own hearts and lives.
St. Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue
“I remember that You said, that, on account of the endurance and tears, the grief, and sweat and prayers of Your servants, You would reform the holy Church, and comfort her with good and holy pastors.”
“Oh! best beloved and dearest daughter, I will fulfill your desire in this request, in order that, on your side, you may not sin through ignorance or negligence; for a fault of yours would be more serious and worthy of graver reproof now than before, because you have learnt more of My truth; wherefore apply yourself attentively to pray for all rational creatures, for the mystical body of the holy Church, and for those friends whom I have given you, whom you love with particular love, and be careful not to be negligent in giving them the benefit of your prayers, and the example of your life, and the teaching of your words, reproving vice and encouraging virtue according to your power.”
Below are selections from ‘The Dialogue’ that deal specifically with the topics I added at each heading. I have done the hard work of extracting sections that I think particularly speak to the issues unfolding in the media and also address the over all subjects. I offer them not because I agree with all the conclusions, but because I want to show that the Church has been wrestling with reform since the beginning. The Protestant reformers had a phrase they used to express that the work of reform never ends as long as people are involved. ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda est’ (Latin for “the church must always be reformed” I think we are in such a moment in Church history again.
Regarding Ungodly Ministers:
“And I would that you know that, more darkness and division have come into the world amongst seculars and religious and the clergy and pastors of the holy Church, through the lack of the light of justice, and the advent of the darkness of injustice, than from any other causes.”
“Neither the civil law, nor the divine law, can be kept in any degree without holy justice, because he who is not corrected, and does not correct others, becomes like a limb which putrefies, and corrupts the whole body, because the bad physician, when it had already begun to corrupt, placed ointment immediately upon it, without having first burnt the wound. So, were the prelate, or any other lord having subjects, on seeing one putrefying from the corruption of mortal sin, to apply to him the ointment of soft words of encouragement alone, without reproof, he would never cure him, but the putrefaction would rather spread to the other members, who, with him, form one body under the same pastor.
But they act not so today, but, in cases of evil doing, they even pretend not to see. And do you know why? The root of self-love is alive in them, wherefore they bear perverted and servile fear. Because they fear to lose their position or their temporal goods, or their prelacy, they do not correct, but act like blind ones, in that they see not the real way by which their position is to be kept.
But, thinking to preserve their position with injustice, they do not reprove the faults of those under them; and they are deluded by their own sensitive self-love, or by their desire for lordship and prelacy, and they correct not the faults they should correct in others, because the same or greater ones are their own. They feel themselves comprehended in the guilt, and they therefore lose all ardor and security, and, fettered by servile fear, they make believe not to see. And, moreover, if they do see they do not correct, but allow themselves to be bound over with flattering words and with many presents, and they themselves find the excuse for the guilty ones not to be punished. In such as these are fulfilled the words spoken by My Truth, saying: ‘These are blind and leaders of the blind, and if the blind lead the blind, they both fall into the ditch.’
Regarding Godly Ministers:
My sweet ministers, of whom I spoke to you, who have the properties and condition of the sun, did not, and do not (if there be any now) act so. And they are truly suns, as I have told you, because in them is no darkness of sin, or of ignorance, because they follow the doctrine of My Truth. They are not tepid, because they burn in the furnace of My love, and because they are despisers of the grandeurs, positions, and delights of the world. They fear not to correct, for he who does not desire lordship or prelacy will not fear to lose it, and will reprove manfully, and he whose conscience does not reprove him of guilt, does not fear.
They(ministers) are like precious stones, and as such do they stand in My presence, because I have received their labor and poverty and the light which they shed with the odor of virtues in the mystic body of the holy Church. And in the life eternal I have placed them in the greatest dignity, and they receive blessing and glory in My sight, because they gave the example of an honorable and holy life, and with light administered the Light of the Body and Blood of My only-begotten Son, and all the Sacraments.
“Oh! My beloved ones, they made themselves subjects, being prelates, they made themselves servants, being lords, they made themselves infirm, being whole, and without infirmity and the leprosy of mortal sin, being strong they made themselves weak, with the foolish and simple they showed themselves simple, and with the small insignificant. And so with love they knew how to be all things to all men, and to give to each one his nourishment. What caused them to do thus? The hunger and desire for My honor and the salvation of souls which they had conceived in Me. They ran to feed on it at the table of the holy Cross, not fleeing from or refusing any labor, but with zeal for souls and for the good of the holy Church and the spread of the faith, they put themselves in the midst of the thorns of tribulation, and exposed themselves to every peril with true patience, offering incense odoriferous with anxious desires, and humble and continual prayers. With tears and sweat they anointed the wounds of their neighbor, that is the wounds of the guilt of mortal sin, which latter were perfectly cured, the ointment so made, being received in humility.”
Concerning Sinning Ministrers:
“I have shown you, dearest daughter, a sample of the excellence of good priests (for what I have shown you is only a sample of what that excellence really is), and I have told you of the dignity in which I have placed them, having elected them for My ministers, on account of which dignity and authority I do not wish them to be punished by the hand of seculars on account of any personal defect, for those who punish them offend Me miserably. But I wish seculars to hold them in due reverence, not for their own sakes, as I have said, but for Mine, by reason of the authority which I have given them. Wherefore this reverence should never diminish in the case of priests whose virtue grows weak, any more than in the case of those virtuous ones of whose goodness I have spoken to you; for all alike have been appointed ministers of the Sun — that is of the Body and Blood of My Son, and of the other Sacraments.
You should love them therefore by reason of the virtue and dignity of the Sacrament, and by reason of that very virtue and dignity you should hate the defects of those who live miserably in sin, but not on that account appoint yourselves their judges, which I forbid, because they are My Christs, and you ought to love and reverence the authority which I have given them.
You know well that if a filthy and badly dressed person brought you a great treasure from which you obtained life, you would not hate the bearer, however ragged and filthy he might be, through love of the treasure and of the lord who sent it to you. His state would indeed displease you, and you would be anxious through love of his master that he should be cleansed from his foulness and properly clothed. This, then, is your duty according to the demands of charity, and thus I wish you to act with regard to such badly ordered priests, who themselves filthy and clothed in garments ragged with vice through their separation from My love, bring you great Treasures — that is to say, the Sacraments of the holy Church — from which you obtain the life of grace, receiving them worthily (in spite of the great defects there may be in them) through love of Me, the Eternal God, who send them to you, and through love of that life of grace which you receive from the great treasure, by which they administer to you the whole of God and the whole of Man, that is to say, the Body and Blood of My Son united to My Divine nature.
Their sins indeed should displease you, and you should hate them, and strive with love and holy prayer to re-clothe them, washing away their foulness with your tears — that is to say, that you should offer them before Me with tears and great desire, that I may re-clothe them in My goodness, with the garment of charity. Know well that I wish to do them grace, if only they will dispose themselves to receive it, and you to pray for it; for it is not according to My will that they should administer to you the Sun being themselves in darkness, not that they should be stripped of the garment of virtue, foully living in dishonor; on the contrary I have given them to you, and appointed them to be earthly angels and suns, as I have said. It not being My will that they should be in this state, you should pray for them, and not judge them, leaving their judgment to Me. And I, moved by your prayers, will do them mercy if they will only receive it, but if they do not correct their life, their dignity will be the cause of their ruin. For if they do not accept the breadth of My mercy, I, the Supreme Judge, shall terribly condemn them at their last extremity, and they will be sent to the eternal fire.”
If you made it all the way through these passages, I commend you. I imagine you are wrestling with some of her conclusions and supposed directions from the Lord. I am chewing on these words, praying and listening. There are things that I think are true and others that I think can be Biblically challenged, by both the example of Jesus and his witness and the Apostle’s writings. But there’s a posture of spirit present in her writings that gives me pause. These are serious times and the people who have been abused and those who have abused others, deserve prayerful, well thought out, courageous words that will help and heal. I am doing my best to be helpful in the hour in which I live and minister. Part of me wants to pull everything down into a heap of rubble but I also know there are true and good people and priests caught up in all this horror. Reform must not just be reactionary, but responsible, just and merciful. We should make sure all criminals are convicted, all liars and culpable powers held accountable and expelled. There should be significant change in the structures that allow predators to hide, but I want to see the Church purified not burned down. Not sure if that is possible with such corruption, all I know is that:
“Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” -Jesus (Matthew 15:12-14)
What are you thoughts?