Friday, July 15, 2011

The Temptations of a Catholic Celebrity

The scandal and uncertainty surrounding the once highly acclaimed preacher, Fr. John Corapi, still lingers in cyberspace and among casual conversations around kitchen tables.

As Catholics recall Corapi’s teachings that regularly aired on Catholic radio and EWTN, they often ask: How can a world-renouncing priest, faithful to Christ, devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and obedient to the Magisterium of the Church, leave the priesthood? Especially with so many unanswered questions about his character and fidelity! Whatever the truth may be, the circumstances surrounding the investigation, the reports and Corapi’s response to it all, does not look good.

As God only allows evil- be it sin or misfortune -to exist for some greater good, it would be to our advantage to try to learn what that greater “good” might be for those of us who have been inspired by the message and witness of John Corapi (absent the title- Father), as he is now called. As a matter of fact, the lesson to be learned has a lot to do with becoming the victim of our own success; that is, the victim of a successful mission which God uses to fulfill the spiritual needs of many souls. With public recognition and human applause, we sometimes believe ourselves to be better than we really are. As such, we might be inclined to let down our guard and relax our spiritual defenses. But when a member of the clergy succumbs to this illusion, the consequences can be damaging.

To begin with, as a result of John Corapi leaving the priesthood under such dubious conditions, the temptation may arise among many to think that holiness is either unattainable or not real. People might wonder: When the teachings of then-Father Corapi inspired me to consider the priesthood or religious life, or when his sermons led me into the Catholic Church, was this inspiration for real? After all, if it was for real then why didn’t he live up to the same inspiration and grace that I received? If what he taught was true, then why did he leave the priesthood?

Herein lies the tragedy of scandal and the reason why our Lord spoke of it in the severest of terms. For instance, he said, “Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:7) And the word of warning to those who do commit scandal is justified because of the doubts and questions it provokes among onlookers. People may even ask themselves: Do holy men even exist?

The short answer is: Yes, there are many holy men and women in this world. However, these unsung heroes, more often than not, are better appreciated in hindsight; especially after their departure from this earth. Pope St. Gregory the Great said that virtue acts quietly but it is the whip (i.e. trials) that stirs up the reputation of virtue. In other words, greatness is often revealed by adversity. And the appreciation of that greatness among the people comes only after the passage of time. According to the wisdom of the Saints, no one should be crowned before having carried the Cross all the way to Calvary. But quite often Catholics have prematurely canonized gifted leaders and preachers in the Church before they have died or before they have been tested by trial.

Keep in mind that many Saints have been tested by the same temptations as John Corapi and other highly esteemed men who have left the priesthood within the last decade. And one such temptation among high profile Catholic speakers (or even gifted homilists at the local parish) is the constant attention, praise and adulation they receive from their admirers. No doubt, the side effects of being a celebrity in the Catholic world can be just as seductive as they are in Hollywood or in the entertainment industry at large.

This brings us back to the greater good that can come from all of this: With every peak there must be a valley and with every rose, a thorn. This truth is beautifully expressed in a nineteenth century Catholic periodical called “The Rambler." It reads as follows: “It is in the struggles against difficulties that all that is best in man is nurtured into vigor and preserved from decay. Through labor we live, in enjoyment we die."

This is not to say that enjoyment and the pleasures of life are to be avoided all together. Rather, it is quite often the case that difficulties, trials and yes, even suffering, makes us better human beings precisely because it keeps us humble and it keeps the need for God alive.

Well loved priests who have the aura of sanctity and are gifted preachers naturally attract admiration and followers. With this kind of celebrity status the temptation to feel entitled to special treatment from others and even to presume God's mercy is a temptation that can be overwhelming. To be sure, its snare can be subtle and virtually undetectable. But as we already mentioned, there is a remedy for this.

For St. Paul, while laying the foundation of Christianity, he was constantly beaten down, not just by trying circumstances, but by a demon. He said, “…because of the abundance of the revelations. Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.” (II Corinthians 12:7) In his human weakness he implored God for help in the following passage: “Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’" (II Corinthians 12:8-9)

The method of perfecting St. Padre Pio was the same as St. Paul’s. Because he was gifted with spiritual ecstasies and levitations, he was also physically beaten up by demons immediately afterwards so as to keep him humble. And it was precisely because so many people came to him in search of God that he suffered the stigmata of Christ on his hands and feet. No doubt, this was a form of spiritual sacrifice for sinners. Nevertheless, who can doubt that this holy priest benefited from these graces too? The wounds of Christ on his own body kept him grounded in the reality that he was but a slave of Christ and a servant of the people.

This holy priest, therefore, understood the dangers of presuming God’s mercy without the accompanying gift of the Holy Spirit, namely, the fear of the Lord. In the year 1913 one of his friends wrote to him about a woman who had backslid in her Christian life. His friend was dumbfounded as to how this could have happened. St. Padre Pio replied:

“This is how that soul was snared in the devil’s net. When she saw that she was so favored by God…she began to wonder at all the good that God sent her and she clearly discerned the difference between the goods of heaven and those of earth. At this point she was proceeding well.

But the Enemy, who is always alert, seeing such affection, convinced her that such great confidence and certainty could never decline…Furthermore, he put into her heart a clear vision of the heavenly prize, so that it seemed impossible for her to renounce so great a felicity for things so base and vile as earthly pleasures.

The devil used this immoderate confidence to make her lose that holy distrust in herself, a diffidence that must never leave the soul, not matter how privileged it is by God…”

This holy distrust of self that St. Padre Pio writes about is strengthened by God’s grace through adversity. Indeed, the good things in life such as success, public recognition and even the heights of the spiritual life need to be tempered by the abrasive texture of the Cross. And to be sure, the Cross of Christ is a reminder that power is made perfect in weakness!

Appreciating this truth more deeply just may be the reason why the Lord permitted the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the departure of John Corapi from the priesthood. In the meantime, let us pray for those who have been inspired by his sermons who do not yet have the spiritual maturity to make the distinction between God’s grace and the instruments (i.e. human beings) he uses to communicate that grace. The former is always trustworthy to the end but the latter is imperfect and can sometimes disappoint.