August 5, 2018.B | 18th Ordinary Sunday
Some weeks back I encountered someone with a less than high estimation of the Catholic priesthood. He asked what I did, and I said I was a priest. His immediate response was to ask me if I liked children (and I’m seriously cleaning up how he asked it). In the aftermath of the height of the sex abuse crisis in the church in 2002, I was asked that on a couple of other occasions when people found out I was a priest, and usually I rose to a very defensive rebuttal. This time, however, I was more muted and simply said, “No.” Perhaps after 18 years as a priest ministering in the shadow of this crisis, I am more resigned to the instant societal equating of “priest” with “abuser.” It is sad that that is how society often views Catholic priests now, sort of in a word association that when one says “priest,” the immediate word that comes to mind is abuser or pedophile. I don’t relate this to evoke righteous anger or even sympathy from any of you to or for me. The victim-survivors of abuse demand and are entitled to that. The victim-survivors of abuse demand and are entitled to that. I relate this story to simply illustrate that the damage done to the Church by its ministers, priests and bishops is so profound that an answer to the profession that I say I am a part of instantly evokes the aforementioned response. It is deep; it is pervasive; and the chickens have come home to roost. To paraphrase Job, if one sows the wind, then one reaps the whirlwind.
The people of the covenant grumbled (complained, murmured) against Moses and Aaron as they led them through the wilderness/desert according to the first reading from Exodus. And Moses and Aaron were seemingly good and righteous leaders. Even God will get the people’s grumbling. It should be no surprise then that the grumbling (the murmuring, the complaining, the protesting) of people outside of the church should be so provocative when all they seemingly hear and see is how depraved the supposed leaders and ministers of the church are. We’re all going to get painted with the same broad brush. And it should be no surprise that you, the holy people of God, within the church are equally grumbling, murmuring, complaining and protesting when those to whom you have entrusted your souls and lives are found out to be so wanting and lacking in simple moral virtue. Would that your grumbling might roar!
But, before I go down a self-righteous road of effectively trying to distance myself by saying that I am not one of “them,” one of those “bad priests”; I am not Fr. So-and-so; I am not former Cardinal, now simply Archbishop, McCarrick; it would perhaps behoove me to consider the scene of the crucifixion of our Lord. The first icon of the Church is Golgotha, Calvary, the crucifixion. And nobody was making nice distinctions about who was innocent and who was guilty there. The same broad paintbrush was applied to all equally from the human perspective. Nobody made nice differentiations between Jesus of Nazareth and Dismas (the so-called “Good Thief”) and the nameless “bad” one. They were all equally seen by society of the day as guilty and as therefore deserving to die. The first icon/image of the Church is that of God hung among thieves. Perhaps, not a bad place to be once again in our day and time. This is after all what we confess and profess when we say that “he became man.” The full implication of the Incarnation is not just God hanging out with the nice. St. Paul says that God made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that we might become the very righteousness of God. God hangs among thieves. God hangs and dies among thieves, even considered a “thief,” so that life can spring forth from him.
And so I need to embrace and hold fast to a very sacrificial understanding of priesthood. I have to offer it up. My reputation, my need to be considered different from or better than from those who have seriously damaged the reputation—not just the reputation, but almost the very essence—of the profession that I belong to. All of us priests, and indeed—I apologize to you, good and holy people of God, for this—the church itself is being painted with the broad brush of scandal so that we can point the way out of the sickness and darkness and deathliness of the abuse of power to what is whole and right and good in the relationship of sacrificial love. It is the aboriginal scene of the cross—God hung among thieves. And yet, life breaks forth.
In the gospel passage from John today, which takes up from the sign of the feeding of the multitude that we heard about last week, Jesus begins to plumb the depths about what that feeding of so many from seemingly so little means. Twice, he states an important orientation and disposition about the bread worthy of our reflection in light of this sad reality of abuse and something that may be a “light shining in the darkness.” “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
It is a bread that gives life, whose orientation and disposition is always towards life and the abundance of life. Jesus does not feed himself; he feeds others to give life, an abundance of life. He in fact will become their—our—food to give life, an abundance of life. He is bread that is broken, shared and given to give life, an abundance of life. I have to be bread—that which I handle in the most central reality of my ministry as a priest—broken, shared and given to give life, an abundance of life. The church has to be broken, shared and given to give life, an abundance of life. And the other orientation and disposition of this bread that gives life, an abundance of life, is to the world. It’s not to Jesus himself; it’s to the world. It’s not to me myself; it’s to the world. It’s not to any priest himself; it’s to the world. It’s not to the Church itself; it’s to the world.
These are paltry words spoken by a priest trying to make sense of the mystery of sin and evil and how God’s grace still is manifest in the midst of those things. Maybe, providentially, the second reading from the letter to the Ephesians offers us the last best hope of encouragement in continuing to embrace the way of Jesus Christ in and through his church: “…you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.”