St. Matthew’s Cathedral in downtown Washington, D.C.
Last year was the first time I heard about the tradition of kissing a new priest’s hands.
Twenty-nine years of practicing Catholicism, and I had never been to a just-ordained priest’s first mass. (Or to an ordination itself, for that matter.) So when I heard the tradition was for Catholics, following the mass, to go up to the front of the church and kiss the new priest’s hands, I was … grossed out.
I listened to the explanation: the new priest was now consecrated, able to recite the words of Christ as he held the bread, as he held the chalice of wine, and make them the Body and Blood of Christ.
So I steeled myself. To give you a sense of how distasteful I found this, let me backtrack. There is another Catholic tradition of, on Good Friday, having a large cross in the front of the church and asking the faithful to come up and kiss the statue of Jesus, crucified.
I really, really hate this.
It’s not a required thing, by any means. But on Good Friday, I make myself do it. I remind myself that I am soul and body. That in the act of bending down and kissing a statue—which to be clear, I fully understand is not God—I am showing physically humility and love.
But even once I am up to the front and it is my turn, I have trouble. A couple of years back, I chickened out and did not kiss the actual statue, but gave an air kiss a couple of inches away. It was so clear what I had done that that the person holding the cross didn’t even bother to wipe off where I had kissed before the next person bent down—because I hadn’t touched anything.
But when it came to the first mass, I wanted to do better.
The funny thing is, after all this lead-up … I don’t absolutely remember what happened in the end. I’m pretty sure I did actually kiss the new priest’s hands, but I can’t positively remember.
Regardless, I have found myself thinking a lot of that tradition in the past few weeks, as headlines have blared about Theodore McCarrick, as essays and blog posts and news reports have indicated that Church leaders may have failed to protect seminarians from predatory behavior from those appointed to be their spiritual fathers, and that perhaps quite a few priests aren’t being faithful to their vows of celibacy—and the commandments of our faith, which restrict sex to marriage.
And I have thought not just of myself, but of the long, long, long line of other lay people waiting to kiss the new priest’s hands. Of heads bowed, of eyes shining. Of their love, their excitement for this new baby priest, and their obvious delight.
And: I have grieved.
In the weeks since, I’ve sat through plenty of masses (in different churches), both on Sundays and on weekdays, largely in the diocese of Washington, D.C. I’ve listened to readings like the Sunday one from Jeremiah a few weeks back:
Woe to the shepherds
who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture,
says the LORD.
Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel,
against the shepherds who shepherd my people:
You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them,
but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock
from all the lands to which I have driven them
and bring them back to their meadow;
there they shall increase and multiply.
And with the exception of one priest, bless him, at one weekday mass who prayed for McCarrick’s victims, I have heard nothing at mass about any of this. (I have heard from others in the area they have heard priests mention it, so thankfully, it’s not a total silence.) There has been the odd statement. Cardinal Wuerl has now issued a letter.
The Church’s response seems … lacking, to me. I know some more familiar with Church politics than I say the Church works at a different speed. Perhaps. But it’s hard, thinking of my own response to this situation, to understand what seems to be a lack of urgency to purge out the rot and make clear paths going forward for whistleblowers so the bishops themselves are not the only option—and to be clear with seminarians from the get go, they should never be afraid to report those who act inappropriately.
And although this is a low bar, I am at least grateful that from everything we know now, the Church did act, and publicly, once credible allegations of abuse of a minor occurred.
But at least for now, I’ll defer to others who are writing about what should be done, how the bishops and clergy ought to act.
So: the grief.
I think part of the reason it’s hit me so hard is over the years, living in Washington, D.C., I’ve seen McCarrick say mass a number of times. He’s not some abstraction. He’s someone who, just last year, decided to spend thirtyish—perhaps forty–minutes on a homily at a mass I was at, where I vividly remember trying to pay attention—and wondering if he would ever be quiet. (Because his voice was falling and rising in that halting way older people’s voices can, it was also impossible to catch key points. The only thing I can recall is he talked a lot about the 1980 US-Russia Olympics hockey match.) He once said the Ash Wednesday evening mass at the church that was most convenient for me to go to after work. I’ve probably met him, although I can’t recall for sure—although I have seen him make the kind of speeches, charming and a smidgen political, that make me understand why he could be such a mover and a shaker in Church politics.
A picture of then-Cardinal McCarrick in 2017. (Blurry because it was taken a quite a distance.)
But he’s also woven into the daily life of this diocese. When I listen to priests at mass, I find myself wondering: Did they know? Were they involved? Were they preyed on? Did he ordain them? Are they in shock, too? Or relief that this is finally coming out? Or concern that there’s a chance new accountability may occur?
I have no idea.
Of course, I knew priests sin. And between reading the Bible and tomes about Church history, I know God often chooses and allows horrible men to be in positions of religious power, some who repent and some who seemingly don’t. (See: David, Peter, Judas, the Borgias.) I know that ordination doesn’t mean you become, by any means, a perfect person. God chooses to act through imperfect vessels. I also know that I certainly don’t envy bishops and clergy the prudential decisions they must make, the grief and judgment they are sure to get from some no matter how they act.
And, too, I have been thinking of the homily that was delivered at the first mass I went to. At first masses, it is apparently also the tradition that another priest delivers the homily. In the case of this mass, a priest, who is not known for possessing an upbeat temperament, fiercely urged people to pray for the new priest, to remember that the devil would always be going especially after priests, and that priests needed all the prayers they could get. It was not exactly a terribly festive homily, but it lingered with me—particularly in these days.
And yet … there’s been such an emotional wham to be going down this road again.
Just watching “Spotlight” a couple years ago, I felt such terrible sadness. How could those who were supposed to protect their parishioners have allowed this to continue? Where was the love for innocent children?
And then there’s Legion of Christ, too. Like many conservative Catholics, I encountered the Legion: in my case, I volunteered for a youth group with them for a couple of years, and as a teen went to a couple of retreats they held. Sometimes my parents had Legionaries seminarians over for dinner. After the second Legionary retreat I went to, I remember being troubled by the Legion, particularly by their devotion to their founder, Fr. Marcial. He wasn’t dead yet, I reasoned. How did they know he definitely was such a good man? Shouldn’t they focus their energies on saints, and wait to revere their founder until he, too, was dead and canonized?
I had no idea at the time what we’d later find out, although through the grace of God, I was uncomfortable enough by that and their overall pushiness to distance myself at that point from them.
And now … here we go again.
In some ways, I have hope. Maybe this is the rot we need to uncover for true reform to occur.
Or maybe we’re just going to slide back into the status quo.
I really don’t know.
But I think of my interactions with priests over the years. I think of the priests I’ve sobbed in front of, who have said kind and helpful things. I think of ducking into confessionals across the country, and even internationally, bowing my head and saying out loud what I’ve done wrong—and hearing, in a wide range of accents, the words of absolution: I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I think of laughing as priests work in total dad jokes in their homilies. I think of the gazillion times I’ve shaken a priest’s hand after mass, as he greets the parishioners.
I think of all the different personalities of priests I’ve known over the years—the corny one, the cranky ones, the sweet ones, the sharp ones. I think of watching seminarians play ping pong at a recreation night and seeing one hitch up his cassock so he didn’t trip on the skirt length. I think of hearing a rumor once that confessionals in one church were stocked with red bulls, so the priests could have the energy to hear confessions for hours. I think of the stories of the great-uncle I never met, a priest who reportedly crammed himself into a trunk for hours so he wouldn’t be found by the Nazis and dealt with pain for the rest of his life as a result of how long he was in that tiny space.
And I think of us, too: the laity. I think of the long lines for communion, and the long, often languorously-moving lines for confession, waiting faces largely somber. I think of parents holding up their newborns for baptism, of parents beaming as their children trip up the aisle, awkward in their fancy attire, toward the priest to receive the Body of Christ for the first time. I think of men and women, before a priest, pledging their lives to each other, and I think of the sick and largely still, getting anointed by the priest for their great journey. I think of how a few weeks ago, when a priest announced he was retiring from the parish, we all started clapping as he took his last walk down the aisle, a clapping that echoed long after he reached the end of his walk, a clapping that was somehow our way of saying “thank you.”
All my life I’ve struggled with God’s silence, thinking it would be easier if He just sent emails or occasionally said something directly. I want clarity. And a few years ago, it occurred to me—or perhaps I read somewhere and it resonated—that confession was in a way my getting my wish. That instead of making the act of forgiveness something silent, it was something said by one of God’s deputies, said in words I could understand, said by a human I could question and ask for advice of, and get an audible answer from.
And maybe what I’m trying to say is: this is why we want clarity, this is why we, the laity, want to be part of the process.
Because not only are we part of the church, but our lives are woven in with the priests’ lives. We trust them. We are vulnerable with them. We are grateful to them. We try, and no doubt fail a fair amount, to support them, financially and otherwise.
And perhaps even more so this goes for the bishops.
That picture of McCarrick at the top of this article? That’s not a photo I took. It’s a photo someone else took, using my phone because their phone wasn’t working, and they wanted to capture an image of the cardinal.
And that’s kind of automatic respect you get from a lot of Catholics for the bishops and cardinals. I remember, shortly after a relative died, I happened to see a bishop. I asked for prayers for this relative of mine, and then was enormously touched when this bishop not only said he’d pray for the relative, but wrote a note for that relative’s spouse. Other relatives were touched, too: a note from a bishop!
Ultimately, of course, all this is because of God, not because of these men. It’s God who chose to work through these men in the sacraments. At the end of day, every single priest in the world could be corrupt and a failure—and still be able, through the power God has given him, be able to forgive sins and consecrate the bread and wine.
And yet …
Pope Francis has stressed the power of accompaniment, of being with someone. He has also stressed that of priests, calling for them to “shepherds living with ‘the smell of the sheep.’”.
And yet, as the revelations roll out, not just of alleged misdeeds, but also of rumors that seemingly generated no or little action or even inquiries, it raises questions about how much accompanying was occurring. Were the priests, charged with helping the laity become holier, always striving to do the same themselves, to be true to the tenets and commandments of their faith? In these years, where at least in the western world so much of Catholic teaching is in conflict with cultural norms, were we all walking down the same narrow path together?
Of course, plenty of lay people are holy. The saints of the Church are numerous—and hardly limited to clergy. And again, I know the history of the Church is littered with bad priests. And ultimately, whether Catholicism is true is not dependent on the character of any individuals or groups of individuals. (I’m not going anywhere.)
But–priests, bishops, cardinals, Pope Francis: do you remember when you held out your hands and they were kissed? Do you remember the trembling voices in confession? Do you remember the people who fished in their pockets and maybe gave what was truly a widow’s mite for them in the collection basket? Do you think of the moms and dads who excitedly sent their sons to seminaries? Do you think of the Catholics in the world, who have heard joke after joke, crack after crack, about Catholic priests and have tried, while not excusing any wrongdoing, to stand up for the good priests?
Do you think of how after mass how people come up to you and want to talk to you? Of how when you’re walking around wearing the collar of a priest, people reach out—even sometimes those who aren’t religious? Do you think of how this doesn’t happen with others, this happens for you because you represent Christ in an especial way?
That’s a lot of trust. A lot of love. And it’s often given unquestioningly, without a period of testing and observing or interviewing first.
That’s a lot of responsibility.
I’m praying for you all. And so are a lot of other Catholics. The kind of Catholics you see in the pews at mass, in the chairs in adoration chapels, in cars reciting the rosary as they commute to work, in soup kitchens doling out food
And we need you. To give us the Body and Blood of Christ. To hear and forgive our sins. To prepare us for death, and welcome us into the life of grace. To represent Christ.
So please: take action. Don’t wait for public knowledge of misdeeds. Make it clear that the priesthood is a place for those striving for holiness, not for those coasting and perhaps not really worried about commandments. And make our seminaries places of prayer, not of predators and inappropriate behavior.
And: stop fearing transparency so much. Catholics might rather find out directly, for once, about the bad news, instead of hearing through the media. I don’t think most Catholics expect perfection from priests. Every organization so large has its bad ones. At stake here, however, is whether the Church is an organization with enough good guys and prudential judgment to put the bad ones in their place, when their deeds are known, or not.
That’s no light matter.
I don’t exactly know how to close this. But when I was praying tonight, including that I make the right judgment on whether to publish this, I kept thinking back to an anecdote a friend told me recently.
She was praying in an adoration chapel, a place where the Eucharist—the body of Christ—is displayed and people generally quietly pray. She said a woman came in and began crying. Crying, my friend explained, isn’t unusual in adoration. But this woman began crying harder and harder, and it seemed that she was perhaps on the cusp of hysteria.
And so a man got up, and looking at the seven or eight people in the chapel, said to the rest that they must start praying for her, in whatever language they knew. He knew French, he said. So people started praying out loud, in a babble of languages–at least French, Spanish, and English–and two brought the woman, still sobbing, closer to the Eucharist. Sometimes, my friend said, the woman’s sobs would lessen for a moment, and then she’d start up again, and everyone would start praying, in all their languages, louder once more.
Finally, someone got it out of her what was wrong: her sister had been deported. And then in that moment, apparently a person present gave the unhelpful response of saying deportation was nothing—why, her sister was alive. This second person apparently had seen their own brother die before them.
To me, this seemed like such a quintessential Catholic story. The vulnerability. The good intentions. The awkwardness. The total, jumbled mixture of human nature and divine presence.
My friend ultimately had to leave before everything was sorted. The chapel, she said, was already supposed to have closed by the time she left. Normally the priest came and indicated it was closing time, and people left.
But that night, he never showed up.
I have no idea why. Maybe there was an emergency elsewhere. Maybe there was some other plan in place that night. Maybe he came, saw the commotion, and thought the lay people seemed to have it under control and this woman could use some more time to pray.
But it seemed a little sad to me he just never appeared. That there was a chance for a man given the vocation to be in person of Christ, to be with, to accompany a woman facing her own form of crucifixion, and he never made it in.
And this strikes me as another opportunity. I have no doubt many priests and bishops are genuinely grieving, particularly those who knew and loved and trusted McCarrick. (I suppose I should acknowledge he’s either been silent or denied charges.) I’m sure they are grappling with their own concerns and sorrow.
But I hope they look outward as well, more and more, and are there with us saddened sheep–and doing whatever they can to make the representatives of the Church worthy of the trust we put in them.