Last night, flipping through the channels on TV, I ran across the old black and white Bing Crosby movie "Going My Way". It was, I believe, a best picture winner in the '40's. This movie and the follow up "The Bells of St. Mary's" featured Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O'Malley, a young priest in parish assignments. They are enjoyable and uplifting stories which romanticize the priesthood. Good looking, young, talented, easygoing - who wouldn't want to be Father O'Malley. And yet, how far from reality. In neither movie do you see Father Chuck doing much in priestly ministry. You never see him offering Mass or administering the Sacraments, not much office work or pastoral visiting of the sick. He was around, played music, worked with the kids choir, raised money with his charm or musical abilities. Even the "old pastor" was only seen functioning in church in the pulpit asking for money to pay the bills. Not the priesthood I have come to know and love.
Given the tremendous upheavals in the Church in the last fifty years, especially the sex abuse scandals and all of the residual effects that it has brought upon the priesthood, there is an entire component of society that looks upon priesthood with suspicion and mistrust at best, and hatred and disgust at worst. You often hear that priesthood is flawed, that celibacy is the root cause of the scandals, that there is a climate of homosexuality among priests, that priests, except for the rare few, cannot be trusted. This is not the priesthood that I have come to know and love.
Granted, you will find the young, dynamic, charismatic priest that is the "Bing Crosby" of our day ... and you will find the flawed soul who has betrayed trust and fallen into sin in ways that are truly scandalous. But in most cases, you will find men of every age and personality who have accepted the call of God and the invitation of the Church to serve God and his people to the very best of their ability. They bring their gifts and their limitations to the work. They see the work as ministry, and pour themselves out for others. They do the best that they can in times and a culture that has become more and more difficult. They live in a climate that places them in the category of guilty by association, of being suspect for simply being pastoral.
This afternoon I spent a few hours at a Deanery (regional) meeting with a number of my brothers. These are good men who serve the Church well, who have dedicated their lives to bringing Christ to others freely and without hesitation. We spoke of our frustrations at being "careful" in our dealings with others rather than in the very best sense of living out the title that we are known by - father. Father O'Malley could not have worked with the boys choir as he did or do half of what he did in the movies in the present, out of suspicion or fear. We spoke of putting windows in our office or confessional doors for safety - of the penitent and of the priest. We spoke of meeting people only during office hours when others are there and only in the office - for safety. One mentioned that we should not blur the lines of our relationships, and that no parishioner or staff member should be seen as a friend. Even the natural hug of a child after Mass or the peck on the cheek by someone from the women's group after a meeting would cause us to be wary. We live in a strange time and in difficult circumstances. And yet I am blessed by my brothers in priesthood. I am blessed in my experience of priesthood. And while I am frustrated with the climate of distrust and evil in the world today, I place my complete confidence in the love of God and the message of the Gospel. It was a good afternoon of fellowship and priesthood, and I am grateful to God.