Today is the Feast Day of St. Padre Pio. One of the things I most cherish of his memory is that, from 1924 to 1933, he was stripped of his priestly faculties. This was because he was growing wildly popular and the Vatican feared a growth of a cult of personality. Many would say the Vatican was wrong. I think both the Vatican and St. Padre Pio lived their duty admirably to glorify the living God. For see, Padre Pio’s charisms were entirely authentic. But one of the main jobs of the hierarchy is to test all things – to keep the flock safe from deceptions that would lead them away from Christ.
Satan and his minions can do a form of magic – and deceive many by it. But what neither satan nor any of his demons can ever do is live humble obedience to the authority God set over man – particularly the earthly institution of the hierarchy. Both St. Padre Pio’s obedience and the Church’s diligence became the setting for the brilliant lustre with which this great saint shines. May we all live his obedience with as much enthusiasm as we cherish his charisms.
(Update – my priest who monitors this site has made two suggestions for this article: First, he recommends bringing or citing an appropriate section of the Catechism or Magisterium when confronting a pastor. Second, while applauding my resolve to always go to confession with the priest in such a situation, he notes that it violates peoples freedom to require. He cited Pope St. John Paul’s decision to go to confession to a priest he rebuked as an example of the refinement of this approach – but notes the Church does not insist on it.)
Many people have asked me how we can enter into serious disagreement with a priest or pastor and still live our duty of obedience on matters of faith and morals. A few times I have said that they should follow the priest’s lead: that if he is disobedient to his Bishop and the Magisterium, they should treat him with the same obedience he gives to his superiors. While that is not without merit, it is more than a bit too glib. There are several issues at stake here. First, a priest’s legitimate authority over you – and duty to you – consists in distributing the sacraments to you and guiding you on matters of faith and morals. The Church recognizes that some things are the primary prudential responsibility of laymen (for which laymen bear decisive authority) and others are the primary prudential responsibility of the Shepherds (for which Bishops and their assistants – priests – bear decisive authority). For example, you might value a priest’s advice and solicit it on what type of car you should get or where you should live or whether you should take a particular job offer. However insightful the priest’s advice may be, he holds no authority over you whatsoever in these matters (unless you were considering a job offer that was illicit in itself, such as running a brothel).
Often a problem is simply a matter of interpretation – a misreading of Scripture or deforming of history or culture to make a point – usually in a homily or address. On these things, usually a brief private meeting with the priest resolves the matter – or reveals a more deep-seated problem. I have had those many times. Occasionally I have been surprised at the response. Once I was furiously angry over a misguided homily from a priest I knew. It was a theme commonly repeated, but completely muddled and wrong – and I really thought this priest should have known better. I caught him after Mass and said we needed to talk. So we retired to a private spot. I vented a little frustration and then went through seven clear Scriptural admonitions on the matter that demonstrated that, as common as the theme was, it was utter poppycock and completely wrong. To my surprise, he looked at me with beatific joy and said, “Oh, thank goodness. I don’t have to preach that nonsense any more.” Even our priests are sometimes caught up in the spirit of the times and just say something because that’s what everyone thinks they are supposed to say.
The weightier matters come when a priest allows himself to be consumed with matters of mere politics – matters that are not his bailiwick to begin with or either subtly or overtly tries to undermine the fundamentals of the faith. Even on these matters I assume poor formation to begin with and will have a quick and quiet word when first they rise. In a few cases, that is enough. In others, it only makes one a target. But it does tell me whether their intent is innocent or malicious.
If the intent is malicious, my first response is to spend a few weeks praying quietly on the priest’s behalf whenever I hear him give a homily – that Our Lord will enlighten him and Our Lady protect him and take him under her maternal mantle. You would be astonished at the occasional results this brings. The most dramatic came with a priest at a church I went to for Daily Mass only because it was close to work. This is a priest who actively persecuted Marian devotees right from his pulpit – the priest I mentioned who overtly explained that there was no literal resurrection and that Jesus’ body was likely eaten by wild dogs. He had a ready sneer for anyone who expressed their faith in traditional terms. It was so bad that I was going to find another church nearby so as not to participate in these homilies that felt like desecrations. I decided instead I would spend a full week of Daily Masses praying for him, invoking Our Lord and Our lady for him whenever he spoke. I really did not hear him that week, I was praying so intently every time he opened his mouth. But the next week I did listen – and it felt like I had gone to a different church. He had suddenly developed a real tenderness for the group of Marian devotees who attended each day – not a grudging tolerance, but a real tender affection. I kept waiting for him to say something outrageous in his homilies. But they had suddenly become deeply insightful and profound and….downright orthodox. Everyone was talking about the change that had come over Fr. Mc____. But no one knew what had caused it. To my surprise, we became rather good friends and I knew him for several years more before events moved me away. Not once did he ever utter a discouraging word after that…and his parishioners held him in as remarkable an esteem as he held them. I never asked him what happened, but I have never seen as dramatic and quick a turnaround, so I just give thanks to God. AND I remember that before doing anything else or getting mad, first lay down a solid bed of prayer before Our Lord and Our Lady in such a case.
There have been several other cases where I have had to contend more directly. My practice is simple. First, as I said, I pray for a week or two. Then, I write a letter to the priest outlining my problem. I take care to make sure it is both charitable and clear, but firm without mincing words. After that, I wait a week and make sure to go to confession with the priest I have so disputed with. I do not mention my letter; just make my confession and accept my penance.
In almost all cases, that has resolved the matter – and occasionally opened up a rich vein of discussion between a borderline priest and me. Now, there are three notable cases of different results I will tell you about.
First, a young eager priest, “Father X,” came as assistant pastor at a parish I was at. He wanted to “fix” the Church. If you have ever attended a large parish, you will be familiar with the dear things who make up the contingent of what I call Church Ladies. These are the women who hang breathlessly and adoringly on every word of every priest who comes through. (I do not say this disparagingly: I love the purity and innocence of Church Ladies and have been very close with several groups of them – one group of which treated me almost as sweetly as they treated the priests). Well, Fr. X was so bad, even the Church Ladies could not help turning their noses up in distaste when he spoke. It was the only time I have ever seen that.
It was a relief when Father X talked only about his dull-witted political ideas in his homily: that meant he had less time to preach actual heresy. Once, I had to fight from laughing when my son, just as Mass began, started whispering commentary to me as if this were a football game of Father X versus Jesus. My son was hilarious. When the final dismissal was given, he whispered “…and Jesus wins again. The crowd goes wild,” just as the organ burst forth in a particularly triumphal recessional. I could not contain my laughter.
So, I wrote the letter. It was blunt, and perhaps not as charitable as I would normally write, but his offenses were legion. A few days later I was at Daily Mass, which he was celebrating. I was leaving on vacation that day and realized I had not gone to confession with him. So I asked him to hear my confession. The results showed me God’s sense of humor. When I was finished, this priest rather gleefully socked me with the heaviest penance I had ever gotten. It would take a good five hours of prayer. But it was simultaneously the heaviest and the lightest penance I ever got. See, when I go on a road trip, I usually plan an extensive plan of prayer, geared to particular intentions. For my penance, he gave me EXACTLY the prayers I had already planned to do and for EXACTLY – the intentions I had planned – in EXACTLY the words I had planned them in my mind that morning. He did not give me so much as a Hail Mary beyond what I already intended.
A few months later, that particular priest was defrocked, laicized. I will not say what he was defrocked for, as it was bizarre and made the news – but will only say it did not involve any sort of physical abuse of anyone.
I once skipped over my normal steps when a priest assigned a woman to wear the vestments and act as a priest at a Daily Mass. I was stunned – and took that directly to my spiritual director and the Archdiocese – and the priest was removed from the parish within a month.
Once a woman was sent to speak to me because I had a reputation for giving good counsel in such matters. Her priest was a left-wing activist who openly defied his Bishop – and the dispute there had been much in the news. We talked about these things…but when I told her she must go to confession with him, she had a fit. She absolutely refused to do it. I told her that she could not credibly demand that he submit to the lawful authority over him if she would not submit to that authority he lawfully could exercise over her – and that if she received the sacrament of reconciliation from him, it also forced him to administer that sacrament – and helped assure him of her good will while perhaps recollecting to him his obligation to Christ. She would not hear of it. So I sent her away without any further discussion. She was a bit shocked, but I was not about to argue over it. If we allow the disobedience of a superior to incite us to wrath and disobedience in even what is lawful, satan has scored a rout, mutilating two souls instead of one.
This is how I deal with such things. I hope it may be helpful in giving you a means to go forward. But one more thing – once I take such measures, I do not speak of them with anyone except the priest. (Obviously, I have spoken of them here, but without the use of names and only old incidents in order to give you some counsel on what has worked fruitfully for me in the past). If you have a good effect or not, if you go boasting of how you “told him,” you utterly squander any grace that might have come from the encounter and are infected with the same vanity you sought to correct. Leave such things to Christ and do not boast of them – and you may find He will send much fruit. And if it just cannot be settled, shake the dust off your feet and go to a different Mass or parish – still without telling anyone outside Christ and the priest of your actions. What you do in secret in such matters the Master will reward openly.