HOW COULD FATHER LEAVE THE PRIESTHOOD?
On the list of challenging, difficult, even awkward things for Catholics to discuss (and there’s quite a few things on that list) has to be when parishioners learn that a priest has decided to leave the priesthood. It’s something that can be shocking, and saddening for people - both parishioners and priests alike. People describe it as this weird mixture of emotions that would often be associated with a death or a divorce – while at the same time the parishioners want the man to be happy and at peace. It’s confusing. What makes it so shocking is that after anywhere from 4-7 years of prayer, study, talking, discussions, and formation people assume that a man would be reasonably sure of who they are, what they are called to when they are finally ordained. And there’s some truth to that. It’s not like it’s a surprise on ordination day to find out that priests make promises that include obedience and chastity.
Probably the most public example of this was about a year ago involved a priest by the name of Fr. Albert Cutie, who had a popular television show in Florida. After a tabloid found him on a beach with a woman, he admitted he had an affair - and within weeks, left the Catholic Church joined the Episcopal Church, got married, is considered a “priest” in their Church and even has a new TV program. Examples like that give life to this (mistaken) belief that if only priests could get married, things like that wouldn’t happen.
This isn’t to judge Fr. Cutie or interpret the actions of other priests who’ve left. It’s true what they say – that we can never know what’s in another person’s heart or what it is they are going through. So I’m trying to be careful not to make assumptions and lump everyone together because no two cases are the same. But a great spiritual director once shared an insight he gained from his experience in counseling many priests. He said that whenever a priest would tell him that he is leaving the priesthood, the first question he always asks is “When did you stop praying? When did you lose sight of Christ?”
I know that when I was on the receiving end of that question about 6 years ago when I was at a crossroads and was close to leaving the priesthood, I was ticked off by the question. Because in my mind I was leaving not because I had a girl friend or anything like that but because I was ticked off about certain things, disillusioned about others. And this spiritual director’s question ticked me off even more - because I knew that my anger was justified, my disillusionment were valid - and his question to me... well they were completely appropriate. I’m embarrassed to admit (and can realize now) that I had invested more energy in the things I was upset about than my prayer life. I had relied on myself more than on Jesus (because I didn’t like the way He was handling it), and so I found myself at the breaking point... and I give thanks to God that I wasn’t too far gone - that in time with help and especially the prayers of good friends, I was able to call out to the Lord and found He had been there all along, waiting for me to do so.
That’s the lesson that Peter learns in the Gospel we just heard. Just hours before this episode (as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel) Jesus had fed thousands with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. That was an amazing experience for everyone, especially the disciples to witness and experience. Now Jesus had gone off on his own, we learn, to pray (right there we should take notice and realize, that if Jesus would need time to connect to God then perhaps that is telling us something...) Not long after, the disciples find themselves in a jam - the winds pick up, the waves start crashing, they grow increasingly scared and fearful. So Jesus, taking the short cut - walks right on the water towards them. Peter who’s seen so many incredible things isn’t sure what’s going on, so he says “if it’s you, tell me to come out and walk on the water to you.” And Jesus does! Peter experiences yet another amazing feat...
Yet his amazement is soon diminished. The waves, the winds, the fears, the distractions... they grab his attention and he stops looking, stops going towards Jesus and the second he does, he becomes overwhelmed, he starts to sink, starts to flounder, starts to drown.
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ, a follower of His can be hard. Because we know all of the miracles and incredible stuff that He is capable of. We hear in the Gospel “Nothing is impossible for God.” And when we see the miracle, those words ring true. But what about when those storms, those winds creep in... When we’re tempted to something (or someone) that makes us compromise our commitments, our values, our promises... When we’re overwhelmed by bad news, trials and struggles. What do we do? Do we turn inward and believe the lie that Jesus has forgotten us because he hasn’t rectified all these situations, or made us stronger to resist those temptations? Or do we cry out with all our hearts “Lord save me?”
The beautiful thing we learn in this Gospel is that as soon as Peter does cry out with those very words, he comes to find that Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere... in fact he hasn’t stopped looking at Him. Jesus respects that first gift given to us – our free will – so much that even when he knows what’s better for us, He is not going to violate that without our invitation.
Unfortunately as we go through life, we realize that this isn’t just a one time experience or test that we’ll encounter at some point and never go through again. In many ways, this is a daily challenge that we as followers will go through over and over again - whether we’re priests, married people or single people... Again, look at Peter - he will learn all too well how often the temptations, the distractions re-emerge. Good Friday, in the midst of His Passion, not only would Peter not look to Christ for strength for himself - he abandoned Jesus at the moment Christ needed him. Yet, we’ll read how after Jesus rose from the dead, he searches Peter out, and lovingly reaches out to him, inviting him to trust in Him again...
For each of us, as we go through life with our own commitments to the Lord and to one another, it might feel like we’re all alone at times, that Jesus has forgotten us as we’re going through whatever it is that makes us believe that. Yet the reality is often the reverse. It’s us who lose sight of Him. And everyone one of us is susceptible - whether it’s a college student going through a difficult time, the couple on the verge of a divorce or the priest who “leaves” the priesthood. The question, “When did you lose sight of Christ” or more directly Jesus’ words from the gospel ask “...why did you doubt?” Too often we forget that its more than just showing up to Mass and being in Church waiting for something to happen, we have to do something and want something more. The good news we have heard today is that Jesus never leaves us. He is waiting for us, looking for us in all humility and sincerity to cry out “Lord Save Me.” Will we let go of our egos, lift up our eyes to God, look into His, and say those same words - and trust Him?
Posted by Fr. Jim Chern