Predictability: The Curse of the Spiritually Unprepared
In the mid-1980’s, Fr. Gerald McGinnity attempted to warn his superiors of the sexual misconduct of Msgr. Michael Ledwith, then head of St. Patrick’s College at the national Irish seminary at Maynooth. For his pains, Fr. McGinnity was removed from his position as Dean and exiled to parish work in the provinces. This was predictable; Fr. McGinnity should have been prepared for it.
Few longtime observers of ecclesiastical affairs would be surprised at Fr. McGinnity’s fate, then or now. The standard operating procedure throughout much of the Church since at least the late 1960’s has been to silence the bearers of bad news. Bishops vigilant in protecting the faith and morals of their dioceses have been exceedingly rare. Many bishops have acted more as heads of exclusive gentleman’s clubs than of local churches. The chief qualification for membership has often seemed to be clerical urbanity.
Hear no evil. See no evil. Given the sad weakness of human nature, those whose loyalties lie beyond good fellowship are very generally ignored, ostracized or exiled. Bishops share our human nature and Church governance is no exception to the norms of human conduct. One may expect more from the episcopate, but history offers little comfort. There are, of course, better and worse periods, for the norms are dictated in part by the health of the general culture. Thus the last forty years have been especially difficult. But the difference is probably more one of degree than of kind.
I do not mean that the typical bishop is as bad as the typical man in the street. On the whole, churchmen hover well above the cultural norm, but the standards to which they aspire are higher still, and the lapses draw more attention. As always, the Church both redeems our fallen nature and is profoundly affected by it. Saints are born and bred not because bishops are perfect, but because bishops are instrumental in channeling the grace of Christ into the world. This grace is received as so many sparks in the soul which must be fanned into flame by the Holy Spirit, Who invariably demands that we first recognize our need for more light and heat. For those who have risen high, this recognition comes hard. Many bishops are spiritually unprepared for their task.
Three years ago, in the wake of more prominent sexual scandals, the Irish bishops ordered an independent inquiry into Msgr. Ledwith’s administration, the results of which were recently made public. Among the findings: Fr. McGinnity was punished for doing exactly what he should have done.
Again, it is useless to be surprised by this injustice; it is simply a clear instance of a scenario which has been replayed with only minor variations throughout history. But precisely because it is useless to be surprised, it is vital to be prepared. According to Catholic World News, Fr. McGinnity commented on his recent vindication as follows:
I have suffered, not only in the cruel removal from my position of respectability and responsibility at Maynooth, but also from the professional and emotional destruction caused by my subsequent 20 years in the wilderness. I must now wait and see how serious the Church authorities are about their apology, and whether it will be followed by any restorative action.
From this quotation, it appears that Fr. McGinnity was not, in fact, prepared as he should have been. It is unfair to judge any man from a single remark, but these are not the words of one who has successfully prepared for his work as a priest.
To avoid misunderstanding, allow me to affirm that Fr. McGinnity suffered a grievous injustice, the kind of injustice that bishops must be especially alert to avoid and correct, providing restitution when possible. Nonetheless, it is a singular spiritual failure for a priest to bemoan the loss of a position of respectability and to describe parish work as a wilderness of professional and emotional destruction. I sincerely hope that none of Fr. McGinnity’s parishioners become acquainted with this statement.
The sentiment expressed here is, in fact, a singular spiritual failure in any Catholic. Countless people suffer injustices, missed opportunities, public shame, even loss of a career—and much worse besides. It is the glory of Christianity that it provides a means for making gold out of this dross, of bringing immense spiritual good out of suffering, above all when this suffering arises from fidelity to Christ. Catholics in search of union with God not infrequently regard apparent injustices as what they deserve or, if not yet that, at least recognize them as unwelcome but genuine opportunities for spiritual growth. Perhaps only a few succeed in immediately embracing God’s will, but surely a great many, looking back later, are able to joyfully recognize God’s providence in the path they have been forced to walk.
Though it may seem strange to emphasize it, the initial sinner in this case was even less spiritually prepared, and we do well to remember that we are all sinners. Msgr. Ledwith, who resigned in 1994 amid further allegations that he had sexually harassed students, has now had over ten years to repent the misdeeds characteristic of his seminary administration. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that he has not yet taken advantage of this opportunity. Rather, he has moved to the United States, where he now teaches at Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment in Washington State. Ramtha’s first principle of instruction is “You are God.”
While this story is blackly humorous as a factual paradigm for What Is Wrong, it nonetheless points us to real persons who are desperately in need of interior life. From first to last, the entire tale is as predictable as it is tawdry, as tawdry as it is dreary, and as dreary as the spirituality it represents.
It is a grave failure in Catholics to be so predictable. All of us have an obligation to work for justice, but we have an even graver obligation not to depend on it, especially since our claims are so tenuous. This suspension of our own ideas of justice is the essence of spiritual preparation for all of life. It is fatal to be content only when we experience what we feel we have a right to expect. There are other and greater goods. In fact, as St. Paul says, “All things work together unto good for those who love God” (Rm 8:28).
To be prepared spiritually means to trust that this maxim really does apply to all things, and to live in that trust. The alternatives are chilling: for the successful, complacency; for the injured, bitterness; for the sinner, a god who cannot save.
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