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—no 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 whom 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 Catholic 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 really becoming 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 whose problems are 'out there' are actually more real—even if the reality hurts.