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Applauding a failed priest

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 20, 2009

I’m here to interpret the not-so-strange case of Fr. Henry Willenborg of the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, whose parishioners applauded him when he explained his suspension from the priesthood resulting from various affairs he had had with women, in one of which he fathered a now-grown child. Fr. Willenborg’s case was made public by the New York Times, as reported by Diogenes in Off the Record: Earning your trust.

Some years ago I experienced a similar situation. A young priest, who had served in my mother’s parish for a year or so, stood one Sunday morning before the congregation at Mass and explained that although he felt called to be a priest he was not called to celibacy, so he was giving up the priesthood and returning home. The parishioners did not give him a standing ovation, as in the case of Fr. Willenborg, but they did applaud.

I didn’t. In fact, I was furious. I was so furious, and the scene so haunted my imagination over the next few years, that I actually began to wonder whether it was something I had dreamed, rather than something I had actually witnessed. This, perhaps, is neither here nor there; I may believe my emotional reaction was right, but I would be a fool to suppose it was common. Still, the strong reaction on both sides does suggest something of the deep impression priests make on their people. And the more common reaction of applause suggests the extreme reluctance of their people to turn on their priests.

That’s the explanation, I think. Few of us, and even then only some of the time, are capable of transcending our natural response to the weakness and sinfulness of the priests who serve us, just as we find it difficult to transcend our natural response when it comes (for example) to our children’s divorces and remarriages. There is a God-given intimacy in these relationships which makes it very difficult to apply a principle. Our natural reaction is to be saddened by the situation, and even saddened by the sin, but then to immediately embrace and affirm the sinner. This is not all bad. Certainly when this natural tendency encourages evil rather than reform, we do need to steel ourselves to temper it, at long last, by principle. But most of us cannot complete that cycle on the spur of the moment.

Catholics have a special instinct for caring about their priests and for being, to use an apt phrase, infinitely grateful for their ministry. Foibles that strike us the first time a newly assigned priest says Mass very quickly become endearing qualities. The pastor may be rather poor in this or that way, but he’s our pastor. The associate may be a trifle odd, but the oddity of his ministry is our oddity. And when one of these unusual men, whom we might not have tolerated for a single moment as a boss, a colleague, or a friend, stands before us and admits that, because of his own weakness, he can’t be our oddity any longer, we still love and appreciate him for having been a priest among us for a time.

This last is wholly right, even when applause is not the way to express it. More darkly, we must grant that in some cases a priest may publicly confess a fault to which he has already theologically desensitized his parish. This is a grave scandal, and the resulting weakness of the congregation can make the applause easier to come by, or even give it a different and wholly unacceptable motive. More often, though, there is an awkwardness in that moment of confession and leave-taking, an awkwardness to which applause is just about the only thing which can bring closure. This alone can explain much.

But it will not explain all. What explains the whole of it is that even poorly-formed Catholics love their priests. They are grateful for a single Mass, a single baptism, a single confession. Indeed, it is hard not to love the one who acts in persona Christi. We may and often do tolerate too much, and indiscriminately. We may and often do applaud wrongly. Sometimes we undermine a principle in the process; if so, we are at fault. But when we do, it is understandable to a point. It is because we love Christ in our priests. It is because we are reluctant, in our minds and hearts, to separate the two.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Patricia - Oct. 21, 2009 4:41 PM ET USA

    This explains what happened in Boston, that home of the IrishAmericans who loved their priests, but maybe shouldn`t have so much. Trust, when thrown away, is a terrible thing for all those who trusted. And walked.

  • Posted by: Shan2122 - Oct. 20, 2009 6:14 PM ET USA

    I suspect too - know in my case - that Peter is the exemplar of the failed priest - even through the trial of Jesus - yet the backend of his ministry led him to martyrdom. While he might appeal at first glance as an exemplar - the second and subsequent glances show a priest worthy of his Saviour.

  • Posted by: phil L - Oct. 20, 2009 4:21 PM ET USA

    Good piece on applause for priests. I think you explain much of the phenomenon, if not all. Some years ago a pastor of ours tearfully announced from the pulpit that his little sister was dying of cancer, and asked for prayers both for her and for himself. I remember wanting very much to give him some sign of support right then, but not knowing how to do it. The only way we've expressed solidarity in church is by applause: obviously inappropriate in this case. There are times-- many times, in fa

  • Posted by: Hal - Oct. 20, 2009 12:24 PM ET USA

    I think that's true and well said, but at the same time, one wonders if Wisconson will ever recover from Archbishop Weakland.

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