Vatican Insider reported last week that during the pontificate of Pope Benedict, he defrocked 260 priests in 2011 and another 124 in 2012 (i.e. 384 priests in a two-year period) for the sexual abuse of minors.
This is good news and terrible news at the same time. It is good news in that it lays to rest all the slurs against the Pope Emeritus, that he was more concerned with sacred liturgy or wearing elaborate papal vestments than he was about dealing with this enormous scandal and wound in the Church. It is also appalling news when you consider that each case of priestly abuse is not simply a criminal offence in secular as well as canon law, but that it is also a tragedy for the victim and the perpetrator. Whenever I hear of particular cases of abuse, I pray for all concerned, including the shamed priest and his family. What sorrow and shame this son or brother has brought on their shoulders. I recall the words of strong-minded Margaret Bosco to her son, later to become St John Bosco, when he first put on his priestly cassock: that she would rather he never became a priest than degrade this sacred office.
People outside the Church who want to attack her do not have to look far for ammunition when they read of these cases. Pointing out the statistics to them, and arguing that the number of priest-abusers is a tiny proportion of the priesthood worldwide, might be true – but I lack the heart to engage in it. They don’t see the Mystical Body of Christ and are rightly scandalised by its fallen human face. Perhaps there should be a ritual of public penance by Catholics for the failings of the Church and our own failings within it?
Still, these gloomy thoughts were brought to an end by reading a wonderful story of one young priest, reported by Aleteia, with the title “A Priest writes to the Pope just before dying at age 31…” Don Fabrizio De Michino of Naples died last year of a rare tumour that grew just inside his heart and then metastasized to his liver and spleen. Shortly before his death he wrote to Pope Francis, telling him that he was praying for him “so that you will always have the strength and joy to proclaim the beautiful news of the Gospel.”
Don Fabrizio described the poverty and crime of his parish, Ponticelli, but added that “every day I truly discover the beauty of the Lord’s goodness on those who trust in him and the Blessed Virgin.” Referring to the “difficult years” of fighting his disease, he emphasised that “I have never lost he joy of being a preacher of the Gospel”, adding that “even in my fatigue, I perceive a strength that does not come from me but from God…” He concluded his letter writing that “I do not ask God for my healing, but rather the strength and joy to remain a true witness to his love and a priest in the model of his own heart.”
It’s good to be reminded that there are many priests like Don Fabrizio, who live to proclaim the “beautiful news” of the Gospel, who trust in God despite their daily adversities and who are true witnesses to the love of Christ in their priestly vocation. Let’s keep them in our prayers.