Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Weeds Among Us
I’m sure you are aware that Pope Francis rarely holds himself back when he feels deeply about something. And he feels extremely deeply about sex abuse within the Church. A while ago he gave a talk to victims of sex abuse. Among other things he said, “This is something more than despicable.” He went on excoriate those who did not respond properly to reports made by family members and the victims themselves. “There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not. All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable.” When this pope says, “they will be held accountable,” he means it. Ask the former Archbishop Nuncio from the Dominican Republic who was defrocked. Our most pastoral pope is a fierce shepherd when it comes to caring for his flock.
“Well, good for you, Pope Francis,” some people might say. Others might say, “Its about time.” Both are right. But another question comes up: How is it possible that there could be such horribly sinful people in the leadership of the Church?This question has been asked for ages. The saints of the Middle Ages and Renaissance could not believe the scandals that took place in Rome. There were popes like the Borgias who violated celibacy openly and then placed their children in positions of authority. There were bishops who were second and third children of noble families and who were made bishops so they could use their positions to build up huge fortunes to replace the wealth their oldest brother would inherit. How could God allow evil people to have positions of authority in His Church?
This question probably was posed by the Eleven when they learned about Judas Iscariot’s betrayal. Judas not only experienced the presence of the Lord, he shared in the power of the Lord. In Luke 9:1-2 we read, “He summoned the Twelve and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal [the sick].” Judas Iscariot cast out demons, cured diseases and healed the sick. And yet he betrayed the Lord because there was money to be made. He got thirty pieces of silver, along with whatever he skimmed off the top from the money the disciples collected for the poor, as the Gospel of John mentions. Thirty pieces of silver. A decent guess is that thirty pieces of silver were one third of an average workers yearly wage; therefore, about $17,000 in our money if we go by the statistics that say an average yearly salary in the US is $51,000. Back to Judas. $17,000! And all he had to do was lead the Temple guard to Jesus and point him out to them. Jesus said that he was going to die anyway. Judas might as well profit from it. Judas valued money over the work of the Lord, the establishment of the Kingdom, and the very life of Jesus Himself. How could Judas, an avaricious man, be one of the Twelve? Perhaps the Lord was offering him an opportunity to change his ways. But Judas didn’t change.
How could this happen, that evil people could be part of the Church? Jesus knew this question would be asked. He answered it with the parable in today’s Gospel, the weeds among the wheat. An enemy sowed the weeds. The devil uses his cunning to convince evil people to seek their victims within the Church. Documents recently released detail how the Soviet Union’s KGB, planted spies in the Vatican during the papacy of St. John Paul II. This was similar to the popular TV show the Americans which depicts Soviet spies assuming a role in American society. In real life, intelligent young boys were sent to seemingly Catholic families that prepared them for the seminary. They faked having faith, passed their exams with flying colors, were ordained priests, and worked their way up to positions of authority in the Church. They then sent to Moscow whatever information their real bosses might find useful.
So what should the Church have done if it had known what was taking place, close the seminaries? The enemy sowed the weeds, but you can’t just burn the wheat field down. There is plenty of good wheat there. Hundreds of thousands of priests and bishops are sacrificing their lives for the Kingdom of God right now. What do we do about the relative few who are evil? The Lord says, “Wait until it is the time for the harvest.” “By their fruit you will know the evil ones,” the Lord said in Matthew 7. The Church in America demands all sorts of safeguards like we do in our safe environment training, and all forms of vehicles of transparency as we do in our financial policies. These actions eliminate many prone to evil, as well as discourage others from seeking their victims in the Church. But there will always be those in any organization, religious, educational, you name it, there will always be those who will find ways to beat the system. Still, God is in control. He is aware of those who bear evil fruit. They will have to account for their actions in the most severe way to the One who is judge of the living and the dead. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all quote the Lord as saying, “It would be better for them to have a milestone around their necks and then be cast into the sea.”
With all this said, I have to remind you not to look at your priests in a negative way. Two weeks ago Fr. Brian joined about thirty other priests hearing confessions for a minimum of six hours each at the Steubenville Atlanta Youth Conference. Over 25,000 teenagers wanted to go to confession. The priests did their best to provide. I remember a few years ago that the former auxiliary Bishop of Atlanta, Bishop David Talley, now the Bishop of Alexandria, Louisiana, was scheduled to say Mass on the Saturday evening of the conference. He arrived four hours early so he could hear confessions too. There are 23 of these conference held throughout the country and Canada this summer. There are great speakers, music and experiences for the Teens, but the conferences are only profitable for them if there are a large number of priests to support them, and this takes a lot out of a priest. The vast majority of priests, well over 95% of them, are more than willing to empty themselves for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
At the same time, we priests have the best life there is. The needs of our people force us to focus on Jesus Christ throughout the day. And, sometimes, in the middle of the night. And we love it. We love being needed. We love ministering. We loved being called on to pray in the most significant moments of our people’s lives: their babies’ baptisms, their children’s first communions and confirmations, their weddings, their battles against sickness, and their commending their loved ones to the Lord in funerals. We love saying Mass. We love preaching, sometimes too much.
What I said here about our priests, I and you can also say about the teachers in our schools, the coaches guiding our children, scoutmasters, instructors in music, theater and dance, etc. So many of them, most of them, have had a huge, positive impact on your children. Many of them have helped you in your parenting.
We cannot judge the wheat fields by the presence of some weeds. But, we have to be wary. We have to be watchful. We have to be sure our various systems of protection are enforced. Most of all, we need to pray that the Lord of the Harvest will continue to sort out the weeds from the wheat.