Our bishops and priests need direct support and protection. Can we supply it?
Today’s news makes one wonder whether the time has come for lay guards for bishops and priests. In Cameroon, Msgr. Joseph Akonga Essombahe has claimed that Bishop Jean Marie Benoit of Bafia was murdered because he opposed homosexuals in the clergy. In Nigeria, gunmen burst into a Catholic church in the state of Ekwusigo and killed at least eleven persons while wounding many others. And in Democratic Republic of Congo, Bishop Melchisedech Sikuli Paluku of Butembo-Beni has urged young people “keep their priests safe”, and for Catholics generally to “protect each other”.
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I cannot speak to the pros and cons of various kinds of home-grown Catholic protective action in places where the dangers are very different than those in the nations with which I am most familiar. Nonetheless, the expression that “there is safety in numbers” ought not to be forgotten. In some places, it seems, Catholic bishops and priests ought to both travel and reside in groups, perhaps even including armed escorts. It is not irrelevant that this is how popes typically travel today. But what I would like to do instead is discuss the spiritually analogous problem we have right here in the West.
The great Western danger
I am referring to the near total cultural isolation of faithful Catholics and their leaders. Bishops and priests who are particularly zealous in upholding the principles of Catholic faith and morals often find themselves in uncomfortable situations. They may not often risk injury or death but they do risk both ridicule and recalcitrance. And there are a good many who lack the courage to speak openly about the sins favored by our dominant secular Western culture. In addition to those who lack deep convictions beyond what the culture approves, there are many who are very timid about preaching openly and clearly about today’s fashionable values.
It is hard to credit at times, but the Church in some Western countries has come a long way since, say, 1980. This is clear in the reaction to the emphases and initiatives of the current pontificate. In a few regions and individual dioceses (a well-known example being San Diego under Bishop Robert McElroy), bishops have tried to get out in front of the heterodox trajectory they perceive in the priorities of Pope Francis. They are taking advantage of the confusion to go beyond even the letter of what the Pope has said, in the name of alleged reforms that bowdlerize the Catholic Faith.
Bowdlerize means to remove (allegedly) scandalous material in ways that weaken a literary work. It seems like an excellent word to describe what happens to the Catholic Faith at the hands of those bishops and priests who are scandalized by the truth. But it is important to note how few episcopal conferences and individual bishops have taken advantage of the current pontificate to derail the “fidelity train” which had slowly gathered steam under Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. As Phil Lawler recently pointed out, the number of clerical leaders who are continuing to stress Catholic teaching, or at least are giving no evidence of wanting to follow-up on the Pope’s more questionable initiatives, is quite simply astonishing.
But among them, surely, are some bishops and priests—and very likely many—who are reluctant to take decisive public action in defense of the Faith, or who at least are weary of meeting opposition in the media (and among some pastors and in too many pews) every time they ensure that counter-cultural Catholic teachings are strongly reaffirmed and persistently taught. This raises my initial question in another form: To what degree can bishops and priests in the modern world use groups of lay persons to reinforce their ministry simply by taking a page from Pope Francis’ book? I mean using lay people to accompany priests and bishops in the more sensitive public areas of their ministry, both as a show of strength and as a means of encouragement.
A foolish idea?
When we consider how young lay men and women are becoming the face of the Church on college campuses as FOCUS missionaries, and doing so in ways that increase respect and reverence for the Faith, the Church and her priestly ministers, the question seems far from ridiculous. FOCUS is a remarkable witness to the effectiveness of direct personal engagement in hostile territory, a witness made possible not through purely individual effort but through a carefully-orchestrated system of teamwork. Going back over a hundred years, we can also notice the long-term success of the Knights of Columbus, which has been able to strengthen family life and serve those in need through another lay participative model based on teamwork.
The Knights occupy a cultural territory which is relatively non-controversial compared with FOCUS. Our dominant culture still values most of what the Knights of Columbus do. But it is an example of a fraternal organization, with a broad lay base, which strengthens at least some bonds within parishes and dioceses. Other organizations could be formed to emphasize both formation and the active support of bishops and priests in those areas which are highly controversial—in witnessing to those truths which are utterly rejected by the dominant culture and so ignored or even denied by great numbers of lukewarm Catholics.
I have a vision slowly forming in my mind of an organization of lay persons, men, women, children and even whole families, whose particular apostolic purpose would be to make sure priests and bishops receive plenty of visible support whenever they plan to specifically address those aspects of the Faith that are routinely left out or even denied in parishes and dioceses throughout the West. I see this organization as establishing a kind of serene and joyful solidarity with their priests and bishops, bearing witness to how happily human it is to live in accordance with everything the Church teaches, amplifying the voices of Catholic leaders when they address hard issues, and communicating very clearly that Bishop X and Father Y are not mere outliers: They do not stand alone.
Instead of ever allowing others to get the impression that a good bishop or priest is utterly isolated—left high and dry without being embraced by a genuine Catholic community—such an organization would remind everyone not of the rashness of standing alone but of the attractive and dynamic promise of a properly counter-cultural Church. By its very solidarity, such a group would witness to that holy encouragement and joyful accompaniment which really is part of an authentic Catholic life.
It seems to me that we need different forms of such a lay organization in different situations around the globe: To protect, extend and add cultural weight to the ministry of faithful bishops and priests whenever they might otherwise meet indifference, resistance, ridicule or violence. Is this just another Catholic dream that must go unrealized until we reach Heaven? Or is it time to bolster our direct, personal support of bishops and priests, in real situations on the ground, whenever they are willing to directly attack the false gods which are still worshiped in so many parishes and dioceses around the world? And if it is time, how might this be done?
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