The identification of the Priest with the presence of the Church was brought home to me years ago when, making the round of some First Communion parties, as I walked into one little girls’ homes. She was in the front yard playing with her friends. When she saw me, she ran inside the house and announced “The Church is here! The Church is here!”
That cute little story illustrates well how from a very young age Catholics are taught that the Priest represents the Church in a tangible way. We can talk about the triplex munera of Priest, Prophet and King or Sanctifier, Teacher and Shepherd…but fact is that whatever people may see the priest do, is secondary to what people believe the Priest is, and that is the visual manifestation of Christ and his Church.
But the Priest is also a weak human person, a real man with certain really impressive talents and certain really glaring weaknesses. And the disjuncture between those two poles is where scandal breaks out.
We saw that so clearly in the sexual abuse crisis. It was a scandal because people saw their priest as holy and yet some priests committed some really despicable, criminal acts. Part of the reason that all happened in such numbers between 1972 and 1985, by the way, is that seminaries did not talk about what I am addressing today. The fact that once you are ordained a Priest (and indeed, while you are even a seminarian) your life is not really your own.
You are a public person representing Christ and his Church, and not just when you have a collar on, but on your day off and on the internet and even when you are with your family and friends. You are a Priest forever, and whatever you do wherever you are reflects on the Church and her Lord.
Being a Priest
Indeed, some of the best work a Priest does is accomplished by just being a Priest. For example, what’s the most effective way a Rector can help his seminarians to be good Priests?
He can administer the Seminary, overseeing everything from finance to properties to personnel. But you hardly see any of that unless it goes wrong.
He can pray for you and even fast and do penance for your intentions. But again, that’s all behind the scenes.
He can lead you in celebrating the Sacred mysteries and offer the Sacrifice with piety and self-donation. But how many Mondays are there in a year and that’s 40 minutes at best.
He can agonize long and hard to give the most engaging and challenging Rector’s Conferences or preach the most thoughtful and well constructed homilies or post the most interesting blog posts. But how many words does he really get to share with you on a given month or day?
He can sit with you one on one or in groups and tell you his old Priest stories, or better yet listen to yours.
But that’s not how I do my best work for you as your Pastor and Priest. For the most effective formation is not in my doing, but in my simply being a good Priest. By being Jim Moroney, the Priest…by getting out of the way so that Christ can shine forth, by letting you watch me offer sacrifice and work for you, by letting you see my successes and my failures, by bring transparent and authentic, by being the best Priest I know how to be without pretense or guile. By being me and letting you see me, just as you, God willing, will someday let them watch you from up close and afar as their brother and Father and friend.
Come and See, Jesus said to them, come and see me teach and shepherd and sanctify, that you may love others as I have loved you. It is the the way we propagate virtue and teach from the inside out the way of love.
The Public Person
So in order to be a Priest (or seminarian) effectively, I must accept that I am a public person, both when I think you are looking and when I don’t. When that faculty member does this or that seminarian says that or the other one is on his way out. How does he handle it? When I’m tired or hurt or over my head or have really screwed something up. How does he handle it? When I need to exercise or submit to authority or power or make really hard decisions or do really unpleasant things. How does he handle it?
We always teach more by our actions than by our words and even more by who we are than by what we do. And the three ways to effectively BE a shepherd is by knowing, loving and being authentic.
The first step in being an effective leader is knowing your sheep. I still remember the excitement of getting each assignment, including this one, and asking everyone I knew, “what are they like?” What brings them joy? What have been their successes? What has made them cry? What are the tragedies that have scarred them?
Demographic studies can help a lot in figuring out who goes to your church. Federal and state census figures with everything from median education to income, language, poverty rates and other social indicators. Demographics give you the meta-picture of your people.
But then getting to know them one-on-one is what really forms you into being their Priest. And getting to know everyone. In each of the last parishes where I served I had a habit of Tuesdays and Thursdays. Tuesday nights were always Bible Study, where we could study the readings together for the next Sunday. And then on Thursdays I’d cook supper for a dozen or so people. I love to cook. I’d usually invite one of the very active families and then a couple families I just happened to chat with for the first time on the front steps of the Church. Have you ever been to the Rectory? Why not bring the kids over for supper on Thursday night? It told them that they didn't need to be popular to be cared for. That I cared for them all.
That, after all, is all the people of a parish really want. They will forgive almost anything, but they want you to care about them and pray for them. Caring means looking them right in the eye and listening, dropping all the distractions and treating that person as the only person in the world. Caring means getting on your knees every night and begging God to soothe their broken hearts and untie the knots of their most complicated worries.
And that caring requires authenticity: being real. I think it was Speaker O’Neil who once said the only thing you need to succeed in politics is authenticity. And once you can fake that you’ve got it made.
But there is no faking in our profession brothers, for God sees into your soul, and so do they. And he has sent you to love them as he has loved you. Not to look like you care, but to care. To weep with them, laugh with them, tremble and rejoice with them. And if you let them, they will change you, slowly form you into the image of His Son which they need you to be, and you will decrease that he might increase. You will become the vessel, the lens through which he touches them, ever whispering the truth with gentleness and shepherding them to himself.
And in order to do that, they must be able to trust you, which means you must be exactly who you say you are. A believer, striving along with them for holiness and purity and truth. No two lives here…the public and the private. One Jim Moroney, one Father Jim, one Monsignor Moroney. One Jim Moroney, the priest in every moment of every day.
A Life Never Fully Your Own
Now because you are such a public person, your life (like any father’s) is never fully your own. Just think about it. You live in someone else’s house, collect more of a stipend than a salary, eat the food someone else has paid for and, most of the time, live above the store. You wear distinctive clothing, and everyone in the town knows you. You are Father, whether on the clock or off, whether on duty or off. And that means you are always caring, always authentic, always Father, always accountable, always watched.
That will seem unfair at times. That you are being held to a higher standard. But remember that you have been ordained to the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God who is the world’s salvation and who will come again at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. He speaks through you lips, consecrates through your hands and consoles with your heart. It’s hard to imagine a work for which there should be a higher standard.
That means that like any good Father, your needs must often get sacrificed for the needs of your people and that you are ever thinking of them. I may have strong political views, but if I profess them in any forum, I could end up compromising my ability to reach those who sit equally comfortably on the other side of the aisle. I might personally prefer modern art, but if my people pray better before a nineteenth century kitschy madonna, their needs come first. I might be a fan of polyphony, but if the last three pastors before me did Life Teen music at all five Masses all year long, I'm not going to change it all around the first week.
Indeed, there is the old axiom, watch for the first year and twelve months later, slowly begin to make the changes that need to be made. But always with gentleness, always with listening and always with love. There’s also the saying of good Pope John: “See everything, overlook a great deal and change little.”
Sometimes priests fail at being leaders because they fail to be authentic. Sometimes even priests…even priests… abuse others, sometimes they lead a double life, sometimes they are deceitful and sometimes they steal.
Why does this happen? Is it because they are evil men? Yet so many of them had given decades of their lives to selfless service. How can we explain it?
I am afraid I have no complete answer to the mystery of the workings of evil in men’s hearts. But I do know that often the priest who has “gone off the rails” starts to go wrong by making little compromises that lead to a second life which brows bigger and more toxic than they were ever willing to admit. Until it all comes crashing down.
They stopped going to confession, or at least being totally honest with their confessor. Prayer probably began to take second place as well. Any friends who would challenge them were marginalized and little by little they began to convince themselves that they deserved this private life because of all the sacrifices they were making in fulfilling their public duties.
It’s just like the devil whispering into the ears of our first parents, telling little lies and then building on them with bigger and bigger deceptions, until it all comes tumbling down as they lost the knowing and the caring and the authenticity so indispensable to a sharing in the Priesthood Priest of Jesus Christ.
And for that matter, they are not unlike the 27 year old teacher who downloaded child porn twice and now sits in state prison for five years with a life sentence as a sex offender.
The College student who posts lurid details of his wildest fantasies to Facebook (sometimes illustrated), or the seminarian who publishes his infallible screeds against his Bishop, or the parish music director who joins a gay chat room, or.... I could go on and on...
And all these pictures and those comments and those screeds will be out there forever. Long after the author has grown up, acquired wisdom, and known real maturity in Christ, their name will be forever associated with everything they ever wrote or posted or VLOGed.
I often think of how much God loves me, having made me young before the internet. For I wonder, if my infallible views on the Church or politics or a myriad of other subjects when I was in College had been illustrated, posted and VLOGed, how it would impact my ministry today. When you Googled James P. Moroney, what would have come up? And what would that mean for my ability to minister as a public person and a pastor today?
So, be careful out there my brothers. Cyberspace is an unforgiving environment. It has great potential for the new Evangelization, but it has gaping black holes that can eat you and your reputation alive.
If you’re posting to a site and you’re a priest, you are representing the Church, just as clearly as you would if you were wearing a collar and speaking to a crowd out in front of CVS. Except it lasts longer and the crowd’s a lot bigger.
If you say you’re a seminarian in a big Northeast seminary, someone’s gonna guess, and you will represent Saint John’s and the guys who are sitting to your left and to your right. And you will represent the faculty and the Cardinal and me too.
If you post anonymously some snarky comment, entirely lacking in charity for the poor victim of your wrath, Jesus still knows your IP address, and he will hold you to account.
Now, I am not suggesting by this that your next confession begin with “Bless me father for I have blogged.” Even the Pope Tweets. And not all aspects of this vast new world are evil (even Microsoft products can sometimes be used for good).
But, as Eve and her husband discovered the hard way, even an Apple can lead you to sin. So be careful. Be very very careful.
Now I have one last story. The most important of all. Last week, I went home to Spencer (my first pastorate) to bury Ben, the oldest son of Paul and Mary Ann Gleason, two of my greatest supporters in my first pastorate. No matter what I did they stood by me, encouraging, consoling and telling me the truth when I screwed up. Now, through the years, even with those most dear friends, you can sometimes let months or even years go by without hearing their voice, so I was delighted when earlier last week I heard Paul’s voice on my cell.
He was crying and he told me that Ben had died tragically. The next day I got in the car and drove to Spencer, tears in my eyes and singing the in paradisum and various Marian prayers for the dead. (She always listens to prayers for the dead!)
Paul and Mary Ann were devastated, but they kept coming back to asking me to do the Funeral, which, of course, I said I would be honored to do. He asked for you, Paul told me. He asked how Father Jim was and said he would love to see him sometime, remembering stories of when I was his Priest and he was one of the teenagers who would come over and hang out in the Youth Lounge on Saturday nights.
And so Father Jim buried Ben on Friday. And it was only right, for Ben had learned that Jesus knew him and cared about him and loved him somehow through the poor vessel which was Father Jim, his priest.
And as I walked away from his grave, my brothers, I thought of you, and all the Pauls and Maryannes and Bens you will know, from birth to death and all the messiness in between. Of how you will teach them and shepherd them and offer sacrifice for them. Of how you will pray for them and cry with them and rejoice with them for the rest of your lives.
It is a public life to which you are called, and not always easy.
But despite it all, I thought to myself as I walked from the grave, how very blessed we are to be called, in all out unworthiness, to be called by Him to be a Priest.