When a Priest Goes Astray

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Shepherds in the Mist

Not very long ago I finished reading a soul-stirring book: Shepherds in the Mist, by E. Boyd Barrett. Barrett, a Jesuit priest who went astray and then found his way back to the Church, published the odyssey of his own conversion in 1949. In telling the story of his own struggle, Father Barrett, had but one purpose: to move souls to pray for priests, especially for fallen priests, for priests wounded in spiritual combat, and for priests momentarily blinded by passion. In the Preface to his book, Father Barrett writes:

I know that you, fellow Catholics, have charity in your hearts for priests in trouble. I know that you pray for them. But you will want to know, among other things, if there is any way in which you can help them, over and above praying for them. And you will want to be encouraged to pray even more than you are praying and to sacrifice yourselves even more than you are doing for their sakes.
But, besides thinking of you, fellow Catholics of good standing, I am also thinking of our Shepherds in the mist. Some of them will read this book. There are things I want to tell them. Above all, I want to disabuse them of their fear that you have feelings of dislike and resentment against them. I want to tell them that the one burning thought in your minds is how to induce them to come home. I want to reassure them of the fact that it is not hard to come home -- to reassure them that, however rugged his exterior may seem, Peter is kind and gentle with the kindliness and gentleness of Christ.
When a son runs away from home, his mother's one thought is how to get him back again. She worries over his loneliness and sufferings. It is of the dangers that he is in that she thinks, and of the hardships he is undergoing -- not of the faults he has committed. She does not remember the wrong her son has done her by running away; but she dreams of the joy it will be for her when he returns.

Peace and Rest on the Heart of Christ

In 1948 when Father Barrett wrote his book, he was particularly concerned with the plight of priests who, like himself, left the Church and went into the night searching for happiness, wholeness, and love. After an initial period of euphoric relief, most found a gnawing discontent instead of happiness. Further fragmentation instead of wholeness. Loneliness instead of love. The world proved deceiving and its promises empty. Some, like Father Barrett, returned to full sacramental life in the Church, and found peace of heart and rest on the Heart of Christ.

In the Shadows

The past forty years have seen another kind of clerical misery: that of the priest who, while remaining in the Church and keeping up a modicum of outward conformity to what is expected of him, withdraws into a parallel universe of shadows and secrecy. Addictions and vices of all sorts flourish under cover of darkness. The heart of such a priest is painfully divided; the fissure opened by the metastatizing roots of vice exposes the heart to every kind of spiritual infection.

The Drama of Father X

The experience of Father X may help readers to understand how a priest, in spite of all the graces freely offered him, can lose his way.

Off to a Bad Start

Father X was ordained less than ten years at the time of his fall from grace. Intelligent, winning, handsome, and sincere in his youthful desire for holiness, he was "cultivated" by the superior of the religious community who recognized his gifts. He joined the community and, being the superior's protégé, enjoyed a continuous stream of privileges, gifts, opportunities, and promotions.

Late Glittering Nights

A popular guest at ecclesiastical dinner parties and worldly social engagements, Father X enjoyed the compliments and flattery lavished on him wherever he went. Late glittering nights, fine eating and drinking, and stimulating but superficial conversation began to take their toll on his relationship with God. He became addicted to compliments and flattery, and lost his need for silent adoration in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. He began excusing himself from community prayer, from community meals, and community recreation.

Satiety and Emptiness

Admirers showered him with gifts of all sorts. His room became elegantly comfortable; he acquired a taste for the costly and the chic. His magnetism, popularity, and good looks attracted to his religious community the interest of the powerful and the contributions of the wealthy. While his superior looked on approvingly, Father's life became a whirlwind as he rushed from one social or cultural event to another. Increasingly, between events, he began to experience moments of emptiness and solitude. When an illicit relationship presented itself, offering a new and higher dose of flattery, and a certain measure of relief from loneliness, Father X fell into it.

The Crash

After a few months the other party in the relationship demanded a measure of commitment that Father X was incapable of giving. Hurt and disappointed, she went public with her anger. As a result of her disclosures, Father X was ordered to withdraw from public ministry and provided with "professional" help. The underlying spiritual crisis was not, however, addressed. Without a humble surrender to the grace of Christ and to the maternal mediation of the Blessed Virgin Mary how will Father X be able to reactivate the sacramental grace of his priestly ordination, and so salvage his vocation?

What Could Have Been

Looking at Father X's story one can see the real downward spiral began when he stopped praying. Had Father X gone to Confession weekly, remained faithful to daily Mass, to the Divine Office, to Eucharistic adoration, the rosary, lectio divina, and the examination of his conscience, he could have stopped the impending spiritual disaster. Had his superior not been in complicity with his worldly successes, and exercised the vigilance of a true spiritual father, he could have been spared the wreckage of his vocation. Had his brethren, instead of whispering about his absences from community exercises and gossiping about his late nights out, gone to him offering wise counsel and support, he could have been pulled back from the edge of the miry pit. Had Father X, when confronted with the temptation of an illicit relationship, gone to a spiritual father and revealed his situation with humility and complete transparency, he would have found "grace in time of need" and much pain would have spared the other party.

Father X's issues were, I think, more spiritual than affective or psychological. Will he be able to turn his life around and return to the love he had at first? This depends, I think, not only on Father X's cooperation with the unfailing grace of Christ, but also on the supplication and reparation of those who, participating in the merciful advocacy of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Priests, accept to abide before the Eucharistic Face of Jesus for the sake of all priests, and especially for the most needy and broken among them.

Disclaimer: Father X, even if his story resembles that of hundreds of priests, is no one priest in particular. His story is a fictional composite based on the convergence of the experiences of priests of entirely different times, places, and backgrounds.

5 Comments

Coincidentally, this month's issue of Columbia which I received just yesterday includes an article about an organization called Opus Bono Sacerdotii that works to help priests in crisis and help them avoid falling away from the Church.

OBS website: http://www.opusbono.org/home/about_us.asp
Columbia website: http://publications.ingagepublication.com/COLUMBIAMAY09EN/ (requires Flash)

Dear Father Mark,
I would like to offer myself for priests. I am going to adoration tonight and I have your prayer. I am becoming quite disabled but I am light of heart because it means I have more time to pray and I have been offering up my pain for souls.
Your comment said that mother's do not look at their son's faults but worry about the trouble they are in and pray for them to come back. This is true. My son has been astray, moved out and spent some time in jail recently for stealing. He is not yet 19. It was a horrific experience. I felt like a knife had been stabbed into my heart. I was sick with worry and spent long nights in prayer with little sleep. Never have my prayers been more heartfelt. I was one who had no great love or concern for criminals or the imprisoned until it was my own son. Then the scales were dropped from my eyes. I could not really understand the beatitude to visit those in jail but now I do. I did not see those who had fallen as people really, I only saw their sins. Now, I see with pain in my heart the evils that people can succumb under, the terrible atrocities that are committed and the lack of love, care, and support for many that end up in trouble. My son has mental problems and to me, I do not see a hardened criminal but a boy who is lost and not whole. It has been a long hard road with my son and many times I wanted to give up and retreat into an easier way of life. It is easy to point the finger at those who fall while not taking the time to understand why or to feel the need to help "those kinds of people". I see evil differently now. It seems a great force to be reckoned with. I see that souls need to be released from it and saved thru prayers, supplication,suffering, and love. It is quite easy to point the finger at someone else's sin and forget the log in our own eye, to look with pride and not with our hearts. It is much harder to love and help those in trouble than to turn our backs and walk away from problems. I have heard many say that they don't go to church because of the scandals. People are human. We each think we are better than the other. I think we need to seek thru Christ's and Mary's hearts to better understand the true nature of evil. My experience brought me much closer to God not further away. And I am less afraid of suffering with and for others because I know that Christ defeated evil and we can too. God bless you!

Dear Gwendolyn, Thank you for your beautiful contribution and especially for the precious offering of your pain for priests. May Our Lord Jesus make the light of His Eucharistic Face shine in your heart.

I had just read your beautiful and thought provoking post and went on to read about Fr Alberto Cutie being photographed embracing a woman on a beach in Florida. This priest was such a person to be looked up to in the Spanish-speaking community. I had seen him on EWTN a number of times and was very impressed by his orthodoxy. First Fr Francis Mary and now Fr Alberto has caused such scandal among young people trying to hang on to their Faith in this culture. Why didn't they just leave the priesthood if they had an itch they wanted to scratch? These two men were in the spotlight just like the priest you wrote about. They make me sick at heart.

Today's homily noted "Love seeks the ultimate good for the other person. It is an act of will rather than an emotional or physical response."

Clearly, this understanding of love, combined with spiritual decay on the part of both priest and woman are at work in the scandals Victoria mentioned.

What disturbs me is that these scandals may create among priests a fear of women. All priests should have the benefit of feminine support, just as Jesus did from Martha and Mary and numerous other followers. Such support, both spiritual and material, should be available from parish communities and in rightly ordered friendships based upon the true definition of love.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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