As I come to St. Charles Borromeo parish as your new priest and only priest, I am very much aware as to how priests and the Church are perceived today. The headlines and the news reports this very week remind us of the sins of our brothers and the historical difficulty we as a Church have had with recognizing and responding to our problems in ways that are transparent and effective. The Archbishop has asked all pastors to read a letter from him at Mass today that speaks of the reforms the Archdiocese has enacted over the last 15 years for the protection of youth and the zero tolerance policy for clergy, lay employees, and volunteers who engage in any form of misconduct with minors. On Friday, I went for a long walk with my friend John who I’ve known for 15 years. He’s a faithful Catholic who is totally disgusted with Church leadership or lack thereof and pointed to the recent report about the Cardinal emeritus of Washington as the reason why many good Catholics have ceased to believe the Church hierarchy is really interested in truth or justice. The human psychology around these matters, as we’ve learned from victims who have recently gained the courage to speak out in the wave of MeToo outings, is very complex and helps to explain why such “open secrets” can last so long. My friend who is a former airline pilot suggested that the church adopt some version of a random drug testing that can be applied in the moral sphere to weed out problem priests or scare us into staying on the straight and narrow. He told me that not only did the pilot who tested positive get fired but so did the co-pilot or members of the crew. You went down together because you are responsible for the members of your team. If you knew something about a crew member and didn’t report it or turned a blind eye, you are equally responsible. It made flying safe. Why are we not like this with our priests? Do we care? This was a hard conversation to have. I mainly listened. What could I say? “I don’t envy you” he told me. “I can tell, John,” I responded. “But I wouldn’t be a priest or remain a priest if I wasn’t sure that what I’m living is a call from God.” I don’t believe that there is an institutional fix to this problem because you can’t legislate morality or force people or scare people into holiness. Holiness can’t be taught like a skill set. It is a gift from God. We are all sinners and are all weak. The only difference is if we are open to God’s grace or not – if we turn to Him in the face of our weakness or not. This problem goes all the way back to Adam and Eve who hid themselves and covered things up out of shame rather than trusting in the mercy of God and exposing their sinfulness to Him. The blame game of Adam and Eve echoes to the present to justify not taking responsibility for our own actions and those of our neighbor.
John the Baptist, who we focus on today in this Solemnity of his Nativity, came on the scene during a period of great corruption among the Temple priests. Under Herod the Great who built the Temple and his sons who followed him, the Temple high-priests were political appointments who were very attentive to the workings of political power. The Temple was meant to be the place of encounter with the living God – where God was praised and sins could be forgiven, but over time, it became a place, led by the priests, that Jesus himself characterized as a “den of thieves.” The priests and Jewish leaders, exemplified by the Pharisees, saw themselves as set-apart from the people and set up rules and laws that made it harder if not impossible, for those who could not live up to the moral law to join or to return to the communal worship of God. For this reason, Jesus repeatedly refers to them as “hypocrites” because they put themselves forth as righteous men but seemingly know nothing of the mercy of God. They can quote the scriptures inside and out – they know the law and the prophets, but, in Jesus’ words, they are “white- washed sepulchers” whose internal corruption leads many astray and prevents others from entering the Kingdom.
John himself was of a priestly line. His father, Zechariah, was a temple priest. Zechariah was serving in the Temple when the angel comes to announce that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son. John, as someone who grew up the son of a priest who was “righteous in the eyes of God”, was very familiar the Temple and its practices and what they should be. He appears in the desert, preparing the way for the Lord. As the last and greatest of the prophets, the precursor to the coming of the Lord, John, in his simplicity and humility, not only criticizes the corruption in the Temple, but provides for the people what the temple priests do not.
The life and witness of John the Baptist, in many ways, reveals to us the role of the priest in the life of the church and how, following the method of the Lord, we are called to bring renewal and reform to the Church today. It is not through legal reform or an institutional overhaul from the top down, but through the witness of individuals, like John, who call people to conversion by their way of life. John did not think himself the savior, but pointed Him out when he came. Even from before he was born, John was sensitive to the presence of the Lord, and leapt with joy when he was near. He didn’t speak his own word but was the voice that carried the word of another. With John, knowledge of salvation comes not through doctrine and law but through the experience of the forgiveness of sins. John calls out the scandal of those in power when he sees it even at the risk of his own neck. He is faithful to his calling even if he does not see the fruits of his labor. He doesn’t lose hope even when things are dark. He is a “light” to not just the chosen but to all and helps people see that Jesus is here. He is aware of who he is and who he is not and his own unworthiness to do what he has been called to do. His joy is not in running the show but that attachment to Christ increases in those entrusted to his care. This is the kind of priest I hope to be for the people of St. Charles Parish. Please pray for me. When I got here early this week, someone said to me, “You look so young.” I’m not, but being a pastor is new to me. I ask for your patience and prayers. Like all who the Lord has called and appointed, I feel a certain level of trepidation, but we need not be afraid because the Lord in his mercy is with us. Let us turn together to the Lord and open ourselves to his grace and mercy, so we can rejoice and be filled with wonder and gladness at what the Lord wants to bring to birth in us.