Sunday, 25 April 2010
Good Shepherd Sunday: 4th Sunday Easter, Yr C, Shaftesbury
Today, the 4th Sunday of Easter, is Good Shepherd Sunday, when we think about how Christ is ‘The Good Shepherd’, and about how He shepherds us through the Church, through the ministry of priests. However, in recent months the media coverage of priesthood has been dominated by the gross failures of certain priests and by the failure of bishops to adequately deal with those priests, and as a consequence I don't think I could speak about the priesthood without making a reference to this.
If you were here a few weeks ago you would have heard me say how this whole business has been a tragedy, and a tragedy of our own making. I don’t want now repeat what I said then, but if you want the written handout I gave there are still some copies in the porch: http://fatherdylanjames.blogspot.com/2010/03/concerning-popes-letter-on-clergy-abuse.html .
Today, I want to make two simple points to try and re-establish your confidence in the priesthood: that the sacraments continue to shepherd us even when they work through unworthy priests; and, that most priests are not as bad as the media stereotype is painting us.
I know that many of you feel let down by the fact that those priests have behaved in a way so radically opposed to the compassionate shepherding they are supposed to offer. You feel let down, and so do I, and so do the vast majority of priests who feel the taint of this scandal very closely.
But, it is important to note that the number of priests who have been guilty of these offences is a small minority of priests. In fact, the statistics show, as has been carefully researched at the prestigious Stanford and Santa Clara Universities in California, http://www.psychwww.com/psyrelig/plante.html , that Catholic priests are HALF as likely as the rest of the population to behave in this way -even though the media stereotype now associates this abuse specifically with priests. So, if you now look at a priest with suspicion, you should be TWICE as suspicious of any else who is NOT a priest. Or, to phrase that conversely, you should have twice as much confidence in a Catholic priest than you have in anyone else.
In addition, the sexual abuse rate among Catholic priests is no higher than the rate among male non-Catholic clergy. More recently, similar statistics have also been reported in journals like Newsweek http://www.newsweek.com/id/236096
-and the basic implication of these statistics is that this is not a problem unique to the Catholic Church, in any sense. What IS unique to the Catholic Church is that a much greater degree of trust is betrayed when the person who behaves this way is a priest.
I know that many of you feel even more let down by the behaviour of certain bishops, bishops who have covered up, or at the very least failed to respond, to these cases. You feel let down, and so do I, and so do the vast majority of priests, and, I might point out, so do some good bishops who made many hard decisions to get rid of priests and are now tainted with the same label of inaction that applies to others.
But the basic point that I want to make to you today is that we NEED our priests and bishops.
A holy and GOOD priest is a great thing to behold, and a great gift to his people.
But the things that the priesthood gives us are so important that God has arranged things such that those things come to us even when a priest is mediocre, or even when he is sinful. The base line things that the priesthood gives us are: the sacraments and the teaching of the Church –and these are important because these are how we have union with Christ, these are how we encounter Christ today.
The clearest example of this truth is what we have come here for today: the Mass.
You have not come here to Mass today to see and meet me –at least I hope you haven’t.
You have come here today to meet and encounter Christ. Christ fed the crowds 2000 years ago. And He promised at the Last Supper, the First Mass, that when we “do this in memory of” Him, the bread and wine become what He said of them: His Body, His Blood, His Soul and His Divinity -as food for our souls. The priest, configured to Christ the Head by an indelible mark on his soul at his ordination, the priest follows Christ’s command and what Christ promised comes true: and we encounter Christ.
And this comes true even when the priest is half-hearted, or lazy, or otherwise sinful, the sacramental miracle is so important that FOR THE SAKE OF THE PEOPLE it works even when the priest is lousy.
Of course, in extreme cases like those in the media recently, a priest's unworthiness means that he must be removed from his office. But, in more daily cases of a priest's unworthiness, the shepherding that comes to us in the sacraments is so important that Christ has established His Church in such a way that this shepherding works despite, not necessarily because of, the worthiness of individual priests. Sometimes priests are not worthy –and this is damaging to the Church –that’s why the Eucharistic Prayer of every Mass prays especially for the clergy: because it’s important for everyone that the clergy are holy.
But priests in general are much better than the media reports have been giving the impression that they are.
And even if they weren’t, the shepherding of the sacraments comes to us even so, and it’s a great and wonderful gift that we should thank God for.