Dear Fr. Joe: It seems to me that every day there is a new scandal in the Church. I struggle with understanding – how can I stay Catholic?
Thank you for your question – things can be very difficult for us right now and your sincere and honest expression of what you are feeling is a gift. I’ll do my best to share well why I not only chose to stay Catholic, but to serve in the Church as a priest. I hope that what I share helps you.
As a boy, I was Catholic because I didn’t know there were other options – I only knew the reality I was given. After that, I grew into loving the Church because I loved my priest and my local parish experience. We had a holy, strong and loving priest who guided us through our faith in our daily lives. As I got older, I encountered other priests at our church – some were kind, some weren’t. My family and my parish went through some exceedingly difficult times and I found myself quite lost as to what to feel or think about being Catholic. I remember in my junior year of high school, someone asked me why I was Catholic. In that moment, I thought of all I had experienced and all my little faith community had experienced and answered as honestly as I could. I knew there was something there, something I couldn’t articulate that kept me in the Catholic Church. I ended up saying the truth as I knew it: “I’m Catholic despite the Church.”
College was a big change for me. There, for the first time, I encountered people who really didn’t like the Catholic Church at all. They seemed quite willing to openly mock or question the Church and any who were Catholic. The funny thing is, this ended up being a gift, as it compelled me to read. I learned as much of the faith as I could in order to defend it well and, in doing so, I fell more deeply in love with the Church. I saw some of why we do what we do, why we teach what we teach and, in that, knew I was where I belonged in a way that I couldn’t have known before.
My sticking point always came with those times in our history when we acted sinfully. I really didn’t know what to make of it. How could such good theology produce leaders who sometimes acted evilly? How could a Church that has done so many beautiful and amazing things also be the Church that did these bad things? How could the Church I knew in my heart was called by Christ also be the Church that made such horrible mistakes?
My experience in seminary sharpened this idea, which began in college, that the Church was called to an extraordinary mission. Surrounded by men and women who loved God in such profound and thoughtful ways intensified my belief that our Catholic faith is a gift from God. The history classes put perspective on some of our sins from the past, and the active sacramental life of the seminary provided me with the strength I needed to heal from some wounds and grow in my love for the faith.
At the same time, I wrestled with my own sin. The more I went to confession, the more I saw how very broken I was (and am) and that led to a personal conflict in me: How could I be a priest? Broken, sinful me who says things he shouldn’t say and does things he shouldn’t do. Did God really want to “cut me loose” on his people? A beautiful priest to whom I will be eternally indebted provided me with the answer: Yes. God calls those wounded by their own sin and the sin of the world to compassionately preach the truth of his abiding love. God wasn’t calling me to be a priest because I was perfect, but, at least in part, because I was willing to look at sin in my life and give it to his mercy. God doesn’t need priests who revel in their perfection, lack of sin or perfect theology, but priests who recognize that God’s mastery over sin is so complete that he is even able to use their sin to draw us all closer to his heart. Wow.
I have come to see that my internal struggle about whether or not God really wanted me to be a priest was and is a microcosm of my wrestling with the Church. I am sinful, I am loved, I am called. This is true of me and this is true of the Church’s leaders. The Church comprises human beings who are susceptible to weakness and sin, but the Church is loved and the Church is called.
In the end, I am Catholic because of God’s gift in allowing such a thing. I am honored and humbled to be a member of this body of Christ in all its glory and all its faults. I embrace the reality of my sin, the sins of those in the Church and the mercy of God that covers it all. I rejoice in God’s call to his Church, which is based on his promise and not our performance. I find hope in the power of the Holy Spirit to empower the Church to heal us of the wounds we’ve inflicted and the wounds we’ve endured while safely leading us home to heaven.
Like any person who struggles with sin, the Church needs our love and prayers, not our condemnations and judgments.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence.
Send your questions to: “In the Know with Fr. Joe” FAITH Magazine, 1500 E. Saginaw St., Lansing, MI 48906 Or: JoeInBlack@priest.com