Fr. Thomas Williams, a high profile Legionary priest, also professor of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome and author of a book, Knowing Right from Wrong: a Christian Guide to Conscience, was the latest casualty of fallen priests. It certainly conjures up memories of Fr. John Corapi and Fr. Marcial Maciel. Thus far, it would seem that the twenty-first century is shaping out to be the century of fallen priests.
This article is not so much about the sins of one priest as it is about the religious education, spiritual formation and the moral attitudes that prevail in Catholic seminaries and dioceses around the world. It is a reminder that a mere positive-affirmative approach to spirituality and morality have proven to be woefully insufficient. We have to return to the teachings and the practices of the Saints. Unfortunately, even the most orthodox of Catholic institutions, religious orders and apostolates struggle with being too soft and accommodating.
It is a good thing that in teaching the Faith- be it seminarians or the lay faithful –that we appeal to whatever is good in society, whatever is good in other religions and whatever is good in human nature. No one is attracted to a hypercritical or cynical approach to God and the world. What is just as bad, however, is to dismiss the real weaknesses of human nature, our tendencies towards sin, the penalty of sin, the punishment of God and the real possibility of losing our salvation. As St. Paul said to the Philippians, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Indeed, the fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom. However, we have a hard time juggling such truths with the joy and the hope of knowing the Lord. Our fallen human nature would have us pit the “fear and trembling” up against the confidence that the Lord will see us through, even to the end.
Spiritual multi-tasking: We have to learn to juggle opposites again; to teach and meditate on the mercy of God along with his justice, on holiness as well as sin, on truth as well as error, on heaven along with hell, on our nothingness and guilt along with our dignity and calling. Indeed, Christ teaches to juggle opposites. Still, this is something that ancient paganism and the modern world finds impossible to do; but it has served to be a saving grace for souls nevertheless. This juxtaposition of opposites accounts, in part, why the Gospel has been a real force for the common good.
The damage a fallen priest creates for the Church and for souls cannot be minimized. The effects are sometimes unseen but yet they eventually manifest themselves. St. Pius X said that an unholy priest is not only useless, but he is harmful to society. With that said, we can use the unfortunate publicity surrounding the likes of Fr. Thomas Williams, and other fallen priests, for a good purpose. In fact, it can teach us some invaluable lessons.
First of all, it is a reminder how it important it is to pray for our priests. I think it was Fulton Sheen who advocated the adoption of a priest, making a man of the cloth the object of our prayers and spiritual sacrifices. Sometimes the Lord will call certain souls to make such sacrifices by allowing them to undergo trials and suffering. For whatever steps sinners take in the direction of sin and hell, we can, as those buried with Christ through baptism in to death (cf. Romans 6:4), help these same souls turn around and head in the right direction through redemptive suffering.
Secondly, and this is really important, we have to remind ourselves that we too our just as vulnerable to sin; even the serious sins reported in the Fr. Williams case. Quite often, the Saints would say that they would have done worse if it were not for the grace of God. An irony is that when the scandals broke out about Fr. Marcial, founder of the Legionary priests, Fr. Thomas Williams was invited on The World Over on EWTN to provide commentary. It is not enough to know about sin and to be able to articulate its implications; we have to develop spiritual and moral practices that can help us to avoid it.
Again, this is where we need to turn to the Saints. A Franciscan priest in the 1500’s by the name of Francisco de Osuna, in his book The Third Spiritual Alphabet, admonished his monastic priests, “I caution you to think about the many bonds from which the Lord has freed you and all the other snares set by the devil that you did not suspect he saved you from. As Job says, the devil has his trap hidden in the earth and God often frees from it secretly…Now being a Christian, you ought to acknowledge that God saved you and snatched you from the hands of death you yourself had gripped.” In other words, meditate on what the Lord has saved you from.
But you say you are not guilty of adultery, infidelity, promiscuity or other sexual sins? Well and good! Thank God that he had saved you from these sins! We should daily remind ourselves that if it not were for the grace of God we should be guilty of these things. Furthermore, and this is very important too, it is a good spiritual practice to think out the logical consequences of these serious but all too common sexual sins.
Behind the allure of any sexual temptation, we would do well to picture, in our minds, skulls and bones. Old fashioned? Perhaps, but it worked for the Saints. After all, death is the penalty for sin. In fact, if I was a priest, I would have pictures of all of the fallen priest on the wall in my office. And if ever I were to give spiritual counsel to a woman, especially an attractive woman, every now and then I would glance at their pictures. This would serve as a sobering reminder of what happens to a priest if he were to be unguarded. Indeed, a holy distrust of ourselves is a good thing! To be sure, it is not incompatible with the peace of Christ in our souls.
The point is that the Saints taught about real spiritual warfare, a real hatred of sin and its consequences, and a holy fear of the Lord. They did not trust themselves for one minute. As such, they learned that sometimes the only way to escape sin was either a self-imposed “violence” or a resort to flight. Our Lord, when referring to lust, used graphic and violent imagery to get his point across. If the hand causes you to sin, he said, “cut it off!” If it is your eye that leads you to hell, “pluck it out!” Undoubtedly, there is nothing refined and gentle about the way he taught about sexual sin.
As Fulton Sheen said, the Lord seems like an accuser before we sin, but if we should sin, he gently bids us to return to him. In addition, the Saints taught that when the temptation to sin looms, we should be severe with ourselves; but after we have sinned, instead of berating ourselves and giving into despair, we should pray for a peace of mind and firmly resolve never to commit the same sin again. In fact, the Saints have it that we should rather die than commit a sin. If only Catholic priests are taught these things we might have fewer moral casualties.
Read: The Temptations of a Catholic Celebrity (about the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Fr. John Corapi's departure from the priesthood). Just click on the title to the post up above. Thank you.