3 Ways to Rebuild Trust
Priests should strive toward conversion, commitment, clarity
The current crisis in the Church has many levels. There are those who have been victims of clerical sexual abuse. Some of them are minors, and some of them, though adults — even seminarians and younger priests — have been victims of homosexual abuse and harassment. We must care for them and atone for sins committed against them by clerics.
Another level of the crisis is the scandal, sorrow and anger caused among the faithful. It is a crisis of trust and credibility. Faithful Catholics feel distant and doubtful of the hierarchy, right up to the highest levels. Indeed, this crisis is focused especially on the bishops and the pope.
As priests, we are the first level of contact most Catholics have with the clerical hierarchy. As such, it falls especially to us to begin a long process of rebuilding trust and credibility with Church leadership. In our task of preaching and rebuilding, three things deserve emphasis in terms of our ministry.
In order to be credible and confident witnesses before our people, our own adherence to God’s moral and doctrinal law must be exemplary and without question. In some cases, we have become too content with mediocrity and even unrepentance. Perhaps we fall short in required prayer such as the Liturgy of the Hours or daily time with the Lord. Perhaps some of us indulge in too many frivolities rather than in good spiritual reading and enriching study. Some among us struggle with drinking excessively, others with pornography or other personal unchastity. Still others among us may lack charity toward our people or manifest inappropriate anger. Ultimately, our people know if we are praying and studying or if we are being immoderate in lawful pleasures and drifting into sin. The light of our life grows dim as the joy of holiness recedes.
Therefore, we must engage in daily conversion and frequent confession. Sin darkens our mind and heart, and the conviction and clarity of our preaching and teaching is negatively affected. It is hard to confidently call others to conversion and to trust in the power of grace if we are sliding into sin and cannot witness to the power of grace that we have experienced in our own lives. Ongoing conversion enables us to stand confidently before our people as credible witnesses of the power of grace — and of the cross — to put sin to death and bring forth new life.
As priests, we have made a commmitment to living sacrificial lives in love for God’s people. Well-ordered self-love and self-care have their place, but if we don’t go to bed tired every night, something is wrong. We must spend significant time in prayer and study for our people. This equips us to teach them at great length in preaching, Bible studies, catechesis and other forms of instruction. We must not be stingy with the time we spend in the confessional, and we generously should offer times for Eucharistic adoration and other devotions, even if this means we must lead them.
To rebuild trust with God’s faithful means that we must have a committed and fatherly love for them. As parish priests, it is our work through committed, generous, loving service and teaching to rebuild trust. This also and ultimately will help restore them to a unity with the local bishop and the universal Church, often experienced as distant, aloof and bureaucratic in this crisis. Even in this time, many Catholics still love their parishes and parish priests. Therefore, we must be the ones to rebuild the connections that currently are strained or lost.
Among the causes of the current crisis in the Church has been a widespread failure to teach clearly about sin and to rebuke error. To an increasing degree, our only goal seems to be not offending or upsetting anyone. In such an environment, the acceptance of sinful practices and erroneous ideas flourishes. Our silence is seen as approval.
Indeed, one of the most consistent complaints I hear from God’s faithful is the problem of silent pulpits and silent bishops. During a cultural and moral meltdown, many Catholics feel abandoned by their priests and bishops. They look for clear teaching and calls to courageous resistance, but they get only abstractions, generalities and euphemisms at best, and silence or error at worst.
Faithful Catholics feel quite lost in the current environment. They want and need to hear clearly from us, and we need to teach the truth of the Faith to them without ambiguity. While it is true that I have had a few people walk out when I preach against abortion, fornication, homosexual acts, same-sex “marriage” or euthanasia, the vast majority of Catholics in the pews are deeply grateful to hear a priest teach on these issues with clarity. Other issues such as immigration and capital punishment are controversial in different ways, but the faithful in the pew still are appreciative of a thoughtful and clear teaching on these matters.
The point is to combine clarity with charity. We must love our people enough to speak truthfully to them as shepherds who want to keep them from the wolves of error and temptation that seek to devour them and those whom they love.
The crisis of these times, above all, is a crisis of trust. Our people wonder if they can trust bishops and priests to teach them what is true and whether dissent and unrepentant sinfulness will be clearly rebuked. As it is, many of the faithful who desire this often are the very ones scolded. They are disheartened and rightly angry in this sort of climate. We can help change that by presenting teaching that is loving and clear.
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These are but three areas where the parish priest must work to carefully rebuild trust. In a credible, consistent and loving way, like shepherds and good fathers, we must lead our people ever closer to Christ and hold them close to his heart. He alone can heal the wounds, and it is to Jesus that we must always point and lead.
MSGR. CHARLES POPE is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.