Put Out into the Deep

Power and Pain of the Priesthood

This is the full text of the homily preached at the Chrism Mass at St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral, Brooklyn, on Tuesday evening, April 16.

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

The Church founded by Jesus Christ is a Church in which there are both saints and sinners. We must remember that Jesus, Himself, was considered a sinner by the publicans and Pharisees who accused Him of not obeying the Law of Moses.

Our Church in the last year has undergone a terrible crisis caused by the sexual abuse scandal. We must also remember that the Church, the Body of Christ, is always the spotless bride whom Christ chooses to be His representative in the world. It is not to an institution to which we owe our loyalty, but it is rather to Jesus, Himself, who is present in His Church.

During this year, I have reminded myself time and time again of a basic principle of moral life: good people can do bad things, and anyone can do anything. Yes, we have hung our head in shame as a diocese as we published 109 names of priest- abusers who used their power to abuse minor children. The trust that was broken between the perpetrators and the victims has also affected those who looked up to these priests as their fathers in faith.

One priest told me that one of the perpetrators was the reason why he, himself, became a priest. And other priests, who had been victims of abuse themselves, have told me that they became priests because they wanted to be better priests. The web of evil and its results has encircled us. Though we are the Holy Church of Jesus Christ, we must, and we can, do better. We must make reparation for the past sins, as well as making sure that in the future this type of abuse never occurs again.

Recent surveys have compared the attitude of the laity after the Dallas Charter of 2002 to the present situation by stating that more Catholics are considering leaving the Church. In 2002, it was 22 percent of Catholics and today the surveys indicate that it is 37 percent. At the same time, we see more awareness of what is being done by the Church to deal with this crisis. Almost 60 percent of those surveyed like the priests in their own parish.

One interesting fact that has come out is that those surveyed have not heard from their own local priest about the sexual abuse issue. How important it is that we have the courage and the knowledge to inform our people, because it is you whom they trust, more than they trust me as Bishop. Your people trust you to tell them the truth about what we are doing to reconcile victim survivors here in the Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens.  Encourage your people, and you yourself, to come the Mass of Hope and Healing on Tuesday, April 30, to be held at 7 p.m. at St. Athanasius Church in Brooklyn.

As Pope Francis began the Vatican Summit on Child Protection, the Holy Father used these words:  “In this meeting we sense the weight of the pastoral and ecclesial responsibility that obliges us to discuss together in a synodal, frank and in-depth manner how to confront this evil afflicting the Church and humanity. The holy people of God look to us and expect from us not simple and predictable condemnation but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken. We need to be concrete.”

The Holy Father went on to annunciate 21 Reflection Points that were taken up at the meeting and which yet need to be implemented in various episcopal conferences throughout the world. When I studied these 21 Reflections, I realized that, for the most part, we have already implemented these reflections in the Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens, and on the national level. And yet, there is much more to be done; more responsibility, more transparency and more accountability. All of these reflections are important in various ways to each one of us.

Oils and Promises

We come together tonight; bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated religious and laity because we are the Holy Church of God which tonight will bless the oils that will be used in the administration of the sacraments that make the members of the Church. Tonight, the clergy have come with the particular purpose of renewing the promises they made at their ordination. These are weighty promises – the promise of obedience and respect, the promise of living a simple life and the promise of chaste celibacy.

Tonight, we begin with a reflection on obedience. Whenever I have asked religious who have lived these vows for many years which vow is the most difficult, the response has always been “obedience is the hardest.” Yes, because obedience means that we must give up our own will and place our will at the disposition of our superiors, because in some way we believe it reflects God’s will for us. Sometimes we can joke and say that it “does not reflect God’s wisdom for us.”  In effect, in the long run, there is no difference. Yes, our will must be conformed not to the pastor or bishop, or religious superior, but rather to the will of our heavenly Father who has called us to give up our own desires for the sake of others, for the sake of making His Church holy. This can only be done by those who are dedicated to doing God’s will.

As a third grader, Sister Maureen taught me a simple rhyme which I repeat to those to be ordained each year: “All obedience worth the name must be prompt and ready!”  Yes, obedience entails a certain spontaneity of responding to those who ask us, for the sake of the Church, to move sometimes in a direction that we would not choose ourselves. We cannot put it off, or put off the response indefinitely, to a legitimate request on the part of our superiors, pastor, bishop, or whomever because, if it is to be obedience, it must come spontaneously from our hearts in order sometimes to bend our wills to the will of God, Himself.

Today, obedience is dialogical. Yes, there is dialogue. In the past, one could receive a letter on Friday to report Saturday for a new assignment, without any prior consultation. I can understand when someone says that they cannot, for a particular reason, fulfill the request I might make of them. But that reason must be stated. The reason must be something that makes the obedience to the request impossible for them to accept. Many have said during my tenure here in Brooklyn and Queens that I have been too easy with the priests.  But how can you not be benevolent to your brothers?

Inherent in the promises that we commit ourselves to tonight is the promise to live a simple life. Since I arrived in 2003, I have visited each parish almost three times for a Mass and pastoral visit, and oftentimes for another parish or diocesan celebration. During my visits, I see the conditions in which you live. Most of you do not have someone to prepare your meals, clean your houses or wash your clothes. You do these things in many places for yourself. You do this because you save the parishioners money so that more can be done in the parishes for your people. A simple life reflects the life of Jesus, Himself, who told us that “the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head.” (Mt. 8:30)

Chastity and Celibacy

Finally, tonight we come to renew our commitment to priestly celibacy and chastity. This we must say in one breath that must join our celibacy to the virtue of chastity, which is a responsibility for all Christians. At the basis of the current sexual crisis certainly is a lack of chastity. It is here that we must concentrate our attention to understand how we as the presbyterate can assist one another in living up to this important responsibility that we have undertaken.

The people of God look up to the priest as one who has left everything to follow Christ and to serve them. When we observe the sexual abuse crisis, we recognize that we have shaken the faith of those who believe in the priesthood, those who look upon us as those who act in the person of Christ. How can it be that those so identified with Christ could do things that betray the Lord, Himself, and basic human dignity?

Much can be said about chastity and priestly celibacy. I quote the words of Mother Teresa. The life of this saint of our times has surprised the world. She lived the promises of her consecration to the utmost and has called so many to follow her. In speaking to a group of priests, Mother Teresa once said, “Your priestly celibacy is the terrible emptiness you experience. God cannot fill what is full. He can only fill emptiness – deep poverty, and your ‘yes’ is the beginning of being or becoming empty. It is not how much we really “have” to give, but how empty we are – so that we can receive fully in our life and let Him live His life in us. Priestly celibacy is just not getting married, or just not having a family. It is undivided love of Christ in chastity. Nothing and nobody will separate me from the love of Christ. It is not simply a list of don’ts. It is love. It is freedom to love and to be all things to all people. And for that we need the freedom of poverty and simplicity of life. Jesus could have everything but He chose to have nothing.”

Yes, the simplicity of St. Teresa of Calcutta is disarming as we consider the true meaning of our priestly celibacy and chastity. Yes, at times we feel empty. But only when we are empty can God fill us with His grace. Only when we call out to Him to have mercy on us can God give us that mercy and allow us to continue the commitments that we have made to the people of God.

If our brothers who have abused lived up to their promise of chaste celibacy, we would not be in the situation in which we find ourselves today. So how can we make sure that in the future those who will accept the burden of the priesthood can fulfill its responsibilities?

Already we have initiated new psychological screening and testing instruments that allow us to understand better the psychological situation of candidates for the priesthood. Certainly, it is through mutual support for each other, through encouragement, and through priestly friendships and serious commitment to prayer that we can be faithful to priests.

There is no perfect candidate for the priesthood. This is especially true in our day and age when the culture in which our young people live is deeply corroded with a sensuality that is not conducive to chastity. We need to help our young seminarians to adapt and live this promise which is so critical to the Church today.

When I addressed our college seminarians about the sexual abuse crisis not too long ago, both Bishop Chappetto, who was present at the meeting with me, and I were somewhat overwhelmed by the depth of knowledge and concrete responses, as well as true adherence to chastity that has come from those even at the college seminary. Anyone who sets forth on the path to priesthood or consecrated life today knows full well the obstacles within and from without that can hinder a full acceptance of the responsibilities of ministry.

When I began this homily, I said that we have to accept more responsibility if we are to overcome this crisis. We cannot make excuses for the past, although we must understand the past. We cannot blame anyone else – even the media who seldom get the story right – but ourselves for what was not done and for what was done poorly. We cannot in any way blame the victims of sexual abuse because the sin of others was imposed upon them, not by their willingness, but because of their inability to defend themselves.

Our transparency today must be crystal clear. This is a hard term to define; however, it means that all that we do cannot be hidden. All that we do must be clear to those around us, most especially to a secular society that demands ever-increasing vigilance over what we do. The recent subpoena by the attorney general of the State of New York has cost literally millions of dollars and appears to have brought no more transparency than what we already have done.

Finally, we must be accountable. We cannot hide behind any excuses. There is nothing to hide behind; we must be the subject of full accountability for what happens. But this accountability begins with every one of us. Everyone must be accountable to themselves before God, for their own actions that must reflect the promises that we will recommit to tonight before the Church in Brooklyn and Queens.

This Chrism Mass may be my last or next to last Chrism homily as your Bishop. Each year, I work hard on this homily to make sure that it is relevant to each of you and says what needs to be annunciated at a particular time. In no way tonight could I have avoided speaking as I have done. These years have been for me a wonderful time serving as your Bishop. I must say tonight that I ask forgiveness from anyone whom I have offended. I have never knowingly tried to offend anyone. As life is, however, we offend many, not knowing about that offense. But we must always seek forgiveness. And, vice-versa. I forgive anyone who perhaps has spoken ill of me. Among the priests, there is always the temptation to talk about their Bishop. Obedience and respect, however, entails the ability to confront our superiors with the truth in love, but confront them nonetheless and not speak about them without letting their superior know what their faults are and maybe how we have been offended by our superior.

Tonight, we bless these oils which are truly powerful sacramental signs from the power of the Holy Church of God to anoint people in baptism, to confirm people in their faith with the Holy Spirit, to ordain priests and bishops for the service of God’s people, and to anoint those who are sick, calling them back to the Eucharist and the service of the Church. Yes, these oils represent the work of the Church as it becomes an instrument of grace for our Lord and Savior.

May this Eucharist tonight give us the strength that we need to go forward, recognizing what has been done in the past, achieves greater accountability and transparency, and protection for our children and vulnerable adults, and giving us the strength and will to do what we must do to become the Holy Church of Jesus Christ.

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