Priests and Pedestals

The accusations against Fr John Corapi have unleashed a firestorm of comments from his devoted followers and those who are not impressed by him. Elizabeth Scalia sums up here with common sense and compassion.

I have nothing much to say about Fr Corapi himself, except that these things are complicated. Right now everyone should step back, take a deep breath, with hold judgment and wait to see what happens.

I have no opinions at all about Fr Corapi. All I know is that he is a Catholic media star, is supposed to be a holy man, a great preacher and evangelist. If he has fallen I’m sorry, but we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

I never met the man, but I do–in a roundabout way–have something to thank him for. It happened like this. I was visiting EWTN to do a show with Marcus Grodi and a couple rushed up in the airport and started saying how much they loved my preaching and my work. I was, of course, flattered to be ‘recognized’ and treated them with gracious condescension as I knew a ‘media celebrity’ should do to his adoring fans. I asked them politely which of my books they most enjoyed, and they looked confused, “What books? Aren’t you Father Corapi?”

“No. I’m Fr Longenecker.”

“Oh, we never heard of you. We thought you were Fr Corapi.” And off they stalked much disappointed.

So I must thank Fr Corapi for indirectly giving me a salutary insight into my own overwhelming vanity and pride, and for giving me much to think about afterward. The job of being a priest is hard enough without the minefield of psychological tricks the devil has in store for us. Think about it. Most priests have an awful lot of power. No one really tells us what to do. We can make up our own schedule. Many of us hold the check book for the parish and with a bit of ingenuity can spend money as we like. On top of all this we are surrounded by a group of people who really want to love us. They want to invest in us and want us to be the role model for them and their children. They are longing for someone to look up to, and we poor souls that we are and longing to be loved, fall for it hook, line and sinker.

Add to that any kind of a reputation as a writer, speaker or ‘Catholic celebrity’ and the minefield is suddenly doubled. They thought you were wonderful to start with, and now thousands hang on your every word. You start to attract all sorts of vulnerable and needy people. If your celebrity status grows you start enjoying ‘success’. Media people want to jump on your band wagon. Offers come you way. More money flows in. You can’t help it. That goes with success. Meanwhile, you’re probably getting lonely because, while thousands love the person they think you are, very few people really know you and love you for who you really are. If you are a celibate priest (unless you’ve developed for yourself a good support system) you’re stuck in that false world of celebrity with no one to turn to. If you don’t have the inner strength you may start believing in your false image yourself. It’s hard not to.

Why do some priests start believing the false image of themselves? I’m afraid to say that too many men who are drawn to the priesthood already have a poor self image. Often they lack real personal identity or they dislike the person they are. It’s very attractive, therefore, to have a job where you put on a uniform and assume a different persona–the persona of a hero, a good guy, a knight in shining armor. Priests aren’t the only ones who fall into this trap. Policemen and soldiers and nurses and others in the helping professions do the same.

So for the priest: every morning we put on the uniform. We’re God’s guys. We dress the part. We parade up and down in our long robes and we try our hardest to be saints.  Much of it is a part we have to play. The church even teaches us that we’re Christ personified. It’s a part we have to play, and also a part we have to grow into, but until we grow into it fully we have to act the part. It is, very often, a useful fiction, but if we fall into the trap of believing the fiction ourselves we’re really in trouble. The bubble gets bigger and bigger. We feed the adulation and those who adore us grow more fervent in their worship. Meanwhile the real friends–those who would criticize us and bring us down to earth–often simply walk away or worse–in our egomania–we drive them away, refusing to take criticism, we see them as ‘naysayers’ and we are glad to see the back of them.

Then too often the bubble bursts. The secret sins come out. The priest or pastor is disgraced. Why does this happen so often? I think it is almost like one of those ‘accidents’ that the shrinks tell us were somehow ‘deeply intended’. The priest can’t live with the lie he’s living and some deep and dark part of him makes it become public. It’s as if he has to have a public confession. I’ve seen it happen so often, and it’s always the ideal priest, the ‘perfect’ monk, the ‘most fantastic’ bishop or pastor with the most to lose.

What’s to learn from it? Simple lessons really. First of all, don’t believe what you see. Even the  best holy man has got a shadow side. The good ones admit it. Secondly, just because of this don’t drift into cynicism. You weren’t supposed to put your trust in those guys anyway. You were supposed to look through them to see Jesus. Thirdly, while you don’t believe what you see, still strive to think the best. Don’t idolize that priest, but don’t cast him away either. He’s a real man. He has faults and foibles and sins and secrets….just like you. Try to love him for that and not for how good you think he is at his job.  Most of all, look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.

Putting your trust in a priest–not matter how wonderful he is–will always be a let down. Furthermore, it’s an immature thing to do. Too often instead of doing the hard work of becoming saints ourselves we idolize someone who has become a saint or who we think is a saint. That’s shallow and too easy. It’s like a religious form of those teenage girls who scream and cry and faint when they see their boy pop idol. They mistake their own immature high octane emotions for real love. Likewise, when religious people idolize their parish priest or some media star they often mistake their love and admiration for that person for real religious emotion and fervor.

It’s bubble gum religion, and if God takes away your idol, well then you might just turn your eyes to the one true God instead. And that would do you, and your priest a favor.

What should we priests learn from it all? To make it our first priority to be real. To do the hard work of becoming who we really are. To be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. Not to let ourselves off the hook. To have a good confessor and director. The task of becoming really ourselves is also the path to sanctity. That’s why, in a paradoxical way, I actually have more time for the priests who are not ‘shining stars’. Maybe we should all look again at Fr Grumpy and Fr Sarcastic and Fr Drinkalot and Fr Hissyfit and Fr Layabout. Maybe the ones who’s problems are ‘out there’ are actually more real–even if the reality hurts.

Like Patheos Catholic on Facebook!

Patheos Catholic LogoCLICK HERE TO "LIKE" PATHEOS CATHOLIC ON FACEBOOK

Ten Commandments for Protestants Considering Catholicism
Did Archbishop Cupich Really Call for "Mercy for Nontraditional Families"?
Virginia Gun Violence: Symptom of Society's Sickness
Earth is Moving for New Our Lady of the Rosary Church

CLOSE | X

HIDE | X