[Blogger’s note: this piece was submitted to me by someone I’ve verified is a Catholic seminarian, currently studying at a seminary in the United States. I offered to let him write anonymously so that he could reach others without his privacy being endangered at the seminary. I think that young men like this, who understand what abuse really is, are the very people we need more of in the priesthood if we are ever to heal the Church. –Mary Pezzulo]
Brother seminarians, we are living in challenging times. You truly are doing something heroic for accepting the cross of pursuing intellectual, human, spiritual, and pastoral formation for Holy Orders, despite what is going on around us in the Church. Of the time I have spent in seminary formation, this past year has been the most challenging year by far.
We came to seminary, some of us for the first time, with the elephant of the allegations of then-Cardinal McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians no different than ourselves surrounding us in the room. We wondered what more bad news the year would hold, and we weathered a trickle, then a stream, and finally a torrent of even worse news. We heard of perpetrators and more scandals both near and far, and we wondered if we were crazy for pursuing the sacrament of holy orders when some who have gone before us were proving themselves capable of the most egregious sins of unholiness imaginable. How are we to respond?
Discerning out of seminary sometimes seemed like the easy way out of this crisis, but we know that God did not call us to seminary only to discern out when confronted with deep scandal in the Church, but rather to become holy men formed after his Sacred Heart and capable of serving the Church through the celebration of the sacraments. We need only to look to the words of St. Peter, the father and founder of our beautiful Catholic faith, to find the path forward to greater holiness: “Like obedient children, do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance, but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘Be holy because I am holy.’” It is only by uniting ourselves to Christ that we can achieve the holiness that is needed. As men of the Church, we are to strive for holiness in all things, whether they be big things or little things.
With that, I must write about the hidden areas of our formation – the things that happen behind closed doors – that show that we all are greatly in need of the holiness that we preach about. Of course, we all see our own low-hanging fruits. There is that holy hour we skipped, that person we failed to love, the traffic we cursed at, the time we showed up late to Mass, the time we cantored the wrong antiphon, the time we pretended to be sick, and so on. We went to confession about that, and resolved to be better seminarians in the future.
It is not these areas, though, that I as your brother would like to write to you about. We are failing the Church in the area in which she has been wounded the most deeply—in the showing of pastoral care and human empathy with those who have been deeply wounded by past sexual assault. We should at the very minimum consider the possibility that we are speaking to a sexual assault survivor at any moment. Unfortunately, though, I have observed that very few of us find ourselves prepared to do that, and even fewer of us have stopped to ponder that some of our brother seminarians may be suffering from the pain of a past sexual assault. I survived a sexual assault perpetrated by a then-family friend as a child, but none of you in my seminary are aware of that. This is with good reason, since I see a stronger desire in you to continue to protect the already-shattered reputation of the Church rather than to show a deep pastoral care for those who have been preyed upon. I have even heard several of you say that you would never find all that many real survivors of sexual abuse, without ever stopping to think that you might be saying that to an actual sexual abuse survivor.
I have heard others of you fail to comprehend the sheer magnitude of this crisis. In a group setting, one seminarian once said, and several others concurred, that he did not believe that removing abusive priests from ministry was a wise solution. He then added, “When I am a bishop, I will just assign them to serve in the prisons full-time instead.”
I could write much about the sheer arrogance of presuming a call to orders from our respective bishops—let alone the episcopacy itself—in the first place, but that is not really my primary concern with this idea. Internally, I screamed, since no one, regardless of whatever they might have done to go to prison in the first place, deserves be served by an abusive cleric. The job of a priest is to get people to heaven, and abusive clerics will only turn people away from heaven and heap further scandal upon the name of Christ. By their own freely chosen actions, abusive priests have proven themselves unworthy of the sacraments and do not deserve anything other than our scorn, lifetime incarceration, and a shameful dismissal from the clerical state. All of this nonsense pulls us away from the holiness that we are to be seeking each day.
I still struggle to forgive this now-priest for that atrocious homily. After that day, I never paid any further attention to his homilies and substituted a rosary for the victims of sexual assault anytime he preached. He was ordained in a neighboring diocese that I could easily have traveled to, but I skipped his priestly ordination and Mass of Thanksgiving to serve Mass at my home parish. I pray that his future homilies will never be that bad again, but I have yet to find the words to bring it up to him.
Furthermore, many of us need to realize that women will not accuse men of perpetrating a sexual assault simply out of some cleverly devised plot to tarnish our reputations. During the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, I remember many of you, and even several of our formators, stating that “if they are trying to ruin Kavanaugh now, they will be trying to ruin us next”. Seriously? To what extent does this even pass the laugh test? The Church’s reputation is already in tatters, due to the clergy’s many failings. To the extent that the feminist movement can agree amongst itself on its goals, it is largely concerned about securing equal pay for equal work, which has everything to do with Catholic Social Teaching on the dignity of work but little if anything to do with an imaginary conspiracy to embarrass Catholic priests or Republican politicos so as to preserve legalized abortion. Kavanaugh’s history of drunkenness and promiscuity shows that he lived a life that was objectively unholy, but if we truly are living lives of holiness, then we have no reason to fear.
Nor are some of us prepared to minister to those who are hurting in our apostolates. Just this morning, at my summer parish assignment, I spoke to an older man and a lifelong Catholic whose son had been an altar boy for a former priest who was defrocked and removed from ministry after being credibly accused of child sexual assault. He was mourning how he will likely never know for certain whether his son, who is no longer a practicing Catholic, was sexually assaulted, since his son cannot bring himself to speak of that priest. And he left me wondering whether he would stay with the Church through the scandal.
What would you say to that man? Would you try to offer the sort of defense that clerical sexual abuse is rare, or would you simply drop everything to be with and listen to him? Would you weep with and pray for him and his son in that painful moment? Would you enter into his heartbreak with him? As men seeking pastoral formation in the heart of the Church, we have only one option in these situations—to weep with those who weep, as Christ taught us by his own very public weeping.
I cannot know for sure where you are at in your priestly formation, and all I ask is that you strive for ever-deeper holiness and avoid making fools of yourselves. Please do not turn a blind eye to survivors of sexual abuse by making everything be about abortion, or about whatever happens to interest you most. Please make some effort to understand the unique needs and traumatic experiences of survivors of all forms of abuse, especially sexual abuse. And please consider the possibility of meeting someone who has been deeply hurt by this scandal at any moment.
Most of all, please do not ever pull away, even for a moment, of seeking holiness. It is only through a life of holiness consecrated in prayer and total abandonment and obedience to God that we can serve and renew the Church into what Christ intended for it to be. Do not ever forget your mission and your ministry, and always remember that it is Christ whom you are serving in everyone you meet, each day.
You are all in my prayers!
(image via Pixabay)