Every late spring and early summer, there is a little-known ritual that happens in the Catholic Church in the United States. As the school year winds down, fourth-year seminarians prepare for their priestly ordination, and all the other seminarians take road trips to the various dioceses to attend the ordinations of their now former schoolmates.
Most all of us priests have done this to some extent in our younger years. It really is a joyful experience to be with the guys on their big day of ordination, and while you are a seminarian, you cannot help but think of the day it will be your turn (God and the church willing).
Twenty-some years ago, I remember going to an ordination in a nearby diocese. On the way there, I was in the car with a guy who had just been ordained a couple of weeks earlier, and of course the conversation was centered on the subject of what it was like to now be a priest.
The newly minted priest said something that I don’t think I will ever forget. He said (paraphrasing), “You know, one month ago no one cared about my opinions or sought my counsel, no one wanted my advice, I was just a lowly seminarian. But now everyone wants my opinion, everyone seems to come to me for advice, and I have appointments lined up for people coming to see me for counseling.”
It really is amazing how the ordination ritual transforms a person, and I am not even referring to the deep theological, ontological change that comes with ordination. Sociologically, among faithful Catholics the priesthood still has an important stature, which of course has become a double-edged sword of sorts.
A couple years after my 1998 ordination, I remember praying in St. Louis Catholic Church in Floodwood, which was one of the three parishes of my first pastorate. While praying that morning in front of the Blessed Sacrament, a line popped in my head: “If I was what I appeared to be, I would be a saint.” I quickly wrote it down and posted it in a few different locations in my house so it would be a constant reminder.
When Jesus was challenging the Scribes and Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, he said something similar to them, but in more graphic terms: “Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, you frauds! You cleanse the outside of the cup but leave the inside full of plunder and self-indulgence!” (23:25). Boiled down to its simplest terms that is what the clergy sex abuse scandal is: men of God who have appeared to be holy and godly from the outside but are filed with sick, vile wretchedness on the inside. “If I was what I appeared to be, I would be a saint.”
It is very important for us to know that what applies to priests applies to every Christian. The priests who have been guilty of sexual abuse are an extreme example, but there are other smaller examples of this in our daily lives as well. Think of how you talk or behave towards the people you live with, or the people who are closest to you. How do you talk or behave towards your parents, spouse, siblings, or children? Then think of how you talk or behave towards people who may be mere acquaintances. Do we have a public façade, an exterior appearance that we show the rest of the world when we are in public? What does it look like compared to what we don’t show the rest of the world?
Priests still have a position of stature in our Catholic community despite the justifiably negative press, so when a priest shows himself to be full of “plunder and self-indulgence” on the inside, it becomes a massive, far-reaching tragedy. And yet, as Christians we are all supposed to be different than the rest of society. As Christians, we should be noticeable because of our belonging to Christ. It might not be a bad idea to “scotch” that sentence in a couple of places in your home as well: “If I was what I appeared to be, I would be a saint.