The bad news about the least exemplary members of the clergy is not new. I’ve become so used to the horror stories that I found myself laughing out loud at a Saturday Night Live bit about a priest who’d had an affair with a married woman. The punch line was roughly, “It’s guys like this who give the Catholic Church a slightly better name.”
Because “the news” is almost always “the bad news,” entire groups of people are represented by a few examples—usually the worst examples. We have to take that extra step mentally to remind ourselves that not all Muslims are terrorist extremists, not all Southern pastors are irresponsible book-burners, and not all priests are a disgrace to their vows. But should we be doing even more?
This issue hit home for me as a result of a casual remark made by one of the priests I work with at St. Anthony Messenger Press. He was dressed in his clerical shirt and collar, heading out the door to some ministry or another. (Most of these wonderful men put in a full work week here and still manage a full schedule of pastoral duties. As a working mother of four who knows something about busy schedules, I am impressed.) Since the Roman collar was not a daily look for this particular man, I thought to ask him why he didn’t wear his priestly garb all the time. I thought I’d get some glib answer about scratchy fabric, but instead I heard a quiet, heartfelt:
Since I doubt I’ll meet a holier man this side of heaven, I was stunned.
I knew that each news story was hurting me and I knew it was hurting the Church. But until that moment, I never imagined what it must be like for the great majority of priests to feel that—no matter their years of work and sincere devotion—many people look at a brown robe or white collar and think: criminal.
Is there some way to stem this tide? Could we all find a way to share the stories of the good priests we know? Can we let them know that their faithfulness is all the more important, and all the more appreciated, at just such a time?
To all those faithful men: We do not know all you do each day—the ministry, the prayer, the casual words of encouragement or correction you offer. But we do depend on it. And our Church depends on it. Please know that at least this Catholic doesn’t see a Roman collar and think of one of those priests. I think of that priest—the one who worried that anyone could think badly of him when his every word and action are an inspiration. You have my confidence, my gratitude, and my prayers.