The scandal of religious hypocrisy

The scandal of religious hypocrisy

There’s nothing to add to this self-explanatory headline, nor even much reason to follow the link. The title says it all: SCANDAL: Vatican police raid cardinal’s apartment to stop drug fueled gay party.

The lede is easy to believe: “Pope Francis is reportedly furious at the news as he has worked hard to clean up the Vatican.” It evokes the anger Jesus directed at the scribes and Pharisees. The Lord, who was a friend to sinners in other contexts, always eager to minister divine mercy and foster conversion, had no time for hypocrites:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Mt 23 ff)

This is a reaction I think many of us intuitively share. Priests who hear confessions are well acquainted with the wage of sin, so we’re not easily scandalised. But I am scandalised by exposés of priests leading double lives. I’m sure I’m not the only one to share our Lord’s visceral reaction against the scribes and Pharisees. But why? Why do some sinful contexts cause more scandal than others?

It might be a case of “there but for the grace of God go I,” but that’s no explanation. We can all think that about any number of sins, and they do not possess the shock value of the deliberate and systematic hypocrisy of double lives. What makes this sort of sin so different?

In today’s Office of Readings, St Augustine sheds light on the matter. Augustine, you might recall, is famous for praying “God, make me good, but not yet.”

“We should be displeased with ourselves when we commit sin, for sin is displeasing to God. Sinful though we are, let us at least be like God in this, that we are displeased at what displeases him. In some measure then you will be in harmony with God’s will, because you find displeasing in yourself what is abhorrent to your Creator.”

It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? We should hate sin, because God hates sin. And if we do hate our sins, then even in the midst of sin, there is some harmony with the will of God. This is not only perfectly intelligible, but also widely experienced. Who doesn’t identify with St Paul’s quandary?

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Rom 7:15-18)

But here’s the rub. When a person is systematic in their hypocrisy, when they lead a double life, they have accommodated sin. Far from hating sin, this sinner plans his life around it. And so, by Augustine’s suggested measure, there is no semblance of harmony with God at all.

Hence we have the Lord’s prayer in today’s Gospel:

“I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.” (Mt 11:25)

I think children are probably incapable of leading a double life. They are perfectly capable of sin, but in their simplicity they don’t accommodate sin. And, in their humility, when children are in trouble, they are quick to seek a remedy. The “learned and clever,” by contrast, have the means to lie about their sin — even to themselves — which is the first step to a pharisaical double life.

We can, all of us, adapt Augustine’s prayer: “God, make me good.” (There’s no need for temporal qualifiers.) None of us can be saints by force of will — we need God’s grace. We’re sinners obliged to start again and again and again — like small children, learning to walk, recovering from every fall, always persevering. We should avoid sin, and with God’s grace we can avoid sin. But in those moments we do sin, so long as even then, we hate the sin, we avoid, I think, the pharisaical mire.

Ab insidiis diaboli, libera nos, Domine.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem

Full disclaimer: in my first hour in the Holy Land, I gazed at the desolate horizon several times and wondered at it. “This is the Chosen Land? Wars have been fought, and countless lives lost, over this?”

On second thought, I recalled this underwhelming choice is God’s typical MO. He often chooses the most unassuming, the most unimpressive — like the shepherd children at Fatima who became some of the greatest prophets of the twentieth century. Or the timid and illiterate farmhand, who became Curé of Ars and parish priest to the world. Or the impetuous Galilean fisherman upon whom Jesus founded his Church.

Having recalled these lessons, I reserved judgement, and by the end of the day I had changed my assessment. By then I had toured the archeological digs of the City of David and walked around the Old City of Jerusalem. I discerned a spiritual power which is literally indescribable — one has to be there to experience it for oneself.

Upon returning to Australia I bought and read Simon Montefiore’s Jerusalem: A Biography, which I highly recommend. (Not perfect — Montefiore goes off the boil, for example, when he describes Paul as the founder of Christianity. But for the most part, an epic history which is as fascinating as it is informative.) In that book, Montefiore quotes Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993:

“Everybody has two cities, his own and Jerusalem.”

I think that’s true. Jerusalem certainly stirred something in me, as it did in our Lord himself:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:37)

If it’s not on your bucket list already, add it: a visit to Jerusalem.

Concerning Cardinal Pell

Concerning Cardinal Pell

The charges against Cardinal Pell are another distressing blow to us Catholics. Speaking personally, I share the Cardinal’s hope that this development is a good one, putting an end to ‘trial by media.’

Fr Paddy has prepared a document related to this issue which he is distributing in the Hamilton parish this weekend. I have also prepared copies which you’re welcome to take home and study.

I won’t repeat what is presented in the document, but I will briefly repeat remarks I’ve previously made on the subject of the clergy abuse scandal, and our response as Australian Catholics.

I.

In the first place, we must never forget our Lord’s parting words to his disciples: “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you. A peace the world cannot give, is my gift to you.”

This is a gift that is readily available to us, again and again. When bad news, or anything else in the world distresses us, depriving us of God’s peace, we need only “plug into” the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, for example, for every minute spent watching distressing content on TV, such minutes might be matched in contemplation of an icon or holy picture. For every minute spent reading distressing content in newspapers, another minute might be spent reading the Holy Gospels.

In relation to the present news, these practices can remind us that Christ is the head of the Catholic Church. He is the reason we are Catholic. And he is always present to us here, in the tabernacle. In the Eucharist we have the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

Insofar as we foster a spirit of prayer and supernatural outlook, we will never be deprived of the Lord’s peace for long.

II.

In the second place, it’s good to remember that the clergy abuse scandal is not a distraction from the Church’s mission; it is part of the mission the Lord gives us.

St Vincent de Paul famously advised:

Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. So when you leave prayer to serve some poor person, remember that this very service is performed for God.

A similar lesson might be applied to present events. We can pray, with real optimism and confidence, that good comes from the Church’s present humiliation.

In some respects, I think the Catholic Church has become a scapegoat. As long as our larger society can rail against crimes in the Church, it can ignore the horrendous crimes our present generation of children must navigate. But eventually, the painful trials and healing which we have experienced in the Church will need to be experienced in other sections of Australian society. And the Church will then be a light to the nation, because the Church is Christ. And he’s done all this before — bearing the cross, enduring impenetrable darkness, and ultimately overcoming the darkness.

So, to paraphrase St Vincent de Paul:

Do not become upset or feel guilty because the evangelising mission of the Church is interrupted by the fallout and response to the clergy abuse scandal. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. Remember that this very service is performed for God.

None of this is a distraction. This is where we need to focus our energy. Our prayer. It may be painful to us individually, and as the Church, but this is where God has called us. And God knows what He is about.

Fatima = prayer and penance!

Fatima = prayer and penance!

Pope Francis has canonised two of the youngest saints in the history of the Church. St Francisco Marto was just 10 years old when he died; and when his sister died a year later, St Jacinta was only 9 years old.

The Church has also just celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the first apparition of Fatima. The Collect of the feast reveals the key to the Fatima message:

O God, who chose the Mother of your Son to be our Mother also, grant us that, persevering in penance and prayer for the salvation of the world, we may further more effectively each day the reign of Christ.

The message of Fatima: prayer and penance! It’s a reminder to us that we are called to be co-redeemers with Jesus Christ. This is the “scandal” of the Incarnation: not only has God descended to become one of us; now God wants to raise you and I up to His level. Jesus became sin, that we might become the goodness of God. (2 Cor 5:21)

The Lord offered his life at Calvary — the perfect sacrifice — for the salvation of the world. But now he gives us a share in his mission. A share in his redemptive sacrifice. He makes us co-redeemers — so that we can join our own sacrifices to his, for the salvation of the world.

This is what Our Lady reminded the world at Fatima. Our prayers and our penance can change history. Our prayers and penance can save the world.

Lúcia de Jesus dos Santos, and her cousins, St Francisco Marto and St Jacinta Marto

At the canonisation Mass, the Holy Father invited us to “take as our examples Saint Francisco and Saint Jacinta.” Here’s just one example, from St Jacinta:

One day, when Jacinta and Lucia were chatting, her mother brought Jacinta a glass of milk to drink. “Drink it all Jacinta. It’s good for you.” (By now Jacinta was dying of the Spanish Flu.)

“I don’t want it Mama,” Jacinta answered, pushing the glass away. Her mother insisted, but eventually gave up: “I don’t know what to do with you!”

As soon as they were alone, Lucia reproached Jacinta. “How can you disobey your mother like that? Can’t you offer this sacrifice to Our Lord?”

After hearing that, Jacinta’s eyes filled with tears, which Lucia wiped away. Jacinta frankly admitted, “I remember now!” Then she called her mother, sought her forgiveness, and promised that she would drink as much as her mother wanted. Her mother brought back the cup of milk, which Jacinta drank without showing the slightest reluctance.

After her mother had left, she confided in Lucia, “If only you knew how hard it was for me to drink that!”

A smile is sometimes the best penance. To make life pleasant for others, even though it costs us. Performed for love of God, and for the salvation of the world.

The need for holy priests

The need for holy priests

Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s The Soul of the Apostolate presents the interior life — one’s personal relationship with the Lord, nourished by daily prayer — as the foundation of a life of work and service.

It’s a very good book, suitable for Catholics in all states of life. It was, apparently, a book which Pope St Pius X dipped into so often, that it had a permanent place on his bedside table.

I don’t read it as frequently as that, but there is a quote from the book which I meditate on every year during my annual retreat:

“If the priest is a saint, the people will be fervent; if the priest is fervent, the people will be pious; if the priest is pious, the people will at least be decent; if the priest is only decent, the people will be godless.”

I think this observation works very well as a general principle. (We only have to look around to see the adverse impact of criminally indecent priests.) Good Shepherd Sunday is an occasion to pray not just for more priests, but for holy priests. We all need holy priests — me included — who are truly consecrated to Christ; struggling to conform themselves, every day, to the Good Shepherd.

Of course, ultimately we all look to Christ. When the Church’s ministers let us down — and sadly that’s inevitable — we have to look to the tabernacle. We remember that he’s really here, really present, no matter what. But it’s no accident that the Lord did not only give himself to us in the Eucharist. He also founded the Church.

“I will not leave you orphans,” he promised, and he hasn’t. He consecrated the Apostles; he filled them with the Holy Spirit. And he gives us priests, in every generation: spiritual fathers.

There are two traditional, and very beautiful, ways to pray for priests:

Stations of the Cross

The Stations of the Cross can be, but needn’t be, a 30 minute exercise. It can be as simple as looking at each station, and reading the name of the station. However you do it, offering the Stations of the Cross on behalf of a priest is a very noble prayer.

It is every priest’s task to follow the path of Christ; to walk the way of the cross. When we pray the Stations on behalf of a particular priest — or seminarian — we imitate the role of Simon of Cyrene: we help this alter Christus to carry his cross. And just as Simon derived many graces from his work of service, so will we.

Prayer at the time of the priest’s communion

I like this custom very much. I wish I had known about it before I was ordained. It complements the custom of the priest praying for each person as he ministers communion to them.

The time of the priest’s communion, which is normally when one is preparing for one’s own communion, is also a great moment to pray for that priest. The traditional prayers vary, but they generally share two common intentions:

  • That the Lord might find a place of shelter and rest in the heart of this priest.
  • That the Lord will make this priest a man of prayer and an untiring labourer.

The first intention is something we should all pray for ourselves. During the Lord’s public ministry, he would exhaust himself preaching, teaching and healing. On at least one occasion, his attempts at a spiritual retreat were thwarted by the unflagging demands of the crowds which followed him. (Matthew 14)

At Bethany, however, in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Jesus found rest and recreation. Our own hearts should be like another Bethany — a place where our Lord can rest, confident of our love and attention. Perhaps at other times, our prayer is populated by petitions, but at communion why not allow the Lord to rest in our love?

As for the second intention, it seems to me that priests are tempted in two directions: excessive prayer and excessive work. Monks and social workers are both important. But diocesan priests, at least, should not be monks, and nor should we be social workers. We need to navigate a middle way, the golden mean, of contemplative prayer and active apostolate.

Pray for priests. Pray for seminarians. That they may always pursue the challenge, and never tire of the interior struggle, to be holy.

Pin It on Pinterest