I was writing a post in my head this morning. This is not that post.
In fact, I never wanted to write this post. Ever.
My mom shared very sad news with me at noon, when it broke on the Catholic blogs. By this evening, it was one of the lead stories when I opened my email provider’s website, so it seems to have made it mainstream.
Father Thomas Williams, LC, has admitted to fathering a child.
Now, Father Williams would probably not know me if he passed me on the street. But readers of this blog and my Rome blog know that I attended his Mass in English every Sunday night while studying in Rome. When I went back to Rome in October, one of the first things I did after settling details like airfare and housing was to email Father and see if he was still having 6pm Mass at San Giovanni.
Father even named this blog, in a way — the “Ordinary Time” comes from a homily he had about being saints in ordinary time, in our normal daily lives. So once I returned from Rome (my “feast,” if you will), my sister suggested I turn JoaninRome into JoaninOrdinaryTime.
When I received the news, I sat in complete shock. The expression “speechless” doesn’t refer to me very often, but it’s an adequate description here. I tried to say something to my friend Liza, who works across the hall, but words wouldn’t come. I managed to tell her, still not able to formulate full sentences or process my own thoughts. The sick feeling came right away, the shaking began soon after. I did what I always do in situations like this. I called my mom.
My thoughts are still haphazard. Why did this blow me away? Why did this news cause me to reel like it did? Shouldn’t we all be used to priests disappointing us? Especially “celebrity” priests?
I respected Father. Not because I knew him personally — I had maybe one conversation with him outside of Mass. But because he celebrated Mass reverently and he had the best homilies I’ve ever heard from a parish priest. After returning to the States, I was actually “homesick” for his Sunday night Masses and his homilies. I looked forward every week to his homilies, and when I no longer had them, I missed them terribly.
I put Father on a pedestal. I know that now — and I knew it then. Here was a priest who knew the truth, and not only knew the truth, but had the ability to preach it well. He didn’t ramble or preach generic homilies. He was one of the most articulate priests I knew, and each week, he said exactly what I needed to hear. Only two things stopped me from asking him to be my spiritual director while I was at Rome – 1) his busy schedule and 2) he was too good looking.
His book on conscience is fantastic. His appearances on CBS and NBC were great.
I was a fan.
And now this.
I sat in my office and kept repeating, “no,” as if that would make it go away. I looked over to a little note, posted near my computer. It was his email to me, telling me he still said Mass and that he would see me in October. On the top of the email, I had written a countdown to my departure to Rome and had put it by my computer as daily inspiration. I never took it down, even as the October trip came and went.
I sat there in shock, and suddenly, the feeling of betrayal set in. Was it all an act?
As I’ve sorted through my emotions, I realize that my intellect has grasped the situation and has sorted everything out. My heart – not so much.
So Father has fallen. So have we all. Assuming this was a sin of his past, assuming he’s gone to confession and reconciled with Christ and His Church, shouldn’t I extend the same forgiveness?
His book on right and wrong and the formation of conscience — does this sin degrade that work? No. In fact, perhaps it gives it more credibility, in a way. (If he has repented of the sin, that is — and to tell you the truth, it never occurred to me that this wasn’t a sin of his past until the Huffington Post pointed out that he never specified if he was still seeing the woman. I hope I’m not giving him too much credit to think that if he says “a number of years ago” he had a relationship with a woman… he isn’t still in a relationship with her.)
Our culture will tell us that the sin of Father Williams (and the other priests before him) is proof that we hold our priests to a standard set too high. No one can be expected to live a celibate life. Sometimes it seems as if everyone lies in wait, ready to pounce on the next victim of the sex-less life the Church demands. When is a single man’s consensual affair with a woman and a child out of wedlock front page news? When that man is a priest.
As Catholics, we must deal with this difficult dichotomy — we do ask a lot from our priests, and yet they are fallen human beings, just like us. The life they have agreed to live is not an easy one. It is the life of the Cross. As a result, it bears much fruit. But it is still the life of the Cross. It is possible through the grace of his vows. But it is still the life of the Cross.
Through the hands of the sinful priest, Christ comes to our altars. There is no one else on this earth with that power. The priest is not like us. We honor him, respect him, care for him – for without the priest, there is no Eucharist.
At the same time, we can’t put him on a pedestal he doesn’t deserve. As soon as we expect him to be sinless, we will be scandalized. Priests have access to great graces, but they’re not immaculate. They are living, breathing, passionate males.
The priest does not act on his own. He does not preach his own Gospel. He does not confect the Eucharist of his own accord. All he has is Christ’s.
Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out, “Ordination is not about the development of one’s own power and gifts. It is not the appointment of a man as a functionary because he is especially good at it, or because it suits him, or simply because it strikes him as a good way to earn his bread … Sacrament means: I give what I myself cannot give; I do something that is not my work; I am on a mission and have become the bearer of that which another has committed to my charge” (emphasis mine).
So even priests who fall, even priests who disappoint us, do not discredit the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church. Because the message doesn’t depend on them. Nor do the sacraments.
There’s a reason why we understand that even a sinful priest can dispense the sacraments. Even a priest in mortal sin can change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Jesus chose to use sinful men as His instruments, as His means to give us the sacraments. Why would He punish us by making those sacraments dependent on the worthiness of the minister?
So Father has fallen. He has sinned. So have I.
Does that mean I don’t hold priests to a high standard? No. Does that mean I condone what he did? Of course not. Does that alleviate the heaviness in my heart and the feeling of betrayal? Not much.
But Christ has chosen to make men priests, not angels. And if anyone needs some guidance and wisdom tonight, as I did, I encourage you to read Bl. John Henry Newman’s essay “Men, not Angels, the Priests of the Gospel.”
I’ll close with a rather lengthy excerpt. My heart still hurts, but I go to sleep with a prayer — a prayer for Father, for his child, for the mother of his child, and for all those who are tempted to lose the Faith because of this new scandal.
“[Christ] came and He went; and, seeing that He came to introduce a new and final Dispensation into the world, He left behind Him preachers, teachers, and missionaries, in His stead. Well then, my brethren, you will say, since on His coming all about Him was so glorious, such as He was, such must His servants be, such His representatives, His ministers, in His absence; as He was without sin, they too must be without sin; as He was the Son of God, they must surely be Angels. Angels, you will say, must be appointed to this high office, Angels alone are fit to preach the birth, the sufferings, the death of God. They might indeed have to hide their brightness, as He before them, their Lord and Master, had put on a disguise; they might come, as they came under the Old Covenant, in the garb of men; but still men they could not be, if they were to be preachers of the everlasting Gospel, and dispensers of its divine mysteries. If they were to sacrifice, as He had sacrificed; to continue, repeat, apply, the very Sacrifice which He had offered; to take into their hands that very Victim which was He Himself; to bind and to loose, to bless and to ban, to receive the confessions of His people, and to give them absolution for their sins; to teach them the way of truth, and to guide them along the way of peace; who was sufficient for these things but an inhabitant of those blessed realms of which the Lord is the never-failing Light?
And yet, my brethren, so it is, He has sent forth for the ministry of reconciliation, not Angels, but men; He has sent forth your brethren to you, not beings of some unknown nature and some strange blood, but of your own bone and your own flesh, to preach to you. ‘Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?’ Here is the royal style and tone in which Angels speak to men, even though these men be Apostles; it is the tone of those who, having never sinned, speak from their lofty eminence to those who have. But such is not the tone of those whom Christ has sent; for it is your brethren whom He has appointed, and none else,—sons of Adam, sons of your nature, the same by nature, differing only in grace,—men, like you, exposed to temptations, to the same temptations, to the same warfare within and without; with the same three deadly enemies—the world, the flesh, and the devil; with the same human, the same wayward heart…
Had Angels been your Priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathised with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you, who have been led on themselves as you are to be led, who know well your difficulties, who have had experience, at least of your temptations, who know the strength of the flesh and the wiles of the devil…
Ponder this truth well, my brethren, and let it be your comfort. Among the Preachers, among the Priests of the Gospel, there have been Apostles, there have been Martyrs, there have been Doctors;—Saints in plenty among them; yet out of them all, high as has been their sanctity, varied their graces, awful their gifts, there has not been one who did not begin with the old Adam; not one of them who was not hewn out of the same rock as the most obdurate of reprobates; not one of them who was not fashioned unto honour out of the same clay which has been the material of the most polluted and vile of sinners; not one who was not by nature brother of those poor souls who have now commenced an eternal fellowship with the devil, and are lost in hell. Grace has vanquished nature; that is the whole history of the Saints. Salutary thought for those who are tempted to pride themselves in what they do, and what they are; wonderful news for those who sorrowfully recognise in their hearts the vast difference that exists between them and the Saints; and joyful news, when men hate sin, and wish to escape from its miserable yoke, yet are tempted to think it impossible!
…And O, my brethren, when you have taken the great step, and stand in your blessed lot, as sinners reconciled to the Father you have offended (for I will anticipate, what I surely trust will be fulfilled as regards many of you), O then forget not those who have been the ministers of your reconciliation; and as they now pray you to make your peace with God, so do you, when reconciled, pray for them, that they may gain the great gift of perseverance, that they may continue to stand in the grace in which they trust they stand now, even till the hour of death, lest, perchance, after they have preached to others, they themselves become reprobate.” (all emphases mine)