As a new wave of protests erupt in response to the death of Rayshard Brooks, many Catholics are finding themselves angered, frustrated, and perplexed, but not in the way that immediately comes to mind. For months, we have been told that we must be exiled from the public celebration of the Mass, and, in some dioceses, from the Sacraments as a whole, for the sake of the common good. We were told by countless bishops and priests that we have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us from the spread of Covid-19.
Imagine the surprise of many of the lay faithful at seeing some bishops and priests marching in the streets in various demonstrations around the country in direct violation of current public health and safety protocols that are still restricting or suspending the public celebration of the Mass and the Sacraments in many dioceses. The issue here is not that these Catholics are uninterested in supporting demonstrations against racism. Racism is an intrinsic evil and we have an obligation to fight against it in all of its forms within our society. The issue is that these priests and bishops seem to have forgotten their sacred duty in all of the emotional fury gripping our nation’s streets.
The lay faithful are understandably upset because these actions give the perception that the Sacraments—which are the most important things in this life—are non-essential while public protests are essential, even to the risk of public health. If anything, this pandemic has served as a clarifying moment for the lay faithful after two years of confusion and righteous anger in relation to the hierarchy.
In the summer of 2018, when the evils of Theodore McCarrick were coming to light, and we heard about the horrors of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report and witnessed the launching of investigations into countless dioceses across the country, many Catholics were sickened and angered by the sins of some priests and bishops. The wounds of the lay faithful have only deepened as more legalistic and bureaucratic responses continue to come down from the hierarchy in beleaguered dioceses. This response, however, serves as a clue as to what we are really facing within the priesthood.
Another clue to the root problem came in the summer of 2019 when a Pew Research Study came out reporting that nearly 70 percent of Catholics deny the Real Presence of the Holy Eucharist. The response to the report by the hierarchy was almost deafeningly quiet. Once again, many of the lay faithful were stunned by such indifference in response to a report that the vast majority of Catholics are desecrating the Holy Eucharist each week. It is the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist that is the very reason for their priesthood, and yet, there was very little public outcry, except in a few places.
In a stunning move, in March 2020, public Masses were suspended indefinitely throughout the world on a scale previously unknown in Church history. The lay faithful were assured that this was for our own good, the dignity of the human person, and the pursuit of the common good. We do have an obligation to protect others, but, astonishingly, many dioceses even suspended the Sacraments of Healing during a global pandemic—a time when those Sacraments are needed the most.
To add insult to injury, bishops and priests are now joining in demonstrations across the nation, after months of telling us large gatherings are unsafe and a risk to the lives of the most vulnerable. All of this has served to drive a greater wedge between the hierarchy and the laity. Thankfully, these responses provide us with clarity as to what we have been dealing with all along: we are facing a major identity crisis in the priesthood. The priesthood has become disconnected from its Eucharistic identity.
For decades, priests have been formed in a manner that has reduced them to glorified social workers, social justice warriors, administrators, and fundraisers, and it shows. This same formation is what has led many priests and bishops to ignore health and safety protocols and laws for public demonstrations while at the same time cutting off the faithful from the Sacraments and the public celebration of the Mass— the “source and summit of the Christian life”—during the holiest season of the year. These priests have inverted the goods of this world and put them over and above spiritual goods. They have replaced the City of God with the City of Man.
What these well-meaning priests and bishops have failed to see in their desire to attend demonstrations is that they are actually aiding in the growing alienation of the Church from public life. They have accepted that the Mass and the Sacraments are non-essential, but that protests and demonstrations are worth defying social distancing requirements during this pandemic.
In my own state, abortion clinics and liquor stores remained open throughout Holy Week and the Easter Season, while the public celebration of the Mass did not begin again (in a very limited form) until Ascension Sunday. Governors and mayors have been quoted as saying that demonstrations are essential, but religion is not, and some of our priests and bishops happily go along with it.
The crisis facing the priesthood is not a matter of human sexuality, as so many want to argue. This is not about priestly celibacy and pent-up sexual frustration. The clergy sex abuse scandal is a symptom of a much deeper problem. Clericalism is also only a symptom of a much deeper problem. The real issue is the priesthood has become separated from its Eucharistic identity and its calling to be crucified with Christ for the salvation of souls.
This explains why the outcry over the lack of belief in the Real Presence was inaudible. It is why our shepherds defer to lawyers and PR firms to respond to clergy sex abuse. It is why the public suspension of the Mass was so easily accepted and why so many bishops cut the faithful off from the Sacraments rather than doing everything in their power to safely administer the Sacraments to the people of God. Many of them seem to have lost the supernatural vision of their office and their primary calling in the supernatural order of grace.
Priests who truly live their Eucharistic identity in Christ—and there are many—understand their responsibility as mediators of God’s graces and as men entrusted with sanctifying, governing, and teaching. They know their primary role is to make present the Holy Eucharist, administer the Sacraments, proclaim the Good News, and lead people to sanctity in any way possible. All other pastoral responsibilities follow once this central aspect of their sacred office is fulfilled.
While demonstrating for an end to racism is a great good, it is not the highest good, nor is it the principal responsibility of priests and bishops. The lay faithful have been deprived of the ordinary means of grace given by Christ in the Sacraments after having been told it was necessary that we bear patiently this exile. Now we are being told that social justice issues are even more important than the Sacraments through the example of these priests and bishops. The issue here is not an unreasonable or uncharitable lay faithful. It is that these priests and bishops have lost sight of their priestly identity and responsibilities to the people of God.
The sad reality is that we have no hope of bringing about authentic forms of justice if we are not first and foremost a people dedicated to prayer, the pursuit of holiness, and the Sacraments. Our leaders cannot bring about change and draw all nations to Christ if they neglect their sacred duties. This is a temptation we all face when injustices arise. We want to respond in a public manner and be a part of that change.
For the priest, his primary role in bringing about change in the world is through being a mediator of God’s grace, waging spiritual battles, drawing people to the waters of Baptism, proclaiming the truth in charity, and especially making present the Holy Eucharist. After his primary responsibilities have been met and he has sought to sanctify God’s people, then he can, and should, attend demonstrations. Instead, at present many of the faithful are still being denied access to the Mass and the Sacraments while the clergy participate in these demonstrations, forgetting their primary purpose as priests.
As in other ages, the laity must help priests embrace their priestly identity. We must be people dedicated to holiness, prayer, and the Sacraments. Our prayers, sacrifices, and reparations for the sanctification of the priesthood will help overcome this identity crisis and lead to holier priests. It is time for the lay faithful to step up and directly help in the sanctification of our priests by calling them to embrace their sacred office. Many souls are at stake, including the souls of priests.